Tuesday, June 28, 2011

How to Fall Far from the Tree

7430 N. Ridge Ave., Chicago
 My husband and I walked the labyrinth yesterday at St. Scholastica Academy. It was a sunny, temperate afternoon, and we walked in silence, apart from each other, sometimes close together, sometimes on opposite sides of the circle. After yoga, I'd picked up my copy of Living Buddha, Living Christ and wanted to try a walking meditation. I read a section about inter-being, the idea that everything is connected to everything else, that a flower is composed of clouds and sun and time and soil, and that each of us is composed of others.

Hahn took this in an interfaith bent, highlighting the idea that Buddhism is made up of non-Buddhist elements and Christianity is made of non-Christian elements. But I'm wondering about interbeing as far as it relates to all of us. This is something that's said, right, that each of us is connected to or even part of the others around us, or even people we don't know. I was walking on that narrow gravely path thinking about connectedness, and why we need to connect, and to what.

Do you think it's important to be connected to your parents? Initially, it would seem vital. Psychologists talk about how important it is for babies to bond with their mothers, and the problems that plague children when that bonding is flawed or doesn't happen. Babies are born into the world completely helpless, right? They need someone to feed them, to hold them and keep them warm, to mirror them so that they can learn the difference between me and not-me. So if they don't bond with someone, there's a problem. They learn everything from the people who take care of them: how to eat, how to read, how to tie shoes and zip pants, how to make poopie in the potty and how to spell their name, how to make friends, how to tell the truth (or fail to), how to love, how to hate. So it's obvious that kids start out needing adults really badly, in order to survive. The adult has to meet the needs of the child, or help the child meet its needs, because children are incapable of doing it themselves.

What about the other way round? Do parents have children so that children can meet some need? Maybe they think not, but they wind up putting all sorts of their own needs onto their children that somehow went ignored. Suddenly a kid who's just trying to learn how to live is responsible for his parents, for their feelings and desires, and for their emotional reactions.

I've been reading another book lately, For Your Own Good by Alice Miller, about how so many choices and practices that have been commonly accepted as child rearing can actually be hidden acts of cruelty. I'm seeing so many similarities in it, so many places where what I feel now as a grown adult, and what I've felt in the past as a young woman, are being personified or exemplified. It is both a relief and a huge discouragement. I don't have much faith at all that my parents are willing to acknowledge the repression and negative patterns that exist in our family history, and even less that they'll turn a discerning eye into their own pasts and discover where they were abused and mistreated. If this is impossible, is there any room where we can connect to each other? What does it mean to "inter-be" with the two people from whom I most directly descend, who deny my history? What is to become of inter-being if we can't even say we see the same truth? My past is unchangeable, yes? So says every refrigerator magnet, wall hanging and greeting card out there: live in the now. And my parents' ability or inability to acknowledge our shared past is not the thing that keeps me or prohibits me from growing as an adult. I want it so that I can have a future with them. My future without them is my responsibility.

But why do I want a future with them? Should I? Is it right, good, worth it, to have an adult relationship with one's parents? I know people who treat their moms or dads as best friends, intimates, who tell them all and include them in everything. I know people who haven't seen or spoken to their parents in years. I myself have been putting in what I consider the bare minimum: I call on holidays or birthdays, I offer attempts to make annual visits (that I almost always hope never come to pass), I express filial concern and devotion at the appropriate moments in the script. But I don't have the relationship that I want with my parents, with either of them. My fear right now is that they're not capable of it--they are so wounded that they're unwilling to consider what problems may really exist in our family, and I won't be able to treat my parents like intimates, or even like friends. Instead I'll treat them like obligations and nothing more. I find that idea so dissatisfying. So sad.

So I give the process of honest reconciliation a go. I approach them thoughtfully, grounded in my own feelings and my own needs, with an idea not to wound and destroy our family, but to be honest about what it is and what I want it to be.
So far, it's not going well. As if.
But I'm still here. And I'm still me.
I am I am I am

Monday, June 27, 2011

censor be damned.

