young, humorous, and grieving

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That Which Is Indestructible

Assault comes up. Sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s as simple mentioning to my friend M that I’m surprised she’s only had positive sexual experiences, since she’s had numerous, numerous sexual partners.

“Yeah, I mean, I’ve had friends, you know, who’ve been assaulted, raped, or, or molested. I had a friend who got roofied twice.”

“Wwwhhhaatt?” D says.

“Yeah, but there have definitely been times when guys have been really, aggressive,” she says to me, her eyes widening, “and I’m just like, ‘nope’ and I leave before anything happens. I think it’s because I was taught to be assertive.”

“Some girls, that kind of stuff would just happen because they wouldn’t want to be rude and say they’re uncomfortable,” D says.

“I’ve always been, definitely, very assertive and I think that’s why that kind of thing hasn’t happened to me,” she says.

“Way to go,” D says and throwing his hand across the table, they high five.

I feel my throat tighten, my smile stick. A second ago I was buzzed bravado, my voice bouncing along the walls of our booth in this dark bar, but I don’t know what to say. “Good for you?” I hear hints of “They could have avoided it,” “They should have known better,” and my mind goes blank. They make it all sound easy. I think it’s all such luck.

I bike quickly home afterwards, slowing down on hills, breathing out hard as I rethink this exchange. The question I’ve asked myself alot over the past five years since I broke up with Izzo, rattles around, “How did I let this happen to me?” “Why didn’t I do the right thing?” The right thing is always not being emotionally abused, not feeling scared and guilted into sex, not continuing to date someone after they tell you if you don’t have sex with them you don’t care about them and therefore there is no point in living.

I scowl and think, “They don’t know what it was like. They like to think if they had been in my shoes they would have acted differently, but who’s to say who they’d be in my shoes? Who’s to say if this ‘assertiveness’ or ‘rebelliousness’ they’ve attributed to many great acts, this foundation of who they are, who’s to say which way it would turn? They can’t know who they would have been with my upbringing, what parts of them are truly unbreakable.

I don’t want to be angry at anyone for the stories they tell themselves to believe they are who they want to be. Could I have acted differently? Maybe? I don’t want to hate who I was back then. She was me, she still is me, and I didn’t know better. I failed myself frequently, daily in the past, and I still wished it didn’t happen, but fuck, is it my fault? Yes, no, no, yes.

I can imagine, if it had all turned out differently, attributing some steadfast internal quality to why I was never assaulted or abused. Telling others I’ve always been a strong person, that that strength kept me out of those situations. I would thank it for getting me through adolescence sexually unscathed, but now, looking back, I see my strength was directed elsewhere. It was what helped me get through each of those days when my family thought my dad would die. It is still what helps me live independently from my family, in another state, working towards goals which will be achieved through my hard work. We don’t know how our core will serve us.


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July 15th, 2015 – Baba’s Lunar Birthday

Today is my father’s birthday. He would have been 73. I imagine him the same way – slower, in a chair, a sweater tied around his neck, my mom, rounding into 60 buzzing around, clearing dishes away, bringing him carpet samples for a new investment rental, the one she bought alone instead, painting the upstairs bedroom floors a type of “colonial periwinkle.”

For the first time my mom emailed us to commemorate it, ending with, “During our time together – your Father shared his best qualities with us and we are so grateful to him for our time together!”

I think about our last family vacation, Oren, Evan’s new boyfriend, sitting with us around the old cabin’s dining table, asking us to tell stories about Baba.

“Evan, obviously has told me many stories about him, and I can tell how much love everyone must have for him through the love I see you all have for each other.”

“He was so cute,” Evan says.

“Yeah, it was hard to get mad at him,” Julian says from across the table.

I look Oren in the eye, leaning forward slightly, my chest touching the edge of the table where I sit at the head, “No it wasn’t.”

Everyone laughs.

“Classic,” Julian says.

