Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Not an Essay on Being Victim and Survivor

This is (late) Essay #40 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.


On Sunday morning, I started to write Essay 40. This was right before the Me Too “movement” (are we calling it that? what do we call it?) but during the height of the Weinstein storm where *everything* was about him and sexual assault and harassment. Everywhere I turned, there it was.

Feeling triggered, I started to write my story.

This is how I process and make sense of the world: I write. Whether or not I share it is determined after I’m done writing. I write to survive. It sounds like an exaggeration but it’s not. If I don’t write, I become physically incapacitated. My body refuses to work for me. It shuts down. Sometimes to the point where I am in bed for half the day or more. So I write.

Then the Me Too thing took off. My FB newsfeed was too much to bear. So many “me toos”. So many.

I am not surprised – no woman is—but to see it, right there on the screen – a parade of “me toos”—made it all too real. My body started to shut down.

I stopped writing my story. I couldn’t fight the shutdown hard enough to write anymore.

I am tired of fighting.

I am tired of being the brave one, the strong one.

I am tired of being the one people look to, the one people turn to.

I am tired of opening up the wounds of old traumas to say, hey, me too.

I am fucking tired.

I need a break.

I want someone to take care of me for once, to hold me and just say, Don’t worry – I got this. And I love you.

Why is the burden put on us? Why must we endure more pain in order to incite change?

And then there’s the yogi part of me that remembers: suffering is optional.* So I’m asking myself how do I transform trauma into healing in ways that do not recreate suffering? Or do I allow for the suffering, sit in it, move through it, and release it each time it comes? And hope that maybe with each experience, that suffering diminishes into a tiny thing that I can flick away with my finger?

[*This statement is not meant to be dismissive of real experienced traumas, but more, for me anyway, of a way to think about how trauma is functioning -- is it keeping me stuck in the past? Or is working in another way that doesn't reinforce the groove of suffering?]

I don’t know.

What I do know is that I’m trying to practice self-care but I don’t even know what that looks like anymore. I’ve gone to yoga for the past three days straight and I don’t feel any less shitty. Or maybe I do feel less shitty immediately after class, but then I am subject to the shit that’s still out there so I get pushed back to where I was before I went to class.

Writing isn’t helping. I find myself all over the place. Starting one essay, then stopping halfway through. Starting a second essay, then abandoning that. Writing a poem that feels okay…. Maybe the writing is helping and I’m not noticing it. Maybe I’m being too hard on myself (which is par for the course). Maybe.

Right now, all I want to do is crawl under the covers and sleep until it doesn’t hurt any more.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

Yeah, I said it: let’s talk about guns.

This is (late) Essay #39 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.

I am tired. Weary. Exhuausted. Wiped. Burned out. Skin tired. Down-to-the-gristle-and-bone tired.

And yet—

*

Let’s talk politics. Because, you know, it’s a thing I like to do from time to time. And yes, let’s talk guns. Because, you know, it’s uncomfortable for a lot of people. And I like to do that from time to time: talk about the discomfort of things and the things that cause discomfort. What I don’t understand is why. Why the discomfort? I mean, of course, I get it: people have their thoughts, their positions, their opinions and stances on guns. And they vary. As do the solutions to such a triggering (heh heh) topic. It’s not as simple as “let’s own guns” to “let’s ban them entirely”. If you’ve got some critical thinking skills, you know there are nuances. What I don’t understand is this reluctance to even talk about it.

From newscasts after the Las Vegas mass shooting: It’s not appropriate to talk about gun control right now. Now’s not the time. Uh, really? If not now, then when? Trevor Noah has great commentary on this.

But I will be honest: I myself have a hard time talking about guns and gun laws. And I’m puzzled by this.