You ask me why I spend my life writing?
Do I find entertainment?
Is it worthwhile?
Above all, does it pay?
If not, then, is there a reason?...
I write only because
There is a voice within me
That will not be still.

--Sylvia Plath

Sunday, June 26, 2011

My 31st Birthday in Pictures (and words, because really, who am I kidding?)

Somehow all of the best days in my marriage involve miniature golf. I love it.

Surprise tickets to Earth Wind & Fire at the Charter One Pavilion.

Alas, Mother Nature had other plans. When the skies broke, we put on our plastic ponchos and huddled under the nearest tree, told each other jokes and dodged lightning.

a little morning yoga and pranayama...

This was on someone's counter at the WF in Boystown. Random, but beautiful, like much of life.

Writing and a birthday treat @ Meinl. Cupcake from WF, gluten and dairy free. Not sugar free. Serious sugar crash later.

Dinner with friends at Broadway Cellars! Grateful for a lovely party.

June 22 was a lovely day. Thank you to everyone who made it so special. At some point birthdays become smaller; you don't get paper cone hats and balloons and noisemakers and lots of people who buy you toy robots and talking dolls because they think you're special. But I'm happy and lucky that I have friends and loved ones who will gather around me to show me how they really feel about me. Thank you. Thank you.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mixed Roots pt. 2

taken at the Huntington Library, Los Angeles, 2006

Dialogue is not a means for assimilation in the sense that one side expands and incorporates the other into its "self." Dialogue must be practiced on the basis of "non-self." We have to allow what is good, beautiful, and meaningful in the other's tradition to transform us.--Thich Nhat Hanh
Some times there's no way in except for to just do it, right?
So last week my husband and I went to see a play, Yellow Face, staged by the Silk Road Theatre Project. It's written by David Henry Hwang, who's pretty popular in Chicago right now. Chinglish is opening at the Goodman in a few days (if it hasn't already), he recently lectured at the U of Chicago, and there's something else on his docket in the fall. It was an interesting play, part-fiction, part-fact, telling the story of what happens when we have to confront our ideas of what it is to be Chinese or to be American, how we believe, project and assume race about ourselves and others. Narratively interesting, lots of movement and energy, very funny.

My husband and I really dig on this cultural stuff. As he often says, we're not an interracial couple (because interracial couples are made when one of the two is white); we're hyper-racial, because neither of us is white (and if it isn't clear yet, we're both different races). Not only do we dig on majority cultural experiences, but also, and quite pointedly, others. What this means is that often one of us is in the minority during various experiences: the day after Election Day 2008, we went to an Anthony Hamilton concert (and there are few better places to be than a roomful of happy black people about the election of America's first president of color), and though he wasn't the only non-black dude there, he might have been the only Asian-American. Ditto for The Ballad of Emmett Till a few years ago. So last week at Yellow Face, during intermission I looked around, and saw lots of Asian-American faces, and a fair amount of white people too, but I noticed I was the only sista, the only black person, in the crowd.

Sometimes this is the part of a mixed race relationship that's hard on me. We had a talk about it on the way home, and I told him that there are plenty of social situations that I understand, about which I know my role, but this isn't one. If I'd married a black man, I told him, for better or for worse, I'd know my role: to take care of him, to let him, within reason, come home and take out the abuse that the white man gives him on me, to tell him he's right about everything in order to protect his fragile ego, to curse the white man along with him, to be Madonna in the home, siren in the bed, blah blah. Yes, this is TOTALLY stereotypical, and presupposes a lot of ugly things about the world in general and this black man in particular, but it's all I've got--it's the template that would be adjusted or shattered as necessary; alternatively, if I'd married a white guy, my role would be to be an exotic Nubian queen, to speak on behalf of my people when appropriate, not to challenge too significantly his paradigm of race relations in America or in his life, blah blah. Also UBERstereotypical, with similar narrow-mindedness, but sadly, I did date this guy for a couple of years, so I feel I have a bit more experience in saying this. Point is, I have some framework, however flawed, for a cultural union with a man who is white, and one who is black. But I don't have a schema for what it's like to be married to my husband, who's Asian-American.

