family

Visiting the Homeland

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Snowfall at Holyoke Community College

I am at work right now, and one of my naughtiest students is trying to cheat on a game again. She always tries this with every game. She is a cute little girl. Somebody does her hair very nicely every day. She’s gonna be a little heartbreaker when she grows up.

This has been a semester, y’all. I have never in the history of my life had a semester like this. I’m exhausted.

The people at Holyoke Community College are charming. Absolutely charming. They are so sweet and kind and just nothing at all like the people at any other college I have ever been to. Every conversation I start with an 18-year-old boy ends with me actually wanting to be friends with him. The professors are so adorable. Perhaps I was just lucky and ended up with the most adorable ones. Everything my math professor does makes me fall more in love with him. He draws beautiful things. He says beautiful things. Even the way he makes fun of us seems beautiful.

I love how easy it is for them to show their love for me, whether or not they are aware of it. Without hesitation, people will ask me if I’m free to hang out, or to get dinner. They tell me they know how smart I am. They notice when I’m not there. They ask me if I need help. I feel attractive and good and appreciated.

I wish I could always remember these things about myself. Because heading into this holiday season, I am once again doing something emotionally exhausting.

This year over the holidays, I am going to India to visit my grandparents. My grandfather has dementia that has progressed quite far. I have not seen him in 4 years, but he has had dementia now for my last few visits to India. I remember when I went alone at the age of 12, he was just starting to forget things. He couldn’t remember when his birthday was. Slowly, the number of things he’s forgetting is increasing. I remember once when I was in college or maybe after I had graduated, he was asking for me on the phone. He said he wanted to hear his first grandchild. I think that’s the reason why he knows I exist. I was there before the memory loss.

I’m supposed to stay with my mother’s family, a group of people who are not good at showing their love. Or perhaps more accurately, they can, but you have to know what you’re looking for.

My mom says that my grandfather was a very strict man with his three children. He was the one who enforced discipline. His children were scared of him. But I never experienced that side of him. By the time I was born, he was retired. I first visited him when I was 11 months old. I learned to walk in front of him. He visited me in Florida when I had grown a little older. I was 3 or 4 years old. My brother had been born by then. He liked playing ball with me. He would bounce a beach ball off his head for me to catch, like a soccer player. He gave me a little red stuffed rabbit. I still have it in one of my bureaus.

He liked explaining things to me when I was younger. I remember we used to take walks around the garden and he would show me different flowers and fruits and butterflies.

My brother is very hesitant to go. He’s anxious about how seeing Koka will affect my mom. He is already trying to be detached. I have every intention of treating that man like my grandfather. That is who he is.

I just wish my other relatives could remember I want connection with him, too. I know they will clamor, create lots of noise because that is what anxious people do in my family. They are not the only ones who lose him. When he’s gone, I lose him, too.

I try to remain optimistic about how this trip will go. I hope I will be able to take lots of photos and videos of good times because that’s how I want Koka’s last years of life to go, with lots of fun and laughter. These are some of the last years, though. I try to share that with the people who can hold it with me, so that I can hold some of my family’s feelings even if they can’t do the same for me.

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Re-Evaluation of a Memory

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So aesthetic pretty wall to remind you of rustic old places. Location: Poet’s Seat Tower, Greenfield, MA. Credits: Me

I do a type of counseling where I am encouraged to look at a lot of my early memories, and I recently had a re-evaluation (what, in other counseling methods, may be called a “breakthrough”) in a very important place. I felt like putting it here because maybe this would be helpful to someone.

My early memories indicate that my father was a very happy person who made it clear that he wanted me very much. Every day, he came home from work and was eager to play with me. He was the one I asked to push me on the swings and let me run around outside and play games with me. He was a lot of fun! Oftentimes, when I have a crush on someone, it is frequently because they remind me of my dad. The thing is, they often have his shortcomings as well. He left every day for work, often before I was even awake. I spent most of my mornings and afternoons without him. I spent that time with my mom.

I don’t remember my mom well from that period and that told me something about my relationship with her (this is before my brother was born, so before I was 3 years old. Most people are shocked I can remember that far back in my life, but I can). At first, I thought it was because she didn’t want me. I thought she was upset about the career she did not get to have. Or perhaps because she had immigrated to the United States. But neither of these explanations really made much sense. She had me 3 years after she moved to the country. I have seen photos of her from before my birth, and she looks happy. She and my father used to travel a lot. They went to lots of theme parks, had many friends, and visited many states. It is only after I was born that I remember my mother sleeping for long periods of time in the middle of the day, which is what initially made me think she didn’t want me.