I grew up learning how to shoot a gun. Issues of Guns and Ammo magazine were all over my house. Occasionally, I would go trap shooting with my dad and my younger brother on weekends (Just to watch. Because I wasn’t big enough to handle a shotgun*); my mom would be no part of it. I would listen to conversations between my dad and brother about which guns were the best, which ones were the coolest, which guns were appropriate for certain situations. I have this hazy memory that my dad might have purchased a Saturday Night Special on my behalf (“For protection.” Of course.). It was never in my possession but I might have seen it. I can’t quite remember. And there was always the heat in my dad’s tone of voice when politics would cross the dinner table: the latest news on gun laws would come up and my dad would steam about how They couldn’t take away his Right To Bear Arms. Because, really, that’s why he came to America in the first place, not the dictatorship that he fled (I say this in jest. But sometimes I really wonder…). As a kid, I could only agree. What else did I know?

*

I’ll admit that I really really wanted to shoot a shotgun, to know what it felt like. To hold it with my entire torso, arms wrapped around it. To load it with a pump of the fore-end. To squeeze the trigger and feel the force of the kickback. I’d probably close my eyes, bracing myself – which is totally NOT advised! But yeah. I wanted to know what that felt like.

What’s funny is that I wasn’t interested in the clay pigeon I was supposed to be aiming at. Thinking about it now, maybe there’s something satisfying about seeing it break apart, hearing the smash of it. But I was more interested in the feel of cold metal kicked against my chest. Is that what power feels like?

As a woman of color who must fight for any kind of power to be heard or seen, I am interested in exploring various methods of acquiring power. Are guns part of this exploration?

I have a clear recollection of this specific scene in Terminator 2 where Linda Hamilton’s character, Sarah Connor—all buffed up—is injured and she can only load her shotgun with one arm. She holds the fore-arm with her good side and jacks up the gun over her shoulder to load it. Repeatedly. For me, that was an incredible display of fierce feminist strength and I wanted that.

*

I’m the minority in my family. This includes, not just my own parents and siblings, but my in-law family as well as my husband, who I classify as moderate, slightly right of center.

In my mind, I feel one-hundred-percent clear on my position on guns: we don’t need them. Quite frankly, why do they even exist? (You want to hunt? Try good old bow and arrows.) I told my students the other day: arguments, gripes, and the like should be settled with fistfights. One should be forced to know what it feels like to inflict harm upon another human being, to feel one’s knuckles on the skin, muscle, and bone of another’s face or arm or torso. And yes, there are those who are not of sound mind who might indeed take delight in this, but at the very least, there is no instantaneous theft of life. Of course, there are other things that come into play with this solution that do not work (eg. big burly man beats down a waify girl. Or a buff Linda Hamilton kicks the shit out of some wisp of a meek villain. Heh.), but my point is that there is actual work required to inflict harm. A gun requires no work. It is easy. It is instant.  

I told my students: people who want to inflict harm will finds ways to do it, legal or not.

Beyond this, I find myself uneasy, unsettled, and maybe floundering a little.

What about self-defense? This is the main argument for the good old Second Amendment. And this is where it gets hazy, where my mind gets muddy.

One of my students said that he feels safer knowing that there’s a gun in his house and that he can protect himself and his mom. Protect himself from whom?

What if someone were to break into your house and that someone had a gun? I do not want to meet violence with more violence. I don’t even want the potential of me bringing violence as a solution. Take my money, my jewelry, if you want. It’s just stuff.

What if someone with a gun were to break into your house with the intent to cause harm? What did I do that would make someone target me in that way? That they would specifically come to my house to do that? If this happens, I have bigger problems than whether or not I own and possess a gun.

What if someone with a gun were to come to your house and try to harm your kids? Would my having a gun solve that problem? I don’t know. I used to watch a lot of tv shows and movies. And you know that cliché scene where the kid is being held at gunpoint and the hero is an amazing shot. The hero successfully kills the villain, saving the kid who is physically unharmed. Is that the scene I’m supposed to imagine myself in? There’s a real possibility that I might end up harming my own kid before saving or in order to save her. So what do you do in that situation of your kid being held a gunpoint? Is having a gun the answer? I don’t know.