Is this a problem? I've been married for a year; should I know more about this now than I do? My instinct is to freak out, but I don't think I should. It's been a year. Yes, we've been together longer, but I have the rest of my life, and if I'm fortunate, I'll have decades to create a schema for what a committed relationship between a black woman and an Asian man is like.

I certainly never expected that marrying into a culture that wasn't my own and also wasn't the majority culture would require me to assimilate in the most obvious way. I had no vision of becoming a sinophile: using chopsticks at every meal, learning Mandarin, hanging wooden flutes all over my home, giving red envelopes, eating fish eyes and chicken feet, mincing around my home in silk pajamas and learning calligraphy. But, I practice acupuncture and some TCM, and I consider feng shui when I'm cleaning, and as per my husband's rather ardent request, I try hard not to wear street shoes in the house. So what is it that makes him Chinese? Is it these things, or are there others? Will I ever be some of these things too, by way of marrying him? Or is his Chinese-ness it that when he gets into a cab, the driver tells him he looks like Jackie Chan, or that the black kids in our neighborhood tell him that he's white because they've never seen someone who's Asian-American? Where is Chinese? Is there any in my blood now, or will we have to procreate for that to happen? And what about him? He knows '80s hiphop better than I do (with one or two small exceptions), and as far as soul food goes, he's crazy about it, whereas I've been known to turn up my nose to a plate of greens and chitlins, to prefer kale salad and braised tofu with brown rice. But before we went to see Emmett Till, he had little knowledge of his story. He didn't know The Black National Anthem before I told him what it was. Where is black? Is there any part of him that will become black for having married me?

The truth is, I think his experience as an Asian American, and as a first generation American, has quite a lot in common with my African American one. There are so many principles passed one from parent to child, so many pressures about perceptions from the world outside the family, superstitions and rituals, it all seems so similar, ways of interacting and coping with a majority culture. We have this in common. So it isn't our differences that give me pause. It's the infrequent but still present times when I feel like one of us is being asked (by ourselves? by the other? by the prevalent culture?) to be swallowed or assimilated. This is what challenges me. The duality of dialogue isn't always helpful--when race comes up I tend toward talking about it in a black/white dichotomy, likewise for my husband, a la Asian/white. The very nature of this language in conversation excludes half of our union. It is as if each of us believes either that what it is to be Asian (or to be specific Chinese) is the same as what it is to be black, or that it is so insignificant as to be unmentionable. What is interesting, and happens to me, probably to both of us, is that when the other's culture is being examined, celebrated, honored or displayed, there's a kind of defensiveness that rises up, as if to say, "Where is the space for me in your history?" But this can't be. Honoring and celebrating one culture doesn't always mean ignoring other(s). A play about an artist who is forced to confront his own bias about what it means to be Chinese, and who struggles by his own admission to understand them successfully, has parallels with what an individual thinks Black means relative to the world's definition and perception. David Henry Hwang is telling a similar story to George C. Wolfe. Telling one story doesn't make it impossible to tell another.

So I consider this idea through the lens of what I read this morning in Living Buddha, Living Christ. That you have to know deeply your own self/heritage/tradition/story in order to listen effectively to that of others. This means that instead of allowing my self, my story, to be replaced by another tradition, I ground more effectively into my own history, self, experience, in order to bring a centered, non-threatened self to my husband. This might allow me not to feel like an anthropologist, an interloper, or like someone who's gone native, but instead like I'm sharing with family. I've got no road map, certainly, and maybe this will give me the chance to discover what about our lives is similar, comparable and understandable, without feeling like who I am has to change.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

from inside the journal

It has been a really difficult week. I've been writing for days now about what would happen in my house when my dad worked too much, when he left home to travel on business or put in many long hours, and how it affected my mom and me. It's been so hard. It feels like rich material, but I'm only just realizing how still, there's so much raw pain in these kinds of memories for me; and there was no place to process any of them, no place to talk about what I found difficult to understand, what I wanted more clarity about, nothing. It hurts to look back through these windows of memory, and writing them now makes me wonder if I'm doing it okay. By which I mean that I think the feeling itself, the memory, is so raw and painful to confront, narratively much less emotionally, that the writing suffers.
I went to see a play this weekend that I want to write about here, but first I want to post some of what's been coming out of me this week.