“What? Baba was a great man, obviously, he led an amazing life, but we can’t pretend he wasn’t one of the most difficult people, I at least, will ever meet. He was extremely hard to please, very opinionated, old school. It doesn’t mean we didn’t love him, but we don’t have to forget the other sides of him just because he’s gone.”

Evan smiles at me while Oren nods. He teaches non-violent communication, he’s not going to invalidate my feelings. In that moment I feel the curtain everyone else has drawn around their memories. The faded light, the forgiveness, the forgetfulness even, maybe.

I take a sip of my water and I’m outside my work, reading this email again, trying not to cry in front of people walking by on the corner, in front of the dog lying next to her owner’s feet at the table next to mine.

Were those his best qualities? Is that the right question to ask of anyone you have loved and called family? I think it’d be better to accept that those were their best qualities, but also their worst, that hopefully if we were close enough to them we saw them all, that we saw all that was Baba, not just the best parts, the parts most easily marketed to the hippy ex-best friends he first met in America, the retail workers charmed by his accent and generosity.

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Why Don’t You Talk About Your Father?

“You said people would never understand,” my therapist says. “You were talking about the fear people have that prevents them from opening up to others, that it makes you sad. Are you afraid to talk about your father? And if it is fear, I’m not saying it necessarily is, where does that come from?”

My father, Baba. There are not many reasons why I don’t open up to people about Baba, why I write about him sparingly these days, why I’d rather focus on the evolution of my life in Portland or my heart. Those relationships will encounter new action, dialogue, easy, pithy anecdotes, my relationship with Baba is now solely for my digestion. I can reinterpret past events, think of new questions, but the food will still be the same.

Am I afraid people won’t understand? Is it possible to be afraid of something you take for granted? I guess my answer to that would be yes, I know death awaits me, but I still fear it. I grew up knowing none of my friends were having similar experiences. Friends were not comforting their mother the fourth time he was sent into the hospital for water retention, studying GRE vocabulary words for fun with their brother on the way to the herbalist every day all summer. I knew Baba’s sickness made me different and I hated him for it. It wasn’t enough I had to be culturally different from everyone in our town, that it could be seen in my wardrobe, my pronunciation of “r,” that I grew up without any neighborhood friends, no, now I had to have a dying father. It was the kind of selfish anger I don’t blame myself for.

When people ask me about my father I start with a few details.

“He died a few years ago.”

“He was from China.”

Then move on.

“He was…very interesting. He escaped from China during the Cultural Revolution, became a monk in Thailand and then came to the U.S.”

“He was…probably the most difficult person I’ve ever known.”

Probably a little more.

“He had heart disease, he was sick for a very long time.”

If I’ve been drinking.

“I always wanted a normal dad, you know, he was so difficult, but I was told I should always do what he asks because he might die soon, but that meant I couldn’t argue with him ever. I don’t know, I have a lot of mixed feelings about him, it really depends on what angle you take, if I tell it one way you’d think he was the greatest person ever. If he were alive and visited I’m sure he’d make you love him. But there was the other side of him, the tyrant, always hours upon hours of lectures about what we would have become were we raised in China. My family doesn’t talk about it much, but my sister and I have talked about how we have trouble deciding probably because Baba made us feel our ideas weren’t valid if they didn’t match his. Sorry, I’ve been talking a lot.”

I still wonder what he’s doing sometimes. I wonder what he’d want to talk to me about if he were still alive. I think about how he probably would have the same habits – calling and telling me what was new in his life (property being scouted, medicine, new herbal miracle), then getting off the phone without ever asking me about my own; buying too many Chinese New Year candies and dried fruit; wanting a quilt with him in the car on our long family vacations. They would still annoy me. I don’t imagine him changing at all from who he was when he died. I miss him infinitely. And I know I never won’t. I know he was our sun. How did we continue going. Being strong, that’s what he taught us, probably preparing us to support Mom after his death. Tai agrees with everything she says, supports any fun idea she has. The Enabler. Julian is the manly man who is there to solve her problems, devoted to her. The Hero. Evan tries to ground her, progress past her exhaustion. The Staff. I try to fix her the way I fix myself, build up in her what I want built up in myself. The Therapist.