But here’s the thing: what are the chances this scenario will happen? Versus a gun accident. (Yeah, yeah. Settle down, NRA folks. I know all about gun safety. But even with all the safety you teach, why are kids still getting shot and killed accidentally? You can teach safety. Practicing it is an entirely different thing.) I’d rather take my chances on not possessing a gun. (My dad would be displeased to hear this. “Have I taught you nothing??”)

*

I don’t know what the answers are. And maybe there isn’t a single solution. Maybe it’s a bunch of solutions that are ever evolving.

One of my students told the class that Australia banned guns altogether. Read here for a brief overview that was published a few days ago.

And yes, American gun culture is, well, a strange thing. I don’t know how to explain it to people outside of this country. The obsession. The unwillingness to have an actual conversation about saving lives by working towards prevention of lost lives (how messed up is that statement? Think about it: we need to prevent the loss of lives in order to save them. Is it me or does that sound backwards?) I still can’t believe (and yet I can) that nothing of significance has been done since the Sandy Hook shootings when children CHILDREN! were massacred. Then again, this is typical for a country that was built on the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans stolen from their homes. We’re a messed up country that has been, for a long time, in need of some serious therapy. Know any good psychotherapists?

And I haven’t even mentioned race and class yet. You know those factors weigh heavily on the issue of guns and ownership and laws. Two words for you: Philando Castile.

I’m not saying anything new. I didn’t start writing this with the intention of making some new discovery or making some profound statement. I am only trying to start a conversation. To talk about it in the open. To make friends with my discomfort in talking about guns. To explore the contradictions I hold within me: I want to practice pacifism, to demonstrate love towards everyone, no matter who you are, no matter how terrible you might seem to be. I want to try to be like Jesus (yeah, I said it.). But at the same time, part of me wants to hold a gun. (“That’s my girl” I hear my dad’s voice in my head.) Not to kill anyone, but to know what it feels like to wield power. Because really, that’s what guns do: they make people feel powerful.

So how do we extend love and power at the same time? How do we demonstrate that both can be achieved without guns, without violence?

I have no idea. But we need to start talking about it more boldly. Enough of this timidity. We need to start somewhere. And from there, DO something about it.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Art of the Mixtape, or the Soundtrack of Life

This is (late) Essay #38 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.

Music is my time machine.

I just made a mixtape.

Yeah, you read that right. And no, I don’t mean it in the figurative sense. I actually busted out the old boombox and made a literal mixtape on an actual cassette!

(I can’t believe that thing still works! I’m so excited! And yeah— I used to love making mixtapes so much that I bought tons of blank cassette tapes. So I found some still-wrapped cassettes in a box somewhere.)

*

The soundtrack of our lives. We know what this is.

It’s that moment you’re driving to work and out of nowhere SWV’s “Weak” comes on the radio (yes, you still listen to FM radio because you’re old school like that) and suddenly you’re transported to that summer you took a creative writing class at Rutgers before your junior year. You don’t remember much about what actually happened that summer. You only remember driving towards Frelinghuysen (ah, the River Dorms!) in your blue-gray Toyota Camry with all the windows down, blasting this song, singing along at the top of your lungs.

And it’s that time you’re in a bar, having a beer with a friend, talking about the poetry reading you just attended and suddenly Pearl Jam’s “Daughter” comes on. Boom! You’re back in that white passenger van, full of drunk college kids with your French professor at the wheel, barreling down narrow mountain roads past midnight on an icy-cold night, having just left a club in Geneva called L’usine, shooting across the Alps toward your hotel in Evian. Yes, you think. Yes, that really happened. Yes, you, an English major, took an economic course during a Winter session just to travel to France (If you must know, the course was looking at the economics of EuroDisney and Evian. But I suspect that the professors created this course for the sole purpose of traveling to France). And you remember the entire van singing along with slurred laughter. “Don’t call me dauuuugherrrr…”

*

Memory is triggered by our senses. There’s a specific smell to the building where I had most of my college classes: Pardee Hall. Once, I visited as an adult with a college friend and when we entered the building, we both commented on how suddenly, we were 19 again. And to describe the smell is impossible. Really. How does one describe the scent of a humanities building? It definitely smells different from a science building. What words does one use? “It smells like paper? Like concrete?” No, not quite.