In all the times my father was away, the late nights and the business trips, there was never another man who came over to my house. My mom buried herself in her job, in food, in sleep, but I never saw her cling to another man to keep from sinking.  Instead, infidelity hung in the air like threatening fog, making everything look and feel funky, but not actually doing anything. she hinted to me that she was a woman with needs, urges, and she pouted when my father worked so hard that he neglected her. It would be easy to make her sound like some kind of black widow, a maneater who hoped to seduce and abandon as many men as possible in order to punish my father for his absence. But I think the truth is she was just lonely and weak. Something in her couldn't handle the idea of being left alone, and so when she wasn't busy failing to handle her responsibility at home (me), she was flirting with the idea of acting out. A woman as charming, charismatic, and attractive as she was could have anyone she wanted, and if her husband wasn't going to stay home and see to her, well then, maybe she should get out and see who else was out there that could see to her.
It was a threat that she seemed to hold over all our heads, like a force that threatened to ruin her marriage and our family that only she could contain. And I always thought she would.
Autumn comes like a cold crisp glass of cider after the brutal heat of summer in the Midwest. There comes a point at which things that have for months been ripening begin to burnish, orange red and gold. The air goes clean and cool, like the lid has been lifted off a simmering pot and things seem bearable, even beautiful again.
But none of this matters when you're tired or unhappy, when your knees hurt and you smell like airplane and your face is dirty and you have stale pretzel stuck in your teeth. He stood outside the international terminal baggage claim, his backpack between his legs, his passport in the breast pocket of his shirt. There might not have been any time, when his bag came off the conveyor belt, to get home and shower and change before getting back to work. A familiar black suitcase with his business card in the luggage tag was spit out of a dark hole, and he hoisted it off the carousel. He might have to go straight to the office in clothes he'd been in for the last 20 hours, but at least at the end of the day he'd be able to go home to his wife.
His wife. His wife was walking toward him now. She wore a denim jumper, black stockings and flats and she'd had a stony, composed look on her face. "Hello, Steven."
"Ashely." His own voice was creaky and low from disuse. She was a sight for sore eyes, but her demeanor didn't make him feel any better. "What are you doing here, is something wrong?"
She sighed and pulled her sunglasses off her face. Her fingernails were a bright, hopeful, bubble gum shade of pink. "Yes, Steven, I'm afraid there is a problem?"

It is astonishing to me what the human body, the physiology and mind, what we are able to withstand and what we carry around with us every day, often without knowing. How much sweeter, easier, would our lives be if we could only be free.

Spring Travels

They aren't tremendously good photos, but I like what they make me remember. All the kind, funny people I met as the plus one my hubby brought to his reunion for the first time. How bright-sunny-hot Boston was, and how it made all the difference in whether or not I liked being there. Breakfast with women who made me feel like one of the family two seconds after we were introduced. Walking. Smiling. East coast-ing.

Brunch with M & C and scrambled eggs with chives and truffle oil(!). Peonies at weddings, those marvelous flowers that are signs of health and fertility. Too much wine. Riding bikes in short skirts down unfamiliar streets. The Mississippi River.

Cafe con Leche (soy, please!) at Cafe Tropical in Silver Lake(?) with K & D. A coconut macaroon the size of my fist. A grateful audience. Diversity of performers. The strange, magnetic tug I feel every time I visit LA, and the brain teaser of trying to figure out how to uproot my husband and my life and move them across the country.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Inspired by Mixed Roots