I have worked on this memory dozens of times, and it never made much sense to me until recently, when a few important things happened. First, I recently broke the crush I have had on my math professor for the last two months. A counselor of mine said precisely what I forgot was true: it is nice to focus on a crush when everything else is going wrong. It provides escape. And I realized something else when she said that. I feel as though he (my crush) gives me something that few other people are giving me right now: he is not asking anything of me. And that is why I have fallen so in love with him. My father was not asking anything of me either, all those years ago.

Yesterday, I also got a good direction from a counselor that helped me figure out the other half of the puzzle with my mom. My counselor said “she was doing the best she could.” I was also working on other family matters at the time, talking about my cousins, who all live very far away. I was talking about how I wish I knew them more intimately, and I was thinking about how well I now know my math professor. I know what he likes, I know what he smells like, I know that he likes to dance. I don’t know any of those things about my cousins. That is why it is sometimes hard for me to understand why my mother thinks those relationships are important. My cousins are strangers to me, and I know I could change that, but I just don’t believe the internet is enough for me to really feel their presence.

I then had to connect that feeling with the time when I was pregnant. In the weeks leading to my abortion, I really wanted to carry my child to term, but every time I asked myself how I would make it work financially, I knew I couldn’t do it. I got an abortion. I thought about mom being pregnant 27 years ago, and what it must have felt like to realize that her baby girl would grow up with none of the people or things that she was familiar with. I would not have my cousins, aunts, uncles, or grandparents. It would take a much greater effort for me to learn and maintain speaking Assamese. I would know nothing but what she taught me about the place where my ancestors are from.

I imagine all those things weighing on the mind of a 29-year-old immigrant woman. And I realized the reason why I cannot remember my mother from all those years ago is not because she didn’t want me. She wanted me very, very much. She was sad after I was born, but I was not the problem. The problem existed long before I did. She was sad, is probably sad still, because every time she looks at me, she thinks of all the things her little girl had to grow up without. My counselor said, if anything, this is a gift. My mom loved me so supernaturally that she is sad she cannot give me the things she really wants to give me.

And the thing I have to keep in mind is that I cannot give her what she wants. It is something I want so badly to do even now. When someone senses my hyper-responsiveness and latches on, draining me of all my energy, I still think I will be the one to give them what they want. I couldn’t make sense of what was missing as a child, and I thought I had the power to give my mother what she wanted. Again and again I would try. Her responses never made any sense. If I was doing well, the activity was too easy. If I wasn’t doing well, it was my own fault. She was impossible to satisfy. Eventually, I learned to shrug her off, to cut her off even, because after a good amount of time, I could identify her duality for myself. It still confused me. I have spent years trying to figure out what she could possibly want.

I love her, and it is not my responsibility to fill that gaping hole for her. I know now that the reason I could feel my father’s happiness is because somehow, he sees what I have, and what I am. I don’t know if it makes sense to hope for that from my mother. On a physical, material plane, I know she will retire some time in the next 10-15 years and perhaps after that her mind will settle enough to lead her to what she wants. In the spirit realm, who knows how to fill that abyss of hers. It comes out of her in every way, especially toward me. If anything, without knowing it, every time I pull away, every time I reject her, I make it worse for her by reminding her strongly that I am not like her. What I am making of my life here is not at all what she made of hers, nor is it something she ever could have made of hers. How many years of counseling would it take for her to unravel over twenty years of feeling inadequate, of feeling she couldn’t provide, of feeling I should have had more that she could never give me?

That I wasn’t asking for.

That I don’t know, and will never know.

I wonder which is better, having the mother that wanted me to know, and therefore told me everything, setting expectations I could never reach, or the mother that chose to never tell, bottle the truth, and let her child continue in blissful ignorance.

Thoughts on Crazy Rich Asians

My apologies to y’all for being on hiatus for so long. I am actually undergoing some major changes in my life, specifically a career change. I am going back to school to become a civil engineer. I start school again in September. It’s gonna be an adventure.

craAnyway, a good friend and I recently watched Crazy Rich Asians (2018). Neither of us had read the book beforehand, but I thought, listen, we’re getting a movie with an entirely Asian cast. Clearly we cannot miss this.

There is a lot about Crazy Rich Asians that makes it really different from other romantic movies. The friend I saw it with is Korean and is familiar with Korean soap operas, and she says the movie is “basically a Korean soap opera, but in a 2-hour movie instead of a 20-hour television series”. I understand what she means; the film does a much better job of character development than the average romantic comedy.

