Sunday, November 29, 2009

Review

You ever feel like when you are in the middle of big and significant things in your life, that everything you see, everything you hear, that the Universe itself is conspiring to move you in a certain direction?

This Thanksgiving weekend, while alternating between a table of gluten-free vegan bounty, time on my yoga mat in poses to aid digestion, and cuddling with my honey, I've read a book, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It's an interesting and generally pretty competent novel, a first person account of a woman's life told in reflection about her experience with family, footbinding, marriage and children, and love and betrayal in 19th century China. Sounds like it ought to be a movie soon, right? And if The Joy Luck Club and Memoirs of a Geisha have taught us anything, Hollywood loves these old China stories of women, and it soon will be. (My sweetheart asks, partly out of artist's frustration and partly out of the absence of his voice, why it is always Chinese women who are telling these stories, and telling stories of only Chinese women? Evidently the only stories to be told by Chinese men are restricted the form of the graphic novel or the kung fu movie; where is the place for the Asian American experience as told through the eyes and heart of a man, without the requisite nunchucks and 9mm auto? My answer, they are lurking in the tip of his pen, waiting only to hit the page.)

I bring up this book for a couple of reasons: it came to me as a gift from a friend of his, the feminine half of a couple in an interracial relationship who thought I might enjoy reading it; and I have. While it is not the novel that exoticizes the Old China experience, it is replete with imagery and behavior of what someone like me (ie, ignorant) imagines Old China to certainly have been capable of. It is intriguing to consider that women in China who considered their lives, as the writer says, "as useless branches", whose lives consisted only of having their bodies broken in pursuit of beauty; of the mundaneity of domestic life--hauling water, making food, serving and cleaning after men and making and raising babies--and in their free time, learning calligraphy, embroidery, and staying cloistered/protected within a space that is just for women; these women were able to create and foster a secret language that only women read and understood for thousands of years. That's pretty cool.

I don't know how much I really get into the sisterhood phenomenon; I haven't tended toward being that kind of woman, the woman who values all that sisterhood time. The other day I sat beside a woman on the train who was reading The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Lucky for me, she was too engrossed in it to see me rolling my eyes in pretentious disgust. Sure, I joined a sorority in college, but my experience in it was about identifying with the black community and the greek community in a big way, and while I love my sorors, I just haven't cultivated that kind of sisterhood in my life. I see it's value objectively, but not practically.

But something of this book makes me feel differently, taps me into a desire I have that I'm just beginning to understand. Only child, right? I have a number of times in my life found myself lamenting my absence of sisters. But in this novel I read of these rituals which seem to me both alien and vital: the storyteller is getting ready to marry, and this kind of thing requires all sorts of complicated cultural gesture and behavior for her that require the close company of women. She and women of her family and friends and neighbors have a day where they all sit around worrying and feeling sad that she's leaving her father's house, and about to marry. She spends months making clothes and embroidering what she will wear once she is taken as her husband's wife, and making binding bandages and tiny shoes for her perfect tiny feet, the feet that she has broken and misshapen so her husband will love her. She fasts for ten days before her wedding, and must attend countless banquets as part of the celebration, all where she is not permitted to eat. There's "the talk" wherein all the non-virgins scare the shit out of the poor girl and tell her what is coming, "bed business" the storyteller calls it.

(Incidentally, that sounds really distant and ancient, but I know for certain that it still happens. I have heard stories of women in this time and place who locked themselves in the hotel bathroom sobbing in terror of what would come when their husbands touched them, or who climbed into the tub and whispered on their cellies to girlfriends about what he was trying to do.)

What I'm driving at is despite the archaic quality of the observance and celebration of this rite, I am observing within me an ardent desire--and have been since I got engaged--to gather the uterines around me and prep for my wedding. And for my marriage. I mean, let's be real, I'm not going to be wearing new clothes once I get married, so it's not like I have to spend my time sewing jackets and pants and whatnot. There is no arrangement or matchmaker, no gift of pig from his family to mine to show wealth, no gift of eggs and rice from mine to his to show fertility. And as for bed business, please. Nevertheless, I want women around me to ponder with me the passing of my singlehood into my past. I want them to both celebrate the woman I am becoming and mourn the woman I am shedding. Have I said this before--I'm sure I have--that an old girlfriend of mine considered her wedding day as a time where she would walk to the altar and crucify her single woman there. (Please note the religious, masochistic overtone.) Afterward she would be reborn in married life as a wife. (Insert angelic music here.) Yes, I am being incredibly sarcastic. But there's a part of me, and a large part, that is thinking that some of this is real, some of this women who cluck around you and weep as you leave your father's house for your husband's is real.

For instance, I want a shower. I mean, I want a shower in a big way, one of those single sex, high heel optional mixed drink affairs that everybody hates going to. I wouldn't want them to hate going to mine, but I sure would want to "pink out". I am blessed to have three women who have agreed to stand up with and for me, to steward me into this next season of my life, and I know they're willing to take up this party planning mantle, and make manifest whatever monstrosity I hope for. I'm frankly a little stunned by this all: I'm social, and I love to party, but I didn't quite think I'd be that excited about sitting around opening box after box of lace teddy and silk robe (later for all that housewares shit) feeling like some icon on a lily pad. But I am. I want it because I want to create that sisterhood of joy and excitement and delight in the life I am making with a man who I cherish and admire, whom I can work with and fight with in a healthy way, who helps me and respects me. That's something to celebrate, and I want to do it girly-style.