Of all the things I could confide in someone about, Baba feels the most legitimate. By that I mean, no one thinks you’re over-reacting if you’re sad about your dead dad. People don’t know what to say, but no one will ever compare it to “what’s going on somewhere else” and make you feel bad.

I don’t tell people because it is so personal, private, it’s mine. I don’t need to know if it’s part of a larger pattern of loss. I don’t need to know this is part of the human condition. I treasure my loss in a way, the pain is pure, untouched, it makes sense to me. It keeps me separate, an individual, it’d be like trying to explain to someone what being Chinese means to me. I could mention facts, wider cultural context, history, but it’s like explaining the ocean to someone who has only ever seen water out of the tap. You can explain, but they’ll never really know what it feels like flowing through their fingers. They’ll never know the clean chasm of loss until they’re in it, until they feel it inside of themselves. The hot ragged edges of anger when you think of all the time others have, think of who Baba was in the world, all that he’d done, all that he was, how much bigger he was than anyone else you knew.

I’m not worried about not talking about Baba. If I wanted to talk about him I would, if I wanted to explain to someone what his loss means to me, I would. I don’t fear talking about him, I simply don’t want to. I haven’t found someone I trust enough to remain there in that space with me, not make me want to move us to another estate, not feel like they’re trespassing. It’s a small room, and I’ll open the door. I don’t need to force myself to show anyone else. It’s a quiet, dark room the size of a large closet. The walls are lined with the type of silk fabric that wrapped Baba’s statues when they were sent overseas. It billows out, comfortingly, you’re always brushing against it. I kneel in the room, I hold a candle, and I cry and think about Baba.

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Cultural Pathology

Z prided himself on independence to the point where he wouldn’t want me to take his letters to the post office. As we were wrapping things up he mentioned that I was probably codependent and it’d be good for me to be alone (this didn’t sound as harsh in person). I was in the typical post-relationship “what is wrong with me?” mindset and thought I’d give the label of codependent a try. Firstly, I’m not sure how much he knows about that label, I think he sees pain at separation as a sign of codependence. Or maybe it’s the fact I can be a homebody and if we were to “do something,” it would normally require him choosing and manifesting a plan. It could be because I understand the virtues of independence, but judge activities done with others as generally more enjoyable. What to him were warning signs, I thought as simply a part of my culture.

Here are some commonly accepted characteristic of codependency: low self-esteem, people-pleasing, poor boundaries, reactivity, caretaking, using control to feel safe, dysfunctional communication, obsession with others and/or your relationship with them, dependency on others to make you feel good about yourself, denial, problems with intimacy (unable to be close or accept need for separateness), and painful emotions as a result of shame and anxiety.

Growing up, these behaviors weren’t suspicious to me, but markers of the kind of collectivist mentality instilled in me by my Chinese father. Baba believed in acting like a unit. He was the head of a snake and we were to fall in line. Being together was seen as vastly more important than individually doing what you wanted. Pleasing him, and other elders, was my job as a younger person. I was to follow their orders and even predict what would please them before they did, like prepare coffee to have on hand if they asked. Feelings, which would hinder my ability to follow directions, were to be hidden as a sign of inner rebellion. Resisting was unsightly, unfortunate and something not to be indulged. I was in control of my attitude and therefore responsible for it leaning me towards happiness or dissatisfaction. Having a “good attitude” was part of maintaining control over our feelings. A good attitude was meant to be armor against any affliction. Powerful emotions are chinks in that protection, exposing the inability to control oneself and be invulnerable. Pleasing Baba and my mom, finding self worth in our position as part of the family was exalted. Our highest aim was to be good members of the family, to make them proud, uphold the Wong name. Putting the family before yourself was seen as the greatest attribute, a true indicator of your love, devotion and incorporation of there, and thus our, ideals.

