toastmasters

in fifth grade she stumbled in;
met blonde-haired,
blue-eyed
America.

traded calligraphic characters,
ink and brush,
for foreign-sounding syllables,
exchanging L’s and R’s
like she could trade her accent for respect.

changed her name to something more
pronounceable.
didn’t know that
her name wasn’t the only foreign thing about her.

fast forward years and lives and loves later.

she still stumbles,
catches herself,
but questions nothing.

she is told to make speeches,
writes the sentences herself,
recites words from memory;

asks for my help,
but she does not need it.

she knows
she does not need to sound perfect
to have something to say.

Why We Should Stay: Work and Commitments

When you’re a young twenty-something, there are few things you have had the choice to commit yourself to outside of school.  Formal education was kind of a forced thing, and though you might have loved school, it wasn’t necessarily a decision made entirely on your own.

But, there comes a time when you get to decide things for yourself–how you spend your time and who you decide to spend your time with.

We’re not like our parents’ generation.  We move in and out of jobs, switch career paths, decide on a different course.  It’s not necessarily negative or positive, in my opinion.  And even in my case, I didn’t stick with my first job out of college for too long.  Though I interned previously at Tiyya, I just wanted professional work experience in a non-profit organization, working on direct services.  And I moved on after my contracted year as I thought I should.

I left that job last October.  But, I stayed on as an advisory committee member, then a fundraising committee member, and event planner to help out where & when I can.

For a while, I felt weird about staying–volunteering my time because I thought I should be focusing on getting ready for graduate school or whatever else.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to stay, but my peers were moving a mile a minute, and I felt stuck.  The nasty vein of comparison crept in.  People were getting degrees, new jobs, new homes, new partners. It just felt like too much.

But, every time I volunteered for a Tiyya event or saw those I worked with previously, it just made me so happy.  I forgot that by typical Millenial standards, I wasn’t necessarily supposed to still be there.

The idea that we need to climb invisible ladders and move up and out…it’s complete shit.

Honestly, we should all be so lucky to find an environment that makes us feel happy and needed.  Upon reflection, I think I was exceptionally naïve in thinking that I could dig deep into an organization with so much heart and love, and not get attached.  It still baffles me how I thought I should just leave.

I’m not saying that every person who works briefly somewhere should remain working for that organization or company for the sake of being committed.  But, what I am saying, is that when you do that, it’s not a bad thing.  You aren’t being tied down or sucked in.  Sometimes maintaining a commitment you enjoy, even when your peers are doing other things, can be rewarding and enriching.

By remaining involved in Tiyya, I think about every volunteer, intern, and staff member I interacted with, and I am just so grateful.  And every refugee, immigrant, and asylum seeker who I laughed and cried with taught me so much beyond what a typical year of experiences could give.  It is only fair and right that I continue that commitment and embrace the joy it brings me.

If my two years of interning, working, and volunteering at Tiyya has taught me anything, it’s that the best things happen when the people involved truly believe in what they’re doing.  And if you believe in what you’re doing, you’ll stay in some way.  I’m here to say to anyone who thinks they need to play into the rat race, that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with staying.  You are not stuck.  Because who is to say that we are stuck when we are fulfilled, when we are happy?

With Tiyya, I got “stuck”. And it was the best damn thing that could have ever happened to me.

Magic Mic: When [Immigrant] Womxn Are Loud and Unapologetic

I’m transfixed by a line I’ve seen drawn multiple times, in varied angles and tones, for girls and young womxn.  On one side, I have experienced countless examples of strong, multi-dimensional womxn who were and are vocal leaders.  But sometimes, those womxn also veer into the other side.  And why shouldn’t they?  They are human, after all.  But, it is troubling that the side that often wins out in times that matter is the one that tells us that our voice may matter, but it doesn’t matter quite as much as someone else’s [read: a man’s].  We are told more times than not to be strong, vocal, and fearless only to an extent–to not let our bravery and strong-will frighten or emasculate a man.  Because if our voices are too loud, they’ll be unappealing.  This has been reinforced in both subtle and very overt ways. It would be naïve of me to conclude that my cultural upbringing has no bearing on how such a paradox exists.  I feel like if I want to understand this constant struggle on a broader level, I then need to look internally and at my immediate surroundings.

As a child, I don’t recall a time when I was ever told by my parents that I couldn’t do something because of my gender.  They never said I couldn’t wear a certain color or do a certain activity or play with a certain toy because I was a girl.  And while they never sat me down and said outright, “Christina, you should be able to do or say whatever comes to mind because you are a smart, capable girl,”  they told me in little ways that what I thought and what I had to say mattered, even if I didn’t think it might.