First of all, I think both Constance Wu and Henry Golding deserve better than the roles they were put in. Wu is such a badass. She could easily play a lead role in a Marvel movie. In this film, she plays kind of a sappy, second-wave Asian girl who somehow doesn’t know who the richest family in Singapore is even though she’s an economics professor at NYU. Is anyone else not a little bothered by this? Isn’t it supposed to be harder to fool a woman of her caliber? Purportedly, the novel is based on some truth, but I feel like there was a way to portray Rachel Chu that makes her look less silly.

My friend and I also had problems with Nick Young (Golding) as a character. In my friend’s words, “He seems dumb. He has no empathy for Rachel. When she’s being destroyed, he offers her sushi.” I do see her point. My critique comes from how Nick doesn’t seem like a real character. The story focuses so much on Rachel and her experience of the family. Nick barely does anything, which makes him look like a mama’s boy who gets whatever he wants. Maybe that was the point. I was just hoping for someone more complicated. Hasn’t Golding played Oscar-nominated roles before, or am I getting my Asians mixed up?

My other problem with the film is that the supporting characters are FAR more interesting than the two leads. My god, where do I begin. First, I’m in love with Astrid Young (Gemma Chan). According to my friend, there is a character like this in every Korean soap opera: a beautiful model-girl/lawyer/CEO who is modest and kind to everyone. She reminds me a little of Raina Amin (Yasmin Al Massri) from Quantico. I love that moment when she tells her husband, Michael (Pierre Png), that she can’t give him something he has never had, and walks away. Seriously, the supporting women in this film carry the entire movie.

Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh) is also such a fierce bitch. I love all of her outfits. When I’m an old Asian woman, I want to be that gorgeous. Honestly, I was a little bored with the fact that the future-mother-in-law is the antagonist because if you observe what she says, Eleanor is not actually working against Rachel. She is just brutally honest. When she says Rachel could never measure up to the family’s expectations, she speaks from experience. As a first generation child of immigrants, I can relate to that sentiment. I try to be honest with my white partner about what my family will expect from them. If anything, Eleanor is doing Rachel a favor.

On a tangent, I thought the story would have been more interesting if Rachel and Nick did not end up together, but perhaps were brought together by circumstance later on in their lives, perhaps after a child or two and a divorce or two. I think that would have been a more realistic story. But I guess the movie had to appeal to an American audience, and Americans are hardly realistic.

In addition, Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina) is fantastic. Her family is fantastic, too. She and Oliver T’sien (Nico Santos) are the gay best friends that everybody needs to have. I love how she shows up to the Young’s estate in dog-print pajamas and changes in their house like it’s no big deal. She is also a fucking good friend to Rachel (women, take note: this is how to be there for one another in the most feminist way). She gives her the outfits she needs to fit in with these crazy rich people. She gives her a place to stay when she’s bummed and has no will to do anything (because she thinks she’s not going to end up with Nick. Women, take note: this is a stupid way to be. Being with a man is not everything. They should have gone to the mall and been fabulous.) She knows how to have a good time and not take herself seriously. Best character.

I do enjoy the cast of goofy men in this film, too. Ronnie Chieng as Eddie Young is perfect. Ronnie does a great dickbag impression. I also very much enjoyed Jimmy O. Yang as Bernard. In the words of my friend, “there’s always that one guy who wears ridiculous things and is a huge asshole.”

While the plot is a bit contrived, I do enjoy the absolutely beautiful shots of Singapore. My mother has been to that country and I greatly envy her for it. I love the implication that Asian countries can and do compete with the U.S. as beautiful places. I have always contended with the idea of a “first world” and the rest of the world, and while this movie perhaps does not contradict that (it is about rich Asians, after all), it does challenge the notion that all Asian immigrants were escaping communist dictators or abject poverty. Now someone just make a movie about crazy rich Arabs, and I shall be satisfied.

All in all, I would say Crazy Rich Asians is a visually stunning piece with some notable supporting female characters. Though I wish the same could be said of the main characters, I am impressed by the level of detail that was given to the supporting characters. There were so many, but I did feel as if each one was a whole person. A work in progress, I hope to see more in this vein, but bigger, more fireworks!