Music is amazing. Like I said at the start: it’s my personal time machine. I can go to any time period I want. I just cue up a song and whammo! I’m there. Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” – woo, boy. That was an awkward time. Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus”? All funked-up, Doc Maarten-wearing, black-is-the-only-color Pinay. Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”? Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “If I Had a Hammer”? That might have been the very early stages of my hippie self (yeah, I said it: I’m a goddamn hippie! Hahaha! But a hip-hop head, too. So yeah. Make of that what you will.).

*
But what I really wanted to talk about is the mixtape. (Yeah, I’m gonna pull out my old lady card right now. Haha!)

There’s an art to making a mixtape. Sure, you’ve got the playlists. Just click and drag some songs into a file. You’re done. The mixtape? Well, it’s a little more involved.

First, there’s the songs themselves. Which ones do you put on the tape? What message do you want to communicate? Fun? Party? Crush? Love? Heartbreak? Breakup? (Yeah, there are breakup mixtapes. Instead of saying “I want to breakup with you”, you just hand them a tape.) (There are also the mixtapes that were passed around to promote DJs and upcoming bands and underground shit. That was some real good stuff! I miss those days of randomly finding a tape in my hands –this person gave it to this person who gave it to me— and loving it!)

Then there’s song order. Order is EVERYTHING. Not just in lyric message but in sound. Does this rock song seamlessly transition into the next ballad? There’s a lot of sound testing before the final order of the list is solidified.

Next, there’s the actual recording of the songs. Back in the day of tape decks (god, I sound like a legit old lady!! Bwahaha!), you’d record the song –whether you had the actual album on cassette or just recorded it off the radio. Then –at least this is what I used to do—you’d take the mixtape out and manually rewind a little of the tape before recording the next song in order to cut the dead airtime between songs.

Timing is everything. You need to know how long each song is so you can figure out how many songs to put on one side before flipping over to the other side. You also want to maximize that sound time. Unless, of course, you’re making a breakup tape and you only have a handful of songs to send the message. In that case, well, silence is probably your friend.

Think you’re done? Nope!

There’s the presentation of the mixtape itself. You need to take that little cardboard insert and write the list of songs. If there’s room and it’s important to you, you’ll include the artist/group with the song titles. Then, you need to name the mixtape. Ask yourself: what’s the meaning behind this collection of songs? I have a mixtape from college called “The A-10 Mix” – that was the name of my on-campus apartment and this mix was what my housemates and I listened to while getting ready to go out (Kids these days call it pre-gaming. What a funny word… Ah, spoken like a true old lady.). Not exactly the most inventive of titles, but you get the idea. You can also title each side, depending on your musical selections. One tape I had (the name of which escapes me right now) had Side A as “Daybreak” and Side B as “Evening”. I know! I know! Not exactly clever. But the songs on Side A were quicker and upbeat. Side B, you guessed it, were slow ballads. Sooo, yeah. You get the idea. And if you want, you can put the date on it too. I like knowing when a mixtape was born.

You think it stops there? Nope!

If you’re like me, girly and arts-and-crafty, well, you’re going to want to put something on the other side of that little cardboard insert. An image. Some words cut out of a magazine. Something visual. Visual to complement the audio. This is totally optional, but it adds to the message of your mixtape. Like with poetry, in a mixtape everything is intentional and carries meaning.