So this is thing one that Lisa See, in her literary wisdom reveals to me. Thus, the second:

As in most marriages, the most important person for me to build a relationship with was my mother-in-law. Everything Snow Flower had told me about Lady Lu following the usual conventions was true. She watched over me as I did the same chores that I did in my natal home--making tea and breakfast, washing clothes and bedding, preparing lunch, sewing, emboridering, and weaving in the afternoon, and finally cooking dinner. My mother-in-law ordered me about freely. "Slice the melon into smaller cubes," she might say, as I made winter melon soup. "The pieces you have cut are fit only for our pigs." Or "My monthly bleeding escaped onto my bedding. You must scrub hard to get out the stains." As for the food I brought from home, she would sniff and say, "Next time bring something less smelly. The odors of your meal ruin the appetites of my husband and sons." As soon as the visit was over, I was sent back home with no thank you or goodbye.


Oh, yes, this the most important relationship to be cultivated. The text seems to make this relationship seem like the best of it is what you can read above, and the worst of it is your mother-in-law calling you a dog, a useless worthless nothing, a hole that she and her son must feed but who brings nothing but shame and bad fortune to the family. Again, the pesky fact of the 21st century make this reality different for me. My future husband and I will not be living in his parents' home (God willing, protect us from the circumstance that would drive us there.) There is no laundry that needs to be boiled or water to be hauled from a well, no animals to be slaughtered, and shi fan, while it still takes hours to prepare, can be done so on the modern convenience of a stove. Sigh.

And yet. I can't help wondering if the taciturn civility that sometimes feels like it borders on brusqueness with me is born out of a frank and legitimate disdain for the woman I am who is marrying their son. Perhaps they feel I am not a good match for their son. I hesitate to say this: I know my sweetheart's dad is able to see the softer parts of his son, is proud of the man who is a writer and not just a software consultant. He said to his son while he was home recently that he is glad his boy has someone like me in his life, glad we have each other to take care of each other (and note the egalitarian language). But his mom: it is as if she has had all of the sensitivity and thoughtfulness, any instinct that would have any interest in anything different than a tiny square of the world bred right out of her. I wonder what hardships she has had to endure which have given her such thick skin and such a hard head, that she cannot receive and share kindness, but can only think and act with a stubborn, practical brain. She is focused to the point of tunnel vision, and would rather do the thing she wants to do regardless of how it makes someone else feel. I don't think she's heartless--she cares for her sons--but she doesn't listen. If she wants to buy them a plasma screen tv, well, she's gonna do it regardless of how much they protest. (Who would protest a plasma screen tv? My future husband, before we met. She returned it. Our tv is ancient, without a working remote, and we like it that way.)

I spend a lot of energy trying to figure out how my in-laws function. I talk to a number of my girlfriends and ask about their in-law experience. I read everything that flows past my eyes even remotely connected to Asian American family experience. This weekend, I am not ashamed to say that I watched a movie called Red Doors, in part for entertainment, in larger part as a cultural study of the kind of family my betrothed comes from. (It's good: Eat Drink Man Woman is better. Check it out.) Is watching movies as an attempt to understand my fiance's culture as racist as him watching Tyler Perry movies to understand mine? Maybe. Do I think it's permissible? Sure: Ang Lee is a far superior filmmaker to Tyler Perry. But I do these things to try to figure out my future in-laws' culture. Hanging out with them costs me too much relational capital.

I am not the future-daughter-in-law who is considered a useless branch by her fiance's family. But like the women in this novel, I function as largely invisible within the context of his family. It may be because the needs of the men are paramount to all else; sometimes this is true in my sweetheart's family, whether my sweetheart can see it or not. It may be because the matriarch's tunnel vision simply excludes me with her blinders. Why I am invisible doesn't really matter: it doesn't change how often I am hurt by feeling this invisibility. It still hurts. I read an incredible post about forgiveness today, about the nature of keeping a wound and healing it on your own, instead of spreading it around or giving it back. I don't want to say anything pious or holy about God's purpose for putting me in a family like this one; I'll just try to grope my way into a place that is a decent reflection of who He, and if I'm lucky, it might spare me some pain.

But probably not.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Faith, Family, and Nidal Hasan

I've been thinking a lot lately about Nidal Hasan. Last I heard (and I've been behind on the goings on in his situation) he was being charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder, a charge that, in the army code, carries death as its sentence. His attorney said in an interview that he was concerned that Hasasn would be unable to get a fair trial without a change of venue.

I'm of the opinion that there isn't a venue far enough that could get this man a fair military trial.

I don't really want to debate whether the man is insane or is a terrorist. It seems to me the media is foaming all over itself doing that. I read a headline today that asked, "Nidal Hasan: American or Muslim?" as if in this country it is impossible to be both. In a discussion of an HBO documentary called Terror in Mumbai, my new favorite political writer Fareed Zakaria had a really interesting thing to say about the role of faith in the life of the terrorist. You should check it out: there's a transcript here. (p.s. the doc's airing tonight. If you have HBO, you should watch it, and then tell me all about it, or tape it, and then I can watch it too. No cable here.)