The Monolith Myth

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Light in the night. Source: Leonie

I’m going to tell you all a little story. So I work in a tutoring center in a library at a community college. I work on a relatively tightly knit staff. All ten of the writing tutors know each other, and the younger ones frequently socialize outside of work. I remember this was a conversation I overheard one day, between two of the tutors, one a multiracial Asian man (MM) and the other a middle-aged white woman (WW). It should be noted, the story being told is, if I remember correctly, the story of how the multiracial man’s parents met.

MM: …at that point, my mother was thrown out of the house by my grandmother. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence because my grandmother was a pretty abusive person.

WW: Oh…how horrible.

MM: She used to do things like beat my mother with a broom. So she [his mother] needed a place to stay after being kicked out of her house.

WW: I used to know a Korean girl whose mother would beat her, too.

This was the point at which I removed myself from hearing distance of the conversation because I knew exactly what was happening. It’s something that happens a lot to people who belong to racial minorities. I suspect that, as a person who is multiracial and who has been raised by and befriended a lot of white people, the Asian man telling this story is a little naive to the intrusive and often dangerous assumptions white people make about marginalized people. Thus, he did not edit out the details that people of color usually do around white people to protect the collective that is their community.

As for the white woman, it was as though I could see the little gears turning in her head. I could see her trying to connect dots which are not meant to be connected. She hears one story about an abusive Asian mother. Her memory is jogged to another time when she encountered an abusive Asian mother. Just like that, a stereotype is born! Now she believes all Asian woman are abusive to their children.

And this is not some new occurrence in my life. I went to a graduate degree program that was dominated by (bless their hearts) white queers. Because I am obliged to (and only because I liked my program adviser), I will say here that there are a small handful of white people in my program who genuinely try and are doing the work to recognize their role in a racist society. And then, there are all the rest.

Their judgment came every day like the morning news. Black men? Too aloof, militant, very sexist, not worthy of attention. Asian women? Scary, too opinionated, emotional, incapable of restraint. Black women? Think too highly of themselves, standoffish, stingy, secretive. Latinos? Clannish, always hungry, annoying, not prepared for the academy. The only way you won approval as a person of color was if you were queer and you outwardly showed more commitment to the queer community than to any other marginalized community.

In front of that group, where we were so frequently asked to talk about our social identities and our upbringing as part of classroom participation, I found myself hiding the truth about my family. I was not about to give these Northern white people any other reasons to look down upon me, my family, or the community of brown people that raised me in a Southern city. So I did not tell them about how hard it actually is for me to go home, to live with a mother who constantly comments on my weight and how I dress, who thinks that using a vibrator leads to becoming a prostitute (like a gateway drug), who always has to know where I am going and who I am with, even though she never gives my brother the same constraints. I did not tell them because I could not. How could I express the truth without throwing my family under the bus? How could I tell the truth without allowing white people to think my mother is an uneducated, backwards, primitive person who suffers greatly from internalized sexism? How could I give voice to my individual experience without having white people conjure the image of the Starving Brown Child in India, just waiting for their help? How could I say those truths without sounding as though I was inviting white people to save poor little brown me from the clutches of my medieval South Asian parents?  These are things I only ever talk about with woke people of color.

Instead, I only acknowledged the good things about my community in front of my colleagues–the parts about how, as children, we were basically raised gender-neutral until we reached puberty, and how radical that was. Or how arranged marriage was actually a financially and socially radical thing to do because it gave us kids the social capital we needed to survive in America. Or how the sex-negativity of Asians is also a radical concept because it precluded queer people from being ostracized from society. They only got to know the radical stuff. They were only allowed to see my community in a good light. I would not expose my community and my heart to the degrading nonsense of a bunch of people who think meals can be made out of oats and kale. Or worse, a bunch of people who think that because they understand Foucault’s theorizing, they are somehow the designated saviors of the Previously Colonized World.

You’ll notice, of course, this left (and perhaps, still leaves) me rather isolated. I present one truth to the world, and that is the only way I allow them to perceive me, and I know another, very different truth. This is not a strange or even rare practice. For people of color completing graduate degrees, compartmentalizing in this manner is a commonplace tactic.

If I’m being honest, I do not know that I have yet come across anything that feels like a solution to this problem, the problem of white people lumping people of color into monoliths, in which no one person of color is discernible from another. I also do not think I am obliged to find one. I think, before I even jump to solutions, it is worth proposing, to all communities, actually thinking about what this implies for our realities. What does it mean for people of color to constantly be protecting their communities? What kind of toll does it take on us to never tell anyone the whole truth? What are the implications when communities of color frequently don’t have access to things like mental health counselors because these are not critically conscious institutions and/or because counselors are too expensive? What does it say about the still-predominantly-white country we live in that we have to protect our communities when we are in the academy?