Hearing Pearl Jam’s “Daughter” got me nostalgic. I felt like 19 again. So I started listening to music from the early to mid 90s. And then I felt like making a mixtape. But this time I had digital help. While putting together a playlist isn’t quite as laborious as stacking tapes next to the tape deck, I don’t mind. I even got to choose the length of silence between the songs (I chose 2 seconds). No more manual turning of the magnetic tape.

So how did I make an actual cassette mixtape, you wonder? Well, I worked in technological reverse: playlist burned to CD. CD recorded to cassette tape. (And, I’ll tell ya: pressing the <Record> and <Play> buttons simultaneously on my old boombox brought such a big smile to my face.) Voila! Your mixtape!

Now, if only I can find that Walkman…

I call this my White Girl Mix. Don't judge me for my musical tastes! Brown Girl Mix coming soon!

Friday, September 22, 2017

Inheritance

This is (late) Essay #37 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.

When I was twelve, my dad taught me how to shoot a gun. I didn’t understand why nor did I question it; my brother and I simply went with him to the shooting range. It was matter-of-fact. It was like him teaching us how to tie our shoes: it was another basic lesson for life. Learn how to shoot a gun.

I didn’t grow up in a state where there were vast stretches of unpopulated land, where hunting was an everyday occurrence. I lived in New Jersey. A state comprised of scattered pockets of dense populations alternating with farmlands and forest. It’s not like I grew up in a neighborhood where everyone went out target shooting every weekend. It was just me and my brother learning how to shoot and care for a gun from my immigrant father, a man who did not serve time in the military. I’m not even sure where he learned to shoot and care for a gun. Maybe from his WWII veteran Bataan-death-march-surviving father.

I remember him teaching us how to hold it, how to load it, how to aim, how to brace for the kickback, how to reload. It was a .22 rifle, a manageable weapon for a 12-year-old.

“You need to be prepared,” he would tell us.

For what? I wondered.

He wasn’t teaching us the basics of gun use and safety for hunting purposes. He was preparing us for some unforeseen doomsday. A day he was sure would come. Like the second coming of Christ. We just didn’t know when. All he knew was that we needed to be prepared.

These days, I wonder if that day is closer than I think. (Some say the world is ending tomorrow, Sept 23rd. Are you ready??)

*

My parents left the Philippines right after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. The version they tell me of their immigration story isn’t what I imagine their reality to be. Their version sounds like a storybook: we came here for better opportunity, for the American Dream. I believe that to be partly true. I also believe that they have left out some important things. I imagine them fleeing their homeland; they tell me they just came over here because my dad was offered a medical residency in Ohio. My dad admitted later that he applied to every possible residency in the world just so he could get out. Sounds like flight to me.

I try to imagine what it might have been like to be given a small window to leave. To hurry, to get married, pack your things, and say goodbye to your family, not knowing if you’d see them again, not knowing if you’d see your homeland again. But knowing that this was your only shot out. And you needed to get out. Who knew what would happen if you stayed.

I think about this often when I consider what I have inherited from my dad.

Be prepared, he says. Not in the Boy Scout way, but in the “conspiracy-theorist-the-apocalypse-is-coming” kind of way. In a Doomsday Prepper kind of way. But with an immigrant’s flair.

The result?

I stock up on things. Just in case. Costco is my friend and enemy (aka frenemy). It is my biggest monthly expense. You never know when you’ll need 500 ziploc bags. Or when you’ll run out of toilet paper and not be able to make it to the store in time. But make sure that you use every bit of it (even the little shreds that are stuck to the cardboard tube) before you replace the roll. Do. Not. Waste.

Also, paranoia is mandatory.

Trust no one. Be suspicious of everyone. Trust must be earned; it is not automatically given. You must prove to me that you are trustworthy. Sometimes, though, I forget this lesson – I blindly trust and love folks who end up letting me down. And that sucks. Sometimes, though, sometimes folks surprise me.

Be able to defend yourself. That right to bear arms? Your best freaking friend. Well, at least my dad’s best friend.