But I've been thinking about Nidal Hasan because he's eventually going to be held accountable for the 13 lives he took, and if he is convicted of his charges, he will forfeit his life. I'm thinking about the death penalty. About forgiveness and vengeance and the human and the Divine.


My heart aches for the people who lost loved ones at Fort Hood. There was a Reservist who was killed, a woman, who got into the Armed Forces for maybe the noblest of reasons, not anticipating that the world would take her so firmly and decidedly into war. I can't pretend to know what a Reservist does, if it's still the two weeks a month or two weeks a year or two months a year, or whatever the tidy little ratio was, but I'm betting she had no idea that a despotic man of faith who was desperately unhappy was going to kill her.


Yes, allegedly.

Thirteen families are angry. Grief-stricken. Inconsolable, and hungry for this man's blood. I'm assuming; and I think it's a reasonable response to having your loved one snatched from you in such a violent and untimely manner. I hope I never have to know the searing, all-consuming pain of losing a loved one this way. When I think of the vengeance that people seek after their loved ones have been killed, I think of my mom, who didn't know or lose anyone on the flights that were hijacked on September 11, 2001, but who all the same was hungry for the lives of the terrorists who committed this act. I've never seen her so blind with rage, and I've pissed her off plenty. But on that day, and the days and weeks and months afterward, my mother was furious. Language of turning cheeks be damned, this was a time at which my mother wanted a fiery, judgmental Old Testament God on her side; she wanted to smite the hell outta some folks. And she was in good company.

And so the families of victims of senseless violent crime want justice. They want retribution. They want payback. This is a human need, right? When one can plainly see what is right and what is wrong, we want to make manifest what is right, especially if that means punishing the wrongdoers in a way that will cause them to suffer as we have suffered. Eye for an eye and all that--that's the reason we have capital crimes, right? Except for sometimes, the families of victims see the perpetrator killed, see justice meted out appropriately, and then must return to their lives, the lives in which the sun still rises in the east, where rain falls down and not up, and where their loved one is still absent. Sometimes they realize they've been throwing things into this hole, the hole created by the absence of their son/wife/daughter/father thinking that something would fill it up, and certain that when the person who took their honey from them is executed, that would surely be enough to fill the hole. And yet, that life falls on top of all the other efforts, and the hole still remains, as large and dark and lonely and cold as it ever was.


Where is there room for Christ in the question of vengeance and punishment? Are we so myopic as to consider our side as The Right Side, the side God would choose to back if he were a betting man? (Imagine, pencil-thin mustache, pinstripe suit, "Go baby, Go!" kind of gambler.) Answer: probably. It messes a lot of people up to think that God is static and allows suffering and pain in our world. But that's a sticky wicket, and I don't want to get stuck there. I'm saying this: God is love. Christ was the incarnation of that love on the planet for a while, and now God moves in and through and with ways often misunderstood by humans. While Christ was on earth, he preached about love, about doing right, about giving and reaching and working and building. He preached about boundless forgiveness, forgiveness that can only come from the Divine, because it is simply and obviously not in the nature of humanity to be so excessively forgiving. He excessively forgave on a regular basis, up to and including at his execution. How do we, mired in the trappings of our humanity, access the Divine power to excessively forgive? Is it possible for any one of these families to forgive Nidal Hasan for having allegedly murdered their family member or friend? Is it possible not to want the man hanging by a rope, despite the fact that he killed so many people? Is it possible to fill up that dark, damp, lonely hole with forgiveness?


Let's lower the stakes a little bit. My mom recently invited my sweetheart and me, and his whole family, over to celebrate Christmas dinner. His parents said No. They begged off with some kind of health request that was vague and terse, and because I don't understand it, I'm struggling to take it at face value. I was stunned. Shocked. Incredibly hurt: it felt to me like another instance in which I was (and in this case, I and my family were) being rejected by his family. I am trying to talk myself into the place where I accept that this isn't about my race, that I acknowledge that this has to do with the fact that my future husband comes from a family that is incredibly different from me: I'm a chatty, warm, bubbly outgoing individual, and his family is stoic, even taciturn at times, brusque, and frankly made ridiculously uncomfortable by someone like me.

(Sidebar: That's right, more people who find me intimidating! Jesus Christ, if I meet one more person for whom I am too big, I might just reach over and bite their fucking head right off their shoulders, give them something to be intimidated by. Last night I was venting to him that it seemed that I was too big a person for everybody in the whole world. I got "the look" from him, and amended my statement. "Everybody except you," I said.
("That's right," he said. "Thank you."
(No, sweetie. Thank you. The only man I've ever met in my whole life who loved me despite my emotional and relational size. Thank you.)

So his parents, while doing something that may feel to me and mine like they are being thoughtless and rude, are perhaps--and absolutely unconsciously--trying to protect themselves from people who are interested in getting to know them. This doesn't really make me feel any better. It just means I have to keep putting myself in situations that make me want to climb the walls, or be content to avoid seeing his family as much as possible. Every time I spend time with these people, reach out to them, or make myself vulnerable to them, I wind up feeling bad. I can dig that despite the fact that I keep trying to lower my expectations of them that they are still too high, and the fact that I can't reach these people at all with my warmth and charm and interest seems to touch something really deeply in me: I am working really hard at examining what is mine in all this.

But how often do you kick a dog before it stops greeting you at the door?

