Some times there's no way in except for to just do it, right?
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
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.