*

How much do we inherit from our parents, our grandparents? Our great-grandparents and so on? Sure, we might get their eye color or their hair texture or height. But what about the invisible traits? A knack for financial management inherited from a (great-)grandmother who lived during the Depression? A muted feeling of being “on alert” inherited from a war veteran? There have been studies about how our genes change due to lived experiences like trauma, and how those genes carry these memories, get passed down through the generations.

I wonder: what am I passing on to my children? To my grandchildren?

I also find myself asking: do they need to know how to shoot a gun?

Sometimes you can’t shake loose your inheritance.



Sunday, September 17, 2017

Family of Strangers

This is (super-late) Essay #36 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.

I’ve been thinking about the definitions and ideas of family for a while. There’s the family you’re born into and then there’s chosen family. Generally speaking, for me, family is about being there for each other no matter what—no matter what the risk, what the cost. It’s about helping out without having to ask why. It’s about asking for help without having to offer a justification.

Asking for help is a big deal for a lot of people. It’s hard. It makes us feel like we’re in a position of vulnerability. For some, it makes us feel like we’re “less than” because we can’t do it on our own – we’re not self-reliant. It puts our egos in check.

Let me tell you something: asking for help is a human thing. It shows that we are not invincible –as much as many of us would like to think. But it also shows our need to connect with others. We are a communal species, as much as I would like to deny this because I always think about living in the woods by myself. I also find myself saying often: I hate people (haha! I joke. Kinda.). It’s hard being in the world, having to navigate so many different kinds of people, different personalities, different energies. But in the end, we crave human connection –whether it’s with one person or a group of people.

So when you find your people –those whose company you can’t live without, those who would do anything for you and vice versa—it is truly a gift. Your chosen family.

What about the family you’re born into?

Well, that’s a different matter.

Many of us are expected to get along with our blood families. “Blood is thicker than water” is often said when referring to the supposed unbreakable bonds of blood family. But what if we don’t get along with our given family? What if we try but it just doesn’t work? I mean, if you think about it, would you stick around with someone you just didn’t click with? Would you stick around with someone you barely knew? Probably not. So why do we stick around when it comes to family? Just because we share the same bloodline? (I want to note here that there is the matter of abusive relationships. I want to acknowledge that, but that’s for another post. Or for another person to write about. I’m just talking generally about familial relationships.)

*

I come from a family of strangers.

Do we know each other? I mean, do we really know each other as individuals? Nope. Not really. My parents are my parents, not actual people. My siblings are my siblings. Again, not actual people with individual and specific lives of their own. We see each other at family gatherings, like birthdays and christenings and funerals, but do we hang out with each other? No. (I don’t know how many families do this, but it seems that a lot of folks have ritualistic things like Sunday dinners to stay connected.)

This is weird to me. The fact that I don’t really know my family members as individuals. That they are strangers who just share the same bloodline. What does this say about the meaning of family? This doesn't fall into my definition of family. We just happen to be related. (To be fair, I do have a sense of who my parents are as individuals as I work to explore my personal history by talking to them about their lives – it’s more my siblings who feel like strangers.)

My brother, who is younger than me by a few years, is a complete stranger. It feels like he always has been. He keeps to himself. Ever since his high school years. Part of that perception could be that I was already away at college and just not around.

When we were kids, we were close in the way that a brother and sister can be: we fought hard and played hard. Because of him, I played with GI Joes and Transformers rather than Barbie dolls. Despite me being older, if I wanted a playmate, I had to play with boy things. There was no way I could convince him to play with dolls (though, it can be argued that GI Joes are dolls). It didn’t matter, though. I loved playing with boys stuff. I loved playing cops and robbers. Adventures across the hot lava. Cowboys and Indians (yeah, yeah. I know. I just cringed writing that!) The girly things were incidental. And when we fought, it was physical fighting. Hand-to-hand combat. Mostly me grabbing his hair and dragging him around the house. Shoving him into the bushes. I was older and taller. He was a puny thing.