The human part of me is saying enough of this. I am so over putting myself in situations that are bound to fail, with only heartache as the end result. I am loving these people the best way I know how, and that clearly isn't working, and I have no earthly or heavenly idea how to love them the way they need to be loved and they are wrapped so tight that they can't tell me. This is too hard: it's exhausting and excruciating and I am fed. the fuck. up.

But that's my flesh talking. That isn't the thing that Christ called me to. The thing I love the most about Jesus, the thing that saves me every day, is the fact that He is willing to meet me where I am. That is what He asks me to do.

Meet these people where they are.

Oh, great. Another fucking growth opportunity.

I don't know how to do it. This is a process for which I have no guidance. I suppose the only things I can do are pray for that divine forgiveness, that divine grace that allows me to give without expectation of reciprocity, that divine love that will teach me how to show these people that I value and treasure them in a way that will matter to them, instead of to me and not to them. I have to try to stay grounded in what this junk--God I hate this junk-- can teach me about the baggage I'm toting around the planet. My sweetheart would remind me that I have to remember that I'm marrying him, and not his family. I cannot solve the problem of his family: they are who they are, and will always be who they are. I have to solve the problem of who I am relative to his family.

How glad I am that I'm not faced with the question of how to forgive someone who's killed someone I love. The pain I would feel around makes this pain less than nothing.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fiction: Boys and Their Toys

(borne from an in-class activity yesterday) person object adjective verb man remote sharp fondle a pleasant surprise what can happen sometimes, when you take the coaching you're giving your students: The remote was pink, smaller than his cell phone, and incredibly discrete. He fondled it in his pocket, gently feeling the button and the lever. He pulled it out and palmed it. Across the room, buzzing with the bubbly conversation of cocktail party talk, Sophia had a vodka rocks in one hand and was talking animatedly with an older balding gentleman who kept staring at her cleavage, and his wife. Malcom still couldn't tell yet whether she was sincerely listening or just being polite--she had this polite streak that he found both naive and endearing--but her eyes were wide open and she was smiling at the man. She was wearing that black silk sheath he liked so much, the dress she'd worn on their second date. That night he'd noticed that in a stiff breeze he could make out her nipples through the fabric, it was so thin and light. No such luck tonight: he couldn't even make out her panty line, and the things had looked rather cumbersome. He was impressed. He took a sip of bourbon and looked down at the remote in his hand. On, Off, Vibrate, Swirl, it read, analogous to different buttons and switches. He threw the power lever with his thumb and watched her as he tapped the vibrate button. Sophia had chosen that unfortunate moment to take a drink from her glass, and she started with a twitch that momentarily buckled her knees and caused her to gasp into her glass. She narrowly avoided spilling down the front of her dress, but looking down to consider herself, she could see vodka beading on the sharp toes of her shoes. "Are you alright dear?" Malcom heard the bald man's wife ask Sophia. "Oh yes, of course," she responded. "It was just a shiver, it certainly is cold in here." The older woman's eyelids fluttered and one hand clutched at the busy red and purple scarf she was wearing, held around her neck by a gold brooch in the shape of a flame. "Yes, it is, I was just saying to George it was like a meat locker in this room, wasn't I dear?" She nudged her husband, who momentarily broke his gaze at Sophia's decolletage and glanced at his wife. "Right right, a meat locker." Sophia took another drink from her glass and looked across the space of the gallery. A jazz trio played unobtrusively and a little off key in the far corner nearest to the windows, and cater waiters in black slithered between the guests like hors-oeuvres-bearing ninjas. One zoomed through her field of vision, revealing the back of a black suit. The jacket hung well on the shoulders, and was fitted through the back for a modern cut. The legs were planted wide, one foot supporting most of the body weight, the other foot turned a bit out, revealing a gleaming black leather shoe. The wearer of the suit stood in front of a sculpture made of driftwood, plastic refuse and rubber tire, but Sophia could tell by the bend in his neck, that he was examining an object in his hand, and not the artwork before him. She braced for another pulse between her legs and cleared her throat. Malcom turned his head and could feel her gaze on him like a hand on his shoulders. He turned to face her fully now, smiling like a four-year-old who's just found his favorite new toy; and indeed, he had. He eyed the remote in his hand and pressed firmly on the button. "So, Sophia, what have you heard about this newest show? Sensation or flop?" The man's voice slithered lasciviously around her, and if she'd been listening at all, she would have found him incredibly offensive. Instead she was concentrating on not crying out, biting her lower lip and bracing herself with one hand against the bar where they stood. "I'm sorry, I've no idea. Would you excuse me?" she begged breathlessly and stalked as calmly as she could to the man in the black suit near the sculpture. He's since slipped the remote back into his pocket and was now eyeing the sculpture in mock curiosity. She stood beside him in silence for a few moments, then said, her voice just two shades above a whisper,"I thought we were saving that for dinner later." "Yes, that is what we discussed, isn't it?" "So what are you trying to do to me?" "I'm sorry, I got bored. All these pretentious arty types make me uncomfortable. One guy actually asked me if I'd perceived the strong menstrual undertone in the artist's painting's what the hell does that even mean?" She sighed and looked at his profile. He was lucky that he was pretty. "It means related to her period." Malcom snorted and took a big gulp of bourbon. "Disgusting." He turned to look at her now. "Besides, I guess I just wanted to see you jump a little." "You're a pig," she said. "Yes." "And you can't always get what you want. Those two may be pretentious and dull, but last year they bought eighty thousand dollars worth of art, and that was on their first go. I'm working tonight, okay? Think you can entertain yourself without doing too much damage to my body or my career?" "I suppose." "Can I trust you? Or do I need to take the remote from you?" He pulled the pink rectangle from his pocket and flipped the lever to off. "Satisfied?" "Not yet. But I expect you'll be up to the challenge later." She turned on her heel and returned to the couple, gesturing at the painting in front of them, leaving Malcom to watch her walk away.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Open Letter to Lou Jing