Part of upholding the Wong name was by being a good Buddhist. As a good Buddhist you can’t ignore one of the Four Noble Truths, that attachment (which always comes with life) leads to suffering and only through realizing the impermanence of the things which we desire can we reach enlightenment and end this constant cycle of pain. This puts the responsibility for a person’s suffering squarely on their shoulders, it is not the culture or system which has to change, the pain is an inevitable part of life; you can only change how you are affected by it. In terms of our family dynamics it was subtly implied that everyone but Baba needed to work on their attachment to their ego and desires. This unenlightened attachment caused strife and conflict, if we gave it up, accepted the suffering an inevitable byproduct, we could easily compromise. The more detached from our needs and desires, the better we were truly absorbing our Buddhist lessons.

One of these lessons was we are all interconnected. There is no true “I,” no way to be independent from those who have come before you and those around you who, unseen, constantly contribute to your daily life. A person cannot succeed alone because you can’t ignore all the people who manifested the very environment in which you act. Even the bad and the good are interlocked, leaning on each other, never existing alone. This often came to mean my happiness depended on that of others’ and on the existence and actions of so many others around me. Only by ensuring the happiness of those around me could I make my own secure.

Now, as an adult, I am supposed to be independent, that’s what Western culture expects of me. My desires and actions are meant to spontaneously and originally come from me. There is no wisdom of the elders in this mindset. Codependent. I should express my emotions and desires even if they are inconvenient to the group. Expressing my feelings to my family should be more important than trying to good-naturedly go along. If I deny my feelings, hoping they go away on their own, I am not being true to myself. Codependent. Act out of familial obligation? Codependent.

It’s hard when parts of your culture in the US are closely tied to a mental disorder.

I struggle between my Chinese ideals and those of the West. Both sides are glaring in their contradictions. To the Chinese there is no way to separate yourself from your origin, neglect your role as a daughter or sister, your bloodline, your history, it is a huge part of who you are and who you should appear to those around you. In the West people remake themselves daily, they strike out on their own with no family, they have no Makers to point to in their success, they are their own person, solo. Westerners pride themselves on stories of people who were constantly being doubted by those around them, the underdog, who succeeded against all odds, even the lack of support from their loved ones.

It is hard not to feel pride in the very actions I am trying to suppress, actions I was taught make me a good Chinese daughter and sister, but which are problematic in comparison to who I am supposed to be at 25. Is this the final frontier of assimilation? Adopting your cultural ideals as signs of psychological disorders, or as boundaries to true personhood?

It is hard not to think that in China these traits would be seen as signs of good breeding rather than those of an undesirable partner. If you look for research on codependency in China you will most likely come across scores of news articles about US-China economic codependency. Clearly the epidemic of codependency hasn’t crossed the ocean quite yet. In much the way history is decided by those who write it, it’s become obvious our medical diagnosis are partly molded by the cultural values of those in control of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). However, we are educated not to see the possible cultural bias lurking behind the sciences. In this way we experience a type of medical imperialism, being treated for disorders defined and diagnosed by a system steeped in a Western independent mindset.

While I’d love to rack up my interpersonal issues as another byproduct of The White Man, a cultural misunderstanding or misappreciation, it will never be that simple. Both cultures have values which could lead to happiness. For instance, trying to convince my entire family we are all too codependent will never work, many of those patterns were forged as coping mechanisms or more permanently as cultural indicators. Rather than diagnosing and dismissing, I have to do the harder work. The work of re-examining behaviors, seeing which are true to me in the moment, trying to untangle hard behavioral patterns from current desires. Perhaps I blame this rethinking on my cultural upbringing when it’s really a part of growing up. I can’t help feeling that way when I’m in my therapist’s, maybe I’m not fucked up, maybe I’m really like anyone else.