Despite this, he understood family loyalty. Once, there was a neighborhood kid who was picking on me. My brother got mad, picked up a big jagged rock from the construction site of the new house next door, and threw it at the kid. The rock hit him square on the forehead. We all stood there, stunned. Then the kid started to cry. My brother and I ran. Hard. We were going to be in so much trouble. We hid in the garage, hearts beating in fear for our lives. Our dad would whip us real good with his belt. We just knew it. That might have been the last time we were in it together. (For the record, we didn't get into trouble. The other kid did. We got a scolding to not throw rocks, but the message was that we were in the right.)

Then my sister was born. Then we moved. Then I entered seventh grade (Worst. Grade. Ever.) And everything changed.

We didn’t play so much anymore. I was more a little mama than a sister, a playmate. I looked after him and my baby sister while my grandmother cooked dinner and my parents were at work.

When he got to middle school, he was doing his own weird things. Like skateboarding. I couldn’t understand the attraction. I watched him practice tricks in the driveway and thought: how stupid. Ah, the typical teenage girl talk. I was such a cliché! Still, there were moments when we’d joke around, laugh at silly things. I still knew who he was.

Then I went away to college. He started high school and made the wrestling team. Again, I thought it was weird (Why not basketball? I thought. I played basketball. You’re Filipino – you should play basketball!) but whatever – I was preoccupied by my own drama, trying to figure out college. My immigrant parents didn’t know what American college was so I was on my own – tossed into the deep end and told to learn how to swim. I couldn’t be bothered with what was going on at home when I was drowning.

And that was the beginning of the stranger.

I watched him struggle to find himself as he switched majors several times, transferred from one college to another to another, moved through various jobs in retail. The one constant I saw was his love for art, for drawing. I tried to encourage him to pursue that, but like most college kids, the focus was on preparing for a career that made money. And soon, because of this and many other factors (like me moving to the city), the distance between us grew into a canyon.

Fast-forward to today and I hardly know this person who has the same parents as me. I don’t know what he does for fun when it’s not winter (he love snowboarding, this much I know.) I don't know what he does on the weekends. I know the names of a couple of his friends, but I wouldn’t know them if I physically bumped into them. I was thinking about this when, recently, one of his friends tagged him in photos on Facebook. I looked at the photos and thought: this is my brother? This is (part of) his life? Who is this stranger? It was weird. But it also showed me just how much of a stranger he was to me.

Did I mention that he keeps to himself? It’s very had to talk to him, to even make small talk (and I *hate* small talk). Most of the time, when he’s at my house, I don’t say much at all. What does one say to someone who is a stranger but not? Heck, I have an easier time talking to a complete stranger!

What got me thinking about writing this essay was something that happened earlier this week. I had asked if he could hang out with my kids one night this weekend so that Hubs & I could go out to dinner for our anniversary. (My parents were attending a wedding.) His reply? “As soon as you start paying me.” Uh, what? (In my head, my response to that was: “Then you need to start paying me for all the food you eat at my house.”)

Now, I could give him the benefit of the doubt: he was in a really bad mood. But you know what? I don’t give a shit. Since when does ANYBODY expect payment to spend time with your nieces?! But also? This reveals to me who he really is. His priorities are himself and money. And that’s too bad. What really sucks? My kiddos love hanging out with him. But if I have to pay their uncle to play with them? Unfortunately, it’ll be a long time before that happens again.

I’m really beside myself on this one. Clearly, I have underestimated the level of “stranger” at play here. But now that the cards are on the table, I know how to move forward.

“Family” is a really charged and complex word with varying meanings and expectations that are always in flux. Which, I guess, is par for the course seeing as that to be human is to be in constant change, constant flux. We just need to learn how to embrace that, to go with the flow, to adapt. But it's a big let down when family sometimes doesn't turn out to be what you thought it was.