Dearest Lou Jing,

I recently heard about your troubles on National Public Radio here in America, and I am so sincerely sorry for the scrutiny, cruelty and ignorance you and your mother have had to endure. It's absolutely awful to think hear that people can be so hateful and judgmental, can have such narrow minds. Frankly, I was surprised to learn that such things happen in China. I naively tend to think that this kind of racism is a uniquely American sensibility. Given the history of my country, what race means, how race relates to what defines an American, and how people of various races and ethnicities engage each other here is complicated to say the least. But evidently people in Asian countries have a huge identity crisis of how their nationality is defined, and how that relates to race.

My fiancé’s parents are from Taiwan. I imagine that Taiwanese citizens have a kind of identity crisis on their own, having been the original Chinese government that was ousted with the rise of communism. So while my fiancé considers himself Chinese, he also considers himself American, and to a much greater extent. I know little about how his parents identify: I know they grew up speaking dialects different from each other, and so in their home they speak Mandarin or English, the two languages they have in common. I know they came to the states to study, wound up marrying each other and raised a family here. They are naturalized citizens, and while they may also still consider themselves Taiwanese, or even Chinese, they can call themselves Americans in the truest sense of the word.

However I know that my country is full of people who would not treat them as such. There are people who will hear their accented speech and notice the difference in their eyes, hair and skin, and would make racist, hateful remarks, would pepper them with insults and epithets, and try to ensnare them with cleverly worded, sarcastic jokes about racist stereotypes. That kind of thing happens in this country all the time.

My own ancestors came to this country from Africa. I think; I don't really know: for all I know, they may have come from Haiti or Jamaica or some other country. But I know I am descended from slaves, which grants me the label African American in the States. Despite the fact that my ancestors helped build this country, that I was born here and have lived her all my life, there are still those who would shout at me, "Go back to Africa!" as if some country in Africa were my home. It may be true that Africa is in an ancestral sense my home; but America is my home. I am a product of America, made in the U.S.A., and consider myself an American. I reject the idea some might subconsciously hold that Americans are all fair-skinned or light-eyed, and anyone who looks different is an import. White Americans forget that they too were imports in this country.

I have heard tell of the kind of racism that causes Frenchmen to ghettoize Arabs in Paris; the kind of racism that causes European imperialists to prefer one African tribe over another, creating the genocide of millions; of Germans purporting a Master race and exterminating all whom they decide are "the other". So I suppose I shouldn't have been at all surprised to hear about your misfortune at the hands and mouths of your fellow citizens; it was just an example of the people displaying the worst part of themselves. Nevertheless I was. When I learned about how your countrymen treated you so poorly for looking different than they do, despite the fact that you are all citizens of the same country, I was saddened, and it made me wonder if this kind of xenophobia is more common among Asian countries than I knew. I suppose you have a lot to be proud of as a nation; but no country is without its secrets and its flaws, and this kind of behavior is among them.

My fiancé recently sent me this article about mixed race young people--who are part Korean, part something else--and how they cope with their identity in the face of others who judge and alienate them so harshly. These young people have faced similar struggle in their home country of South Korea. It must not give you any comfort at all, but let it remind you that you are not alone in your struggle to create a life for yourself, while being able to be yourself without being ashamed of who you are.

I like thinking of your desire to study abroad, and your hope to study journalism in New York. New York is an amazing city, incredibly sophisticated and cosmopolitan, full of opportunity and diversity. But please do not be deceived. There are a growing number of people in this country who are multi-racial, much to my delight, and if my fiancé and I choose to have a family our kids, like you, will be among them, a few of the amazing group that help to diversify the fabric of America. But do not think that the kind of intolerance you have faced in China does not exist here; it does. It is perhaps more subtle than the discrimination you have faced of late, but it is here, and it is as much a part of our American fabric as our diversity is.

Let me end by saying, finally, that I think you are beautiful. You have a young, sweet face, and skin that absolutely belies your age: you won't show your age for years, I think. Lucky girl ;) You are beautiful. You look absolutely like the face of China. Be strong and be encouraged.

Much love,
Jessica M. Young

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fifty Percenters

If you're lucky, you make friends with people who are both humorous and serious, who support you when you feel weak and deflated, who challenge you when you can't hear yourself, to make sure you know what you're saying, who occasionally convict you when they see you about to stumble, and who rely on you for prayer, thought, warmth, fellowship and the occasional fashion tip.
Such is the nature of my friendship with Rebecca.
She recently committed her life to an amazing man with whom she's every day a little more in love.
She also recently launched a blog with a number of other interesting people that you can read here. It's a blog about people engaging Judiasm through a number of different ways, including interfaith relationships; Rebecca is writing tenderly and candidly about the nature of her interfaith marriage. It's compelling, often funny and provocative. Dig it.

