Wednesday, May 25, 2011
This is what you get when you come home. You get to walk down the 63 stairs and see that rampant lilikoi has taken root in the neighbors' yard since the last time you were home. You get to wake up at 5am to this certain bird your mother calls the wind-up bird, and there is not a better way to describe him. You get to lay there while the trades put just enough of a chill on your bare arms to keep you under light blankets. You get to contemplate the day before it's actually begun. You get to imagine living here again--which you can and cannot at all picture. You get to feel the hundreds of ways you have changed too much and not enough. You get to try, and try, and try to belong, like a missing piece trying to jigsaw back into the wrong puzzle. You get to realize that staying away for so long has been about holding yourself apart, about proving to yourself and others that you are bigger, better, tougher, smarter, prettier, more talented than people here let you believe. And then you get to be honest, for where are those "tormentors" now? And who really cares about them? Even they are no longer themselves. Just shades. You have spent all this time being bullied by memory, which has served to protect and cripple you both.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Wesley Yang's recent New York Magazine article is a meditation on being male, Asian, and trying to "succeed" in America. The article partially hooks onto the controversy stirred by Amy Chua and her now-infamous Chinese Mom parenting articles* and book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, asking, "What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?"
I'm not sure that Wesley Yang and Amy Chua are really talking about the same kind of parenting. Wesley Yang seems to be referring to a more first-generation kind of "Asian parenting." If we can generalize such a thing, it might gloss as follows: cut out social life and extracurriculars (unless necessary for college applications), study hard, get the best grades, become a doctor or lawyer or otherwise respected and well-paid person. But Amy Chua seems very next generation: her parenting isn't just about test scores. It isn't just about getting into a good college and then a good career. Her parenting seems to be about how life itself is one big test. Or perhaps a stretch of near-daily pop quizzes. Her approach to parenting--while extreme and something I predict that one of her daughters will provoke a very dramatic fight about later in life--is a life-prepatory academy. If you want to succeed, you have it want it badly, do everything in your power to get it, and then be a little lucky.
But Yang has a point about the kind of parenting he discusses. How America is not a meritocracy. How even with a black man in the White House, we're still not "postracial"--and will we ever be? And would we want to be? What would that even look like? I want to be postdiscrimination but not postdiversity. The idea of a melting pot has always terrified me. I much prefer the metaphor of a tossed salad. I can see how growing up with "Asian" values about cramming, test-taking, keeping your head down and your nose clean, respecting elders, respecting others, respecting the group over the self, and remembering with an acute sense of shame that the nail that sticks out gets the hammer would affect one's career. Those values can get you down much of that factory belt: good grades, good college, good career. But then at a certain point, you hit what the media has decided to call "the bamboo ceiling."
"Success," depending on how it is defined, can seem to draw on a variant of W.E.B. DuBois's notion of "double-consciousness." Navigating life doubly, grounding in yourself the values with which you were raised as well as the exact opposite ones that will help you obtain success. Of being able to hold one's self at a remove, as if simultaneously sitting at your desk and floating in the ceiling's corner critiquing your slouch and the fact that you can see that Facebook has been open for three hours whilst others surely have been teaching/writing/ applying for jobs/grants/contests/opportunities. Constantly trying to see yourself as others see you--and then correcting the difference between yourself and others. Maybe that means that you need to overcome your inherent respect of elders and interrupt your boss during a meeting. Maybe it means that you should walk a certain way or approach women a certain way.**
Or maybe it means forging out on your own, becoming your own CEO or your own dark, angry artist/writer type. Maybe it means saying "Fuck filial piety. Fuck grade-grubbing. Fuck Ivy League mania. Fuck deference to authority. Fuck humility and hard work. Fuck harmonious relations. Fuck sacrificing for the future. Fuck earnest, striving middle-class servility," as does Yang.
What Yang seems certain of, though, is that this is an acquired knowledge--something you learn to negotiate, not something innate or taught by tiger moms (and dads). I think he's mostly right there.
But we can look to Amy Chua's own daughter, Sophia, for an alternative opinion on what the tiger-mom upbringing produces. Her elegant letter to The New York Post this January pretty much makes me feel like we all had our panties in a twist over nothing.
What does it really mean to live life to the fullest? Maybe striving to win a Nobel Prize and going skydiving are just two sides of the same coin. To me, it’s not about achievement or self-gratification. It’s about knowing that you’ve pushed yourself, body and mind, to the limits of your own potential. You feel it when you’re sprinting, and when the piano piece you’ve practiced for hours finally comes to life beneath your fingertips. You feel it when you encounter a life-changing idea, and when you do something on your own that you never thought you could. If I died tomorrow, I would die feeling I’ve lived my whole life at 110 percent.
Maybe the trick for you tigercubs out there is to suck it up for childhood and high school, and then pick and choose the values/lessons you want to still live with in your adult life. Like a values code-switching: having two bodies of knowledge from which to pick, and choosing the appropriate one based on situation. Like being at an Asian buffet with your Asian family and knowing better than to make the rookie mistake of going for the rice or the salad. Going straight for the crab and the lobster and the prime rib--the things that hold within them the most value.
Winding down here, let me add some final anecdotes to get this out of the way: I did not have a tiger mom. Or at least not in the way you're thinking.