Managed to stay consistent while in LA this weekend with my 500 words, a summer project I've been following for the last almost-month wherein I write 500 words a day in pursuit of a finished project by the end of the summer. I missed the night I had to perform, but the next morning woke up surprisingly early, and this is what came out. Along with a shift to another chapter, I made up the deficit.
When I met and started dating the man I eventually married, I told my mom about him. Over the phone, her voice had that weary familiarity of a woman consistently disappointed by her daughter's choices. "Is he white?" she asked, her voice flat and unsurprised, preparing for the Yes she felt I was certain to give. I could practically hear her eyes rolling in their sockets across three hundred miles of telecomm wire and satellite magic.
"No," I answered.
"Oh," she said. Triumph flushed my face at being finally able to surprise her.
"Is he black?" she asked, a genuine question, hope bleeding into her voice like a stain.
"No..." I said again.
She was genuinely stumped. "Oh. Well what is he?"
"He's Asian American, Mom, his parents are from Taiwan."
"Oh. Wow." She paused. Then, "You two would have such pretty kids."
I'm not sure what I expected her to say. "Wow, that must be so interesting, to date a man with a blended national heritage"? "What's the difference between Taiwan and China?" "How good is his English?" or maybe even, something in the what's he like/tell me more about him/does hie make you happy? neighborhood. But it had been less than six months we'd been going out, at that point it wasn't serious, and we hadn't had sex yet. You two would have beautiful babies caught me by surprise.
It shouldn't have: when we moved in together after a year, when we got engaged nine months after that, lots of people echoed her sentiment--strangers we met at parties who saw the ring on my finger and cooed over our upcoming wedding, my relatives at holiday celebrations, even friends of mine in single race relationships, black and white--they all exclaimed with wonder and even a little envy in their voices, oh, you two are going to have such beautiful children. Such gorgeous babies. Some people even went so far as to make the statement that they'd have such pretty skin, and the almond-shaped eyes of my husband's people and the hair texture that resulted when we mixed blood would make our kids so attractive.
I hated hearing this from people. It sounded so mercenary, as if we'd selected each other as lovers and life partners because of our genetic makeup. It struck me as horrifyingly old-fashioned. My husband and I must obviously want to mitigate the less than desirable qualities of our own genes. Why else would he marry a woman as tall as me, and run the risk of being dwarfed by his own wife when she chooses to wear heels? I must think something is bad or wrong with my brown skin and thick, natural hair--why else would I dilute it with the creamy, stick straight action that he brings to the table? I hated that people reduced a product of our union, a child, to mixing hereditary colors on a palate.
I can say now that what troubled me wasn't so much their remarks as it was my own insecurity. I still find these remarks reductive in an alarmingly negative way, but they don't make me want to start fights with people anymore. Regardless of what these people think of my husbands or my appearance--if, in fact, they think of it at all--what matters is how I feel. I love the color of my skin, the warm brown that burnishes like polished copper during the summer, and I love my hair, with its coil-like curl pattern that grows so quickly, that locks so well. I love my husband's stature, our faces that fit together like magnets, his eyes that are narrow but quite expressive, his tongue which struggles to get around words like synechdoche because until he went to first grade he spoke only Mandarin at home. And if we have a child, I will love her, regardless of how the great genetic paint shaker blends our building blocks. It is more important to me that she connect with what I believe is what really makes my husband and me beautiful. We both come from a  people who know the value of education. He comes from a culture that prizes poetry, scholarship, determination, art, sculpture, meditation. I come from a culture that heralds free expression, creativity, endurance, fortitude. If our children, which, by the way, I don't know if I want to have, can inherit even some of these things from our cultural family trees, then I can say with the others that he and I really did make beautiful babies.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


It has seemed somewhat impossible for me to write here for the better part of a month. I've recently started one of those summer projects, but this one's focused around writing, so on a regular I'm pouring into my journal and around a certain topic, which makes coming here to pour out kind of tough too. On top of which, I've been painting painting, and let's just say I'm not confident enough in those skills to share them with anyone. Right now I'm still trying to find the value in doing some of them for myself.
But, I'm going to try to return to this space consistently. Maybe I'll be able to put down some of what's coming out of me so frequently here. It's not bad. I'll try to use this as a grounding space, a touchstone to stay in touch with what I'm doing. We'll see...