Half n Half--dedicated to Lou Jing and the Fifty Percenters

(doesn't that just have the great ring of, like, a rock band? "Now coming to the stage, Lou Jing and the Fifty Percenters!")

At work the other day talking to my mother, who has, in a big way, gotten excited about my upcoming nuptials. She said to me, "The other day, I met my granddaughter."

Pause. "What?"

"The other day, I met my granddaughter."

I am so careful about my body, and I have a pretty good sense of what does and doesn't live in my uterus, so I knew she wasn't talking about me. I braced for some story of a half brother who had a kid somewhere, which would have been earth-shattering news. She continued. "I was in a meeting, and I met this young woman, whose father was Chinese, and her mother was African-American. Her name was Vivian, and she was so sweet, and I thought to myself, 'this is what my granddaughter will look like.' Isn't that cool?"

Insert bemused exhale of awkward laughter here. "Oh, Mom, that's funny. I was confused for a minute. Wow. That's funny."

The other day she sent me an article about how interracial couples can celebrate their Thanksgiving. She is oh, so excited about the interracial nature of my marriage (less so about its interfaith nature), and she's hosting Christmas dinner this year, wherein she's invited my future in-laws. Who knows whether or not they'll accept her invitation, or if they've even gotten it yet, but it's curious.

I have lost count of the amount of white people who smile at my fiance and me and tell us how beautiful our children will be. My mother, who is not white, has also said such things, but I know she just can't wait to run her fingers through the good hair she hopes our kids will have. I had a friend in college who swore that interracial kids were crazy as loons because the world is the kind of place that makes a person choose who he will be, makes him identify one way or another, and because they couldn't or didn't, it made them all "fucked up" on the inside. Her logic had echoes of the One Drop Rule about it. I used to think maybe she was onto something, in my bleaker, less tolerant days of viewing the world, but I don't know about that anymore. It was ten years ago she said this to me, and maybe her view has changed, but I like to think (and have lots of evidence to support it) that maybe the world has changed. But I could be wrong. Maybe the world is still the kind of place that makes people choose what piece of themselves they will signify. I've been hearing/reading really interesting things about Asian countries that aren't so tolerant of the shrinking world and the fact that it requires their bloodline to blend with others. Economic success does not always instantly create a modern nation with modern ideas. Lou Jing would be the first to testify that the world is as narrow minded and racist as I think it could be, as it used to be. But maybe that's not true, or is becoming less true, at least here in the States. There might be more pioneering people than I think who are in relationship with someone racially or religiously different than themselves, and they may be making the country a different kind of place. Maybe it's some weird cognitive need in the brain to put people into little categories, and any time there's someone who refuses to go, or it freaks us out. But maybe our cognition is changing; I don't know.

But this community of people who are dialoging about the piece of them that is Jewish and the piece of them that's not, and how those two pieces fit together, it interests me. While there are absolutely no pieces of me that are Jewish, I'm jumping in, in a big way, to a culturally blended life. It's not always an easy thing to get on board with, and let's be real, it's just as hard for me to wrestle with sometimes as it is for others to wrestle with. My sweetheart has told hundreds of folks about how challenging it can be, blending his Asian-American culture with my African-American one, and despite how well-written and hilarious it is, it's just his side. He'll be the first person to tell you that when I try to connect with him over what and how he identifies as Chinese or Asian American, he freaks out like a poodle in a thunderstorm. (Well, he might not put it like that, but trust me, he gets really touchy.)

I am convinced that whether or not he is able to recognize it, part of who he is and who he comes from is defined by his race, by his ethnicity, and by the experience he had being the first generation American in his family born in this country. I am convinced that there are parts of him that are Asian, and he simply doesn't know that because he didn't grow up in an Asian country, where everyone else was just like him. I begin to believe that part of our struggle as an interracial couple is the hyper-awareness either of us feels when we engage in each other's community and feel, either by the nature of the group or by something happening inside ourselves, like the outsider.

I know children who are bi-racial. If I have children they will be bi-racial, and the fact that more of the world than I'm comfortable with still hasn't learned yet how to cope with the growing nature of multi-racial individuals that are our citizens, our teachers and doctors, our world leaders. They don't seem "fucked up", to quote my girlfriend. Maybe the ability to rear children who can acknowledge and understand themselves doesn't lie on them, but lies with us. It's on us to teach our children where they come from. It's on us to help equip them with such a solid identity that when the world tries to make the choose to go one direction or the other, they can reject that narrow mindedness and know that they get to be whoever they are, without having to pigeonhole themselves, or be pigeonholed by the rest of the world. They can love their Christian and their Jewish. They can wear locks and qipao without a hint of irony. They can celebrate Cinco de Mayo, pray to the east five times a day, and get a tattoo of an Irish crest because they are honoring all parts of themselves.

I have no idea how my sweetheart and I will feel about our hypothetical, theoretical multi-culti kids. I have a few ideas of how we might raise them, if we have them, to know and love and be proud of and identify with, all parts of themselves, the Ohio State parts and the artistic parts and the math science and tech parts and the soul food parts and the vegetarian parts and the yogic parts and the Mandarin parts and all the little parts that he and I will pour into them. I have even less awareness of what parts of them will be present already in their play-dough soft psyches. Right now, I'm not in a hurry to have a kid as a cultural ethnographic experiment. I'm more interested in just observing and participating in the dialogue of what it means to be yourself, and how you identify yourself in a world that is both shrinking and growing more frightened of difference every day.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

shh...