I am grateful, truly, for those in my life who carry the label “family” with loving-kindness and generosity. Family who are not strangers. Life would be much harder without them. Because of them, I am blessed.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Tattoos

This is (super-late) Essay #35 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.

“It makes you look dirty. Like you need a good scrub brush in the bathtub.” This was what my parents said about tattoos. Dumi. Dirt.

When I was in my early teens, I played around with the idea of a tattoo. It looked cool. Rebellious. I don’t know if I actually wanted one at that time – I was just fascinated by how they looked on people and what that inked skin might mean for them. I also thought about the pain they must have withstood in order to get these tattoos. It must be really important to that person to want to go through pain willingly. And to know that the marking was permanent.

But then my parents words, repeated over and over, each time we came across someone who had a tattoo, started to stick in my brain:

Who gets tattoos? Dirty people. Trashy people. Low-class people. Why would you want to mess up what God gave you? Why would you defile the temple of your soul? He makes all things perfect. Why would you want to mark yourself like that? Brand yourself like cattle? Only good-for-nothings, drug dealers, drug addicts, and rough bikers get tattoos. Only losers get tattoos.

As a straight-A, perfectionist Asian girl, daughter of immigrants, I most certainly wasn’t any of those. Which meant I most certainly wasn’t going to get a tattoo. Ever.

So I continued the family tradition: to judge people as my parents did: tattoos are dirty and only dirty—sometimes scary, threatening-looking—people have them.

Still, my fascination persisted. Just below the radar, in the way back of my mind. What is it about marking your skin permanently? And to endure pain for it? How does this act demonstrate a kind of devotion or dedication to the thing that one chooses as a tattoo? How much thought goes into it? (There are, of course, those impulsive tattoos in which not much thought is given. What, also, does this say?)

I used to be shy about asking people the story of their tattoos. Heck, I was shy even trying to look at them! I would sneak glances, pretending to look at other things nearby. It never occurred to me that people who get tattoos want you to look at them. And if they didn’t want you to look? They would’ve picked a different location on the body. Somewhere hidden.

In Melissa Febos’s book, Abandon Me, she writes about her tattoos in the essay “All of Me” and how they serve as reminders of her scars, of past pains. New people started coming into my life who bore tattoos as a declaration: this is who I am and whom I love – don’t like it? Too bad. Then I started noticing that almost everyone around me had a tattoo. Was there a tattoo boom and I missed the memo?

These people were not dangerous or “dumi”. They were yogis, poets, suburban moms, academics, young professionals. The stories they told about their tattoos ranged from beautiful to funny. One friend has a tattoo that she got in her younger years— one of a moustache on her index finger, so she could put it under her nose for fun. I laughed when she told me, loving it so much because it spoke to her playful spirit.

The other night, another friend told me about his plans to get a tattoo. He’s not some twentysomething who’s trying to figure out his life; he’s a man in his fifties who has recently found yoga and wants to have a permanent reminder of how much yoga has changed his life, a way for him to stay on this path. I laughed when he told me because –yes, I too, have been thinking about getting a tattoo.

What's funny is that people are surprised to learn that I don't have any. We know what my assumptions were about people with tattoos. So for others to assume that I have a tattoo *somewhere* on my body -- what does this say about their opinion of tattoos and the kind of people who have them? And how do I fit into that opinion? (Not that I care, but instead, I'm curious.)

Know this about me: I am a visual person. I learn better visually. I can sight-read music like nobody’s business. I get mentally crowded when I am surrounded by clutter (which is most of the time –don’t get me started!—but imagine how much more amazing I could be if I wasn’t mentally crowded!) I need visual reminders. Handwritten to-do lists are my thing (things get lost in my head all of the time!).Vision boards rock my world. A tattoo? A visual reminder and a testament of devotion. For me, if I were to get one, that’s what it would be. A tattoo of what? Well, I have a few ideas…