She was Asian--but not Chinese; she was Japanese. And as a nisei born and raised shortly after my grandparents got out of WWII internment camps, she wasn't as Asian as first-generation immigrants or perhaps other Asians who had been born at a different time. Or perhaps it was that she was a different kind of Asian, not an Asian born as much as constructed. Living in the United States at a time when one's ethnicity could be seen as a crime, my grandparents were intent on conveying stalwart Americanness. By the time they got out of the camps, my grandfather had served in the U.S. Army and had assumed the nickname "Smokey" (to replace "Hideo"). They opened a diner in Sacramento called Kampus Kitchen--the kind of diner of which Johnny Rockets is a caricature. What would seem more quintessentially American to the Asian immigrant observing than a "greasy spoon" where if rice is on the menu it is the long-grain kind and served with a side of butter? My grandparents wanted to have, in my mother's words, "low-profile children"--quiet, excessively compliant, unchallenging of authority. She tried to tape her eyes to make an Aryan crease and bathe in lemon peels to attempt to bleach her skin whiter. Blending in worked for a while--that is, until my mother reached the rebellious stretch of her teen years, and in the face of the American her parents wanted her to be, my mother decided to be Japanese.
She would wear geta around her college campus, and kimonos to bed, and decided to study Japanese--to which my grandfather responded by "helping" her study, purposely feeding her incorrect answers. When she confronted him, he furiously told her that she was an American first. That she had no appreciation or understanding for what it had taken him to be American. That she should not shame him in this way. Ultimately, in some ways, her upbringing sounds very much like the upbringing of a "tiger cub"--and her "test-taking" being how to pull off being 100% American when American fails to tell the full story.
So she was Asian, and she was ferocious--but only in protection of me. Less like a tiger, more like a bear--which of course makes her pet name from me, "Mommabear," obvious. Did she spend money she didn't have to send me to a college-prepatory high school and my dream college? Yes. Did she want me to get good grades and embarrass me by calling the Assistant Headmaster and creating an enforced studyhall, wherein I had to go sit in his office and do my homework after school because I had gotten some Ds in math and science? Oh, hells yeah. But didn't she also allow me to sign me up for ballet lessons, halau, orchestra, color guard, and community choir? Didn't she practically frame every story or poem I ever wrote? Didn't she tell me a hundred times a day--in the teenaged years, oppressively so--how much she loved me, and believed in me, and thought me to be a creative, brilliant, amazing individual? Didn't she march me into that fancy high-school with all the people who could actually afford to be there and tell me I deserved this education as much as any of the rest of them, even if I was there by combination of financial aid, workstudy, extensive loans, a generous gift from her then-boyfriend, and the grace of God? And let me just add, not once, ever, did she suggest I become something more "practical" like a doctor, lawyer, or engineer.
So, my mom and I? We're Asian, sure, but don't count us in the tiger tribe. We're another animal altogether.
* Sorry, but this is a GEM, and one with which I totally agree: "What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences." Also: "Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away."
** To be honest, though, the whole section on picking up women ICKED ME OUT. If a supposed "alpha male" came up into my space, turned me around by my shoulder, and then grinned widely and started talking to me, he'd get a pretty heated and negative response.
Monday, May 9, 2011
Probably my favorite thing about the reading was the bookstore itself. Filled with bestsellers, sure, but also quirkier books arranged in wonderful thematic shelves. This is clearly for zombie-philes.
I suppose I should say something about the reading. I only heard two or three people read. I bought the issue. I'm excited to peruse it. But it was difficult for me to get a handle on their aesthetic from just those few readers.
Thursday, May 5, 2011
I LOVED this interview, took away a lot of gems about how to be more proactive at creating that sweet spot for myself, but I also had a single moment's pause. The interview subject, Suzanne Kingsbury, described how/why she came to create her own writer's salon:
If you want to receive something--I wanted to receive the feeling again of bliss--then give it, you know? And you will eventually ... receive what you want.
And it just made me pause a little because I wonder how much waiting do you do, even as it discourages you, before you can't wait any more? Suzanne Kingsbury also urges us against this feeling of a schedule, saying, "The Universe works on an interesting timeline." The way I look at it is that I tend to fling myself into situations, into projects, into/at people, and sometimes I am met halfway, sometimes more than that, and the times when I am standing there, fully flung and not met, it's awkward, you know? Uncomfortable. And I'm just in one of those periods right now where all my flinging feels like it's getting me nowhere. I can't stir up the same intensity of fling in the people around me.
Another friend last night cautioned me to not ... "lower" my expectations as much as to cultivate patience. Which is sort of the same advice of Suzanne gives above about the Universe and its timeline.
I want to be grateful for what actually is ("the now"), not just long for what I desire, but ... how can you not measure the distance between your dreams and reality? How do you lose that yardstick? And why is it not good for yourself and your self-respect to stop flinging where it isn't wanted?
Wednesday, May 4, 2011
It’s not that I don’t sympathize as much as I about about to play BAD COP. Don’t open a document, then, open a notebook. Or flip to the backside of a grocery list or an envelope or whatever intimidates less. Put on music; turn off music. Write outside, write inside, write in a loud public setting, or the quietest, most desolate corner you know. Read: blogs, newspapers, magazines, and books books books. Read, and journal privately, and blog publicly. Just BEGIN. Take the pressure off. Words are just words. Let them accumulate until you are back in the swing of things and don’t selfl-censor* or self-edit.
In short: Don’t hunt; GATHER. Don’t be frightened; FORGE ONWARD.
Do you know The Right to Write by Julia Cameron? It has helped many a stuck writer.
Sending love and tough-you-up vibes,
* How ironic is it that this editor just misspelled self-censor?! I itch to correct it, but I guess it'd be a bit hypocritical. Damn that trigger finger.