I'm frequently choking on wedding porn these days--having a hard time with the wedding world, the marriage world, and the world inside my head--but I saw these two this afternoon and wanted to celebrate them.

Something in these photos reminds me that amid all of the bustle and the where's-my-bouquet and have-you-met-this-person and the fuss and problem solving, that there are sweet, silent moments that are of paramount importance. I look forward to finding and relishing those moments on my own day.


The bride and groom in this photo, Leah and Evan, are an interracial interfaith couple (ahem), and their daughter was born a few months ago. Photography by Whitney Lee Photography.


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Bombs over Bucktown

Originally published (?) on the WBEZ blog.

I recently went to the Harold Washington Library: spending time there makes me feel like I’m surrounding myself with the best words, the most current information, and the most well-informed Chicagoans in the city. After poring over books, magazines and even a roll or two of microfiche, I got in line to check out my items. The woman behind the counter seemed in an unusually good mood; she smiled at patrons as she scanned their books and wished them good day as they departed. Even the security guard seemed happy to be checking people’s bags as they exited.

As I stood there, I noticed a young man walk through the electronic gates. He walked slowly into the lobby and then stopped. He wore a heavy green coat closed up to his neck, he carried a large black duffel bag, and wore a crocheted topi atop his closely shorn head. I watched him as he set the bag down beside his sneakered feet and bowed his head. He was silent: then he shouted something in a language I didn’t understand and threw his arms wide apart. His voice echoed off the marble floor and high ceilings. For a moment he disappeared, replaced by a blinding, instantaneous shock of white light. Then his bag and body became a ball fire; an eardrum-shattering shock wave shook the room, bringing with it a cloud of fire that engulfed us all. Shards of computer became dangerous shrapnel, lodging in the faces, throats and limbs of internet users; fiber arts, sculptures and paintings were ruined by ashes and fire; books and magazines were swallowed by the flames, and more than half the library’s magazine collection was ruined. By the end of it all, he’d killed 37 people, including himself, and wounded dozens more.

If you haven’t heard about the Harold Washington suicide bomber I’m not surprised; I made him up. I made him a Muslim to highlight the stereotypical perception of Islam as a religion of intolerant, violent fundamentalism. It seems like people are blowing themselves up all the time. I feel like I can’t turn on NPR without hearing about someone in Pakistan who has killed and wounded people because of a well-placed bomb. What is happening in that corner of the world that motivates people to strap C-4 to their chests and blow themselves to Paradise, along with dozens of their closest strangers?

Ten years ago this kind of violent demonstration in the name of religion seemed a far cry from the American experience. Eight years ago, on a Tuesday morning in September, the consciousness of our nation was changed forever when a handful of men enacted the ultimate suicide bombing. What happens now? Travel security has gotten tighter, countries are strengthening their borders, governments are testing bombs in deserts and oceans, and out of fear and misunderstanding, conservative politicians the world over are trending toward racist nationalism. But people in Pakistan are still jumpy about going to work, to the city center or government buildings, maybe they’re even nervous about having a coffee in a local café; there are people in this country who still won’t fly after 9/11. Given the nature of the world today, it’s not hard for me to fear being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But what am I as one person to do? I cannot change the mind of someone who does not know me, and yet hates everything I am based on the difference of our nations and our gods. If he finds me in the library, or the Daley Center, or Starbucks, I can only hope he thinks twice before hitting the button. I tend to think pursuit of peace begins in my mind, by checking my assumptions of other people, and softening my heart to the difference that makes the world so interesting. Ultimately, I pray: I pray for my leaders, I pray for the soldiers, and I pray for the person whose faith tells her murder is an act of worship, that one day she might discover how to worship from a place of love instead of hate.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

heavy, heavy. you get so heavy on me.

(that song from Showgirls has been rattling around my head all day.)

I'm not sure if I've ever been happier to see the back of October before in my life.

For the last several weeks I've been struggling with a number of things. The first is the ceonsor inside me. There are things I want to write about here, things I want to say about my feelings, about my responses to things, about my opinions, and I'm finding that my self-censor is really kicking in. At this point, I'm not sure how many people who used to read this blog is still reading it, but there's something in me that's feeling "I can't say that online", or "what if that posting follows me into my future?" This morning I read a great post about insecurity that felt like wine in a mouth too used to water. But writing here lately has just been the umpteenth thing that has made me feel part-brittle glass candy window, part-exposed nerve. So I've been hesitating with how transparent I should be about my own process.

But that's not what I believe in, and I know it. I believe in the artist's responsibility and the discovery possible when making one's self vulnerable and all that shit, and so I'm going to ignore the censor inside me, and just be myself. The internet is a strange and complicated place, but the work I'm doing is right now meeting a need of one kind, and hopefully will meet a host of others in the near future.