And for white people, what does it mean that communities of color go to this length to make sure you don’t interfere with their affairs? What does it mean when people of color are not comfortable telling you the truth about their upbringing? What does it mean that people of color try to protect their communities from you? What does it mean when people of color do not trust white people whose gender analysis is stronger than their racial analysis? What does it mean that in Massachusetts, a place that claims to be pretty liberal, a person of color can feel unimaginably lonely?

 

I don’t really have answers. I’ll end on this note. A few days ago, I went to the wedding reception of an old friend. All the people there were brown, and they acted like it, with moms feeding kids with their bare hands and people shoving people out of the way with absolutely no manners. I was going to post a funny status on Facebook about how you know you’re at a brown party when you feel like you’re surrounded by barnyard animals. It was just people having a good time. If it was a wedding reception full of white people, I probably could’ve gotten away with it. But I thought about how a post like that might come off to people who only know one brown person, or none. I thought about the mile-long list of stereotypes that already exists for my community. Did I want to add “barnyard animal” to that list? No, I didn’t. So I decided not to.

An Entirely Different Story

I recently watched this video, in which author Chimamanda Adichie talks about The Danger of A Single Story. It was very good, as TED talks tend to be, but what she said at the very beginning left me simultaneously intrigued and horror-struck. She said she was an early reader, and then an early writer, and when she started writing stories, she did not write about people who looked and lived like her. She wrote about little white girls with blue eyes, who ate apples and talked about the weather.

It was a hauntingly familiar story. I remember when I first began to write. For the longest time, I wrote about animals. I gave them human personalities and then wrote about their thoughts and feelings as creatures. They were easier to write about because I never had to go into great detail about the physical features of, say, a rabbit. Eventually, I started writing about people, but always in a stilted fashion. I could never give characters names. Even now, it feels especially burdensome to christen them with something elegant. I am tempted to just call them “Person A” and “Person B” for the entirety of some pieces. When I was younger, I censored myself to using the blandest, most common names. There were usually Katies, Davids, Megans and Erics in my writing. I never wanted to make it obvious that I was thinking of a brown person like me, but it sometimes showed when I gave somewhat mismatching characteristics like black hair and blue eyes. Characters often had dirty blonde hair, I remember, or brown. I had to imagine what it was like to live in a home that was not like mine, in a home where people did not eat rice every day, did not light incense sticks when they pray, did not take their shoes off at the door of the house. Not surprisingly, I was never too pleased with the result, which felt like a counterfeit of what I was really thinking about.

I realize now that I could have very easily shared the stories about unique experiences that only I have. I could have talked about India and my visits to my grandmother’s house, and my many relatives against a backdrop of northeast India in the heat of summer. I could have talked about my classical Indian dance lessons, where we told the stories of Indian epics through dance. I could have talked about the friends I had as a child and what we really did, playing together in one another’s houses and seeing them at Indian gatherings throughout the year. But I never felt I could share any of that. I refused. I always thought I would have to answer so many questions if I wrote about those things. People would ask me what I meant if I wrote about pujas, wearing salwars, eating mithai. It would mark me as different to write about these experiences. It would be an open declaration of my foreignness, so I thought. I had no desire for such attention, nor was I ready for it at that age.

The similarities between my story and Chimamanda’s are that our writing was both funny and sad. It was funny for us as children to think we could write about things we did not know, and sad for the same reason. My writing has since undergone a transformation that is not yet complete. In my teenage years, there was a time when I would not describe physical features at all. I would simply give a character a name and then drag them through a story. The writing circles (of mostly white people) where I shared these pieces begged me to give them something physical about the character to hold on to. I usually did not oblige them.

As of yet, I have not returned to prose. I am still wildly wary of using names like Namrata, Anjali, Shaam, and Preet. I still falter when it comes to describing things like height, facial hair, eye shapes, noses, and of course, skin color. At least I now know I can describe those features. There was a time I would not acknowledge them at all.

Still, there are now things that escape my precision that I never would have expressed before. Things like “grape-colored lips”, or “uncles and aunties”. Descriptions of tandoori chicken, curries with cumin and cardamom. Colorful pajamas and kurtas. Bangles on wrists, payal on ankles. Perhaps one day, my writing will reflect a second-generation Indian community in the flesh. It will convey Desi America in all its glory. Perhaps one day, these specks of color will become the story itself, my story. My entirely different story.