So I'm plenty accustomed to running up against other people's expectations. Being a Christian means I am exclusive, pro-life and anti-gay, I patently deny the reliable and breathtaking perfection of evolution and I believe the world was created in six 24-hour days; being a woman means I want to have kids, and if there's any other ambition I have with my own life, it's because I'm denying some inherent part of my womanhood; being black means I come from a broken home, I'm lazy, and I can't utter a grammatically correct sentence. Yeah, whatever big deal. It's true that when people come up against the stereotypical mold-breaker that I am, instead of considering their mold, they ask me what's up with me, but I'm over that too. It's just happened so often that I'm by and large tired of considering it. When I stop to think about it, sure, it still frustrates me, but hey, it's a part of life.

But now not only do I consciously or otherwise grapple with the baggage that goes with these labels, I have a whole new set of crap to deal with for being a Bride.

Gag.

Recently I've been having a really hard time about the place where these pieces of myself that I love intersect with these pieces of myself that the world thinks I must be. I've been knocking into other people's perceptions of what I am and should be by being all parts of myself, including this new part, this intended woman. If I'm a woman getting married, it must mean I'm doing it the old fashioned way, and that I'm planning the whole kit and caboodle--my honey just shows up at the finish line in a tux, right? The ring that I wear that commemorates the promise we'll soon make to each other, that's something that I demanded from him, that I picked myself, and without it I wouldn't have committed my life to his because I don't Take that Walk for less than two carats. Choosing to swallow my maiden (wow) name and use his after we marry means that I am a participant (witting or otherwise) in a narrow-minded, patriarchal system designed to reinforce my nature as chattel property in the world.

These are just a handful of the missiles that I feel like have been zinging right at me, heat-seekers that are just great at finding my weak spots and needling right into them and causing me pain. Friends, family and strangers mean well and are very encouraging, and after it all I walk away feeling kind of knocked around. On a good day I can remember my holy middle, the center of who I am and what I want to be, and take some of these words with less impact than others. But I began all this by saying that October, not so much full of good days.

It gets harder when that stuff that makes you feel like who you are is at odds with who the world wants you to be pops up in your own relationship. My Honey has never intentionally made me feel like there was someone or something he wanted me to be, but lately our positions in our relationship have become roles: based on current confluence of events, we're both struggling with concepts of who's responsible for taking care of our home, and what that actually means, financially, emotionally, physically. Often we can completely blow off traditional roles, and just do the things we need to do to make our lives work, but sometimes we find ourselves neatly squaring off in traditional roles and that makes things really complicated. I'm out of the house working all the time (how I long for the days when taking three hours to write the thing I wanted to was my work for the day; these days just posting here is a luxury I can seldom afford) which makes me feel quite career-oriented, and yet I'm making crap money for all the working I'm doing, especially compared to him. So I'm not really a breadwinner, but I play one on TV. On top of which, there's nothing like building a life together to show two people what they prioritize differently and how they make financial choices. Oh yeah, and then there's the giant-ass commitment they're in the process of making, huge emotionally, relationally, and despite our best efforts, financially. It's getting to be more than I can bear, all these arrows.

This weekend we talked about how we came to establish our ideas of gender and race. I asked him about what kind of employment and financial behavior he saw modeled in his family, and talked about the idea of the man as the primary income generator, a concept which feels like a huge wall I'm trying to scale, down which I am continually sliding. He told me a story of his parents living in grad school housing at a Big Ten college while his father completed his Ph.D., and all the times his dad had been out of work, the one to make them lunch or do laundry or make beds, while his mom worked as a surgical nurse his whole upbringing. My response to him was that despite the cultural or familial egalitarianism he grew up in, that he still bears all the privileges of being a man, and perhaps operates in the paradigm gender roles have set up without knowing it. Male privilege is as imperceptible to men as white privilege is to white people, I said; they spend time swimming in the very thing that keeps them alive without even knowing it.

I suppose his upbringing goes a long way toward denying or ignoring the gender roles I'm chafing against right now, but I've still been having a hard time with the idea that because he out-earns me that he's the one in our relationship who's thoughtful and careful about how we invest, and I'm the one who buys eight pairs of shoes and squeals "Charge it!" in delight once a week. I feel like being the woman in our relationship, underemployed and underpaid makes me the girl who makes thoughtless and careless decisions about our money. He doesn't feel this way. I know it because he says so. But something about the way we're interacting is making me feel like these roles are being laminated into our lives. I know that most of that is coming from my internal struggle; I don't know how to rid myself of it, and I don't know how to cope with what I'm feeling.
There aren't too many people in my life who actively make me feel like who I am is unacceptable; the ones who do are mighty powerful, but I'm blessed to, by and large, be surrounded by folks who like me as I am. But lately all of these intersections of vectors--woman and bride and black woman and wife and writer and lover and partner and indie bride and traditional bride and labels labels labels--they're all just so oppressive right now. I feel really burdened.

I remember the first time I learned that I could decide what I wanted my marriage to be, I felt liberated in a way I'd never known before. The church didn't have to tell me whether or not I could keep my job or give away my last name, my family didn't have input on what my husband did for a living or how he loved me, my friends didn't have to tell me that how we choose to have sex is great or abhorrent, or the world couldn't make me believe that my expression of wife, lover and partner was anything less than perfect because it was what I wanted it to be. But this realization is fleeting. It evaporates. Today it feels so thin that my attempt to wrap myself in it is less like a cozy blanket and more like a layer of Saran wrap. This is a new level of vulnerability for me, and right now I'm feeling pretty wrecked.