This nurtured me into a pretty confident womxn.  Not to say I was or am fearless, because fear is a wonderful motivator.  But, I became motivated despite fear.  The womxn in my family taught me to be that way.  Not because they are self-proclaimed feminists, but because I think their very survival depended on their confidence and motivation.  Womxn, especially immigrant womxn, are taxed with an incredibly difficult responsibility to nurture, cultivate, and defend.  And they do all of this while instilling a strange sense of traditional patriarchy.  It is a constant source of confusion for me.

My maternal grandmother raised her children nearly on her own, coming to the US without her husband to raise my mother and her siblings.  She worked odd jobs, isolated and unable to speak English.  Her determination and tremendous sacrifices taught us all how important it is to value yourself, your family, and your education.  My mother was raised, essentially, in a very matriarchal household dominated by womxn.  And yet, despite such an upbringing and sense of strength, I believe that culturally, we were still taught that for womxn, speaking up too much or talking too loudly shouldn’t be done often, if at all.

When I visit home and see my grandmother, we can’t exactly understand each other due to language differences, but we understand our tone and we understand the past.  We talk about expectations, or rather she tells my mother about her expectations of me as a womxn and as a granddaughter.  In one instance, my mother translated that my grandmother said my voice was too loud–like thunder.  It would, in essence, detract the right kind of company.

And it’s funny to me, because here is this womxn who had to be thunderous and loud and prove to everyone that she could raise her children on her own and protect them from the perils of the world.  Several months ago, I would have taken much more offense to her remark.  But I think I get it.  She had to fight to be heard, to support our lives here, to just be.  She had to be this way in order for us to survive–why would she want that kind of fight for me?

But, what I think she and many other immigrant mothers and grandmothers fail to understand is that having a voice like thunder has helped us more than hindered, and it can continue to help us. We should never apologize for being loud, for protecting our right to be heard.  And although they fought and yelled to be heard, it doesn’t mean we have to stop there.  I don’t think womxn should just be heard.  We should be validated and consulted and included in everything having to do with us.  And maybe my grandmother is tired, as any womxn who has gone through her struggles might be.  But, her being tired motivates me even more to speak more loudly, more clearly, with more conviction.

So instead of thinking my thunderous voice is a weakness or a criticism, I will say thank you.  I will smile and tell my grandmother in broken Cantonese or via my mother that my loud voice is a tribute to her and the sacrifices she never wanted to make, but knew she had to.  And if she ever saw thunder* strike the sand, like in that scene from Sweet Home Alabama, she would know that womxn like us create beauty out of our strength and through our voice.  And that is not something I will ever want to change nor would I ever apologize for.

*technically in Sweet Home Alabama, it was lightning, but who’s really keeping track?

 

Chinese Amer-I-can’t Deal With This Question Anymore

I have been having issues as of late with the idea of ethnic and national identity. I have always considered myself Chinese American, or Asian American in broader contexts. I still think those labels define me adequately, and yet there is something very unnerving about the ways in which others react to my identity.

The most common question I get, right after “so, what ethnicity are you?”* is the dreaded, “You speak Chinese, right?”

I always smile a pained, forced smile and shake my head no.

That question is one of the most irritating, ostracizing questions I get. And I’ll tell you why.

That question constantly reminds me that I am out of place—that my fragmented identity is, in fact, a reality; that I am neither fully Chinese nor fully American; that no part of me belongs anywhere.

When a person asks me if I speak Chinese, they already assume they know the answer. They know how the conversation will go. They think I will say “yes”, that my parents or I immigrated to America fairly recently (within the past twenty years), and that I speak it at home. Maybe I’ll make a joke about a Chinese curse word or my parents’ inability to clearly enunciate the “l” sound. We’ll laugh and move on with our conversation.

But, the thing is, that is not how the conversation goes because that narrative is not my family’s or my own.

Assuming I speak Chinese automatically otherizes me in the eyes of the asker. If I speak Chinese, it makes sense to them. It’s as if they’re saying, “Oh, so you speak Chinese. You’re not really American—you’re Chinese.” And, if I speak honestly and say that I do not speak Chinese, at home or anywhere else, the immediate follow-up by the asker is when my parents immigrated to the United States. My own history and life is not the topic of conversation. My being born in America suddenly has no bearing on if I’m considered American or not.

My issue with this is not isolated or a standalone situation. America, a cultural melting pot (though now I think people are using the metaphor of some kind of mixed salad), has produced a generation, my generation, of people that are excluded from specific cultural contexts. The problem with being Chinese, but not Chinese enough; American, but not American enough, is a universal in the immigrant and descendants of immigrant community. You would think that after twenty-two years of living, I’d have come to terms with this state of limbo—of navigating between cultures and contexts. But, no matter how old you get, I think cultural identity is something you will always struggle with.

Further, aside from this personal struggle with identity, the question of native languages connotes the issue of belonging, which has historical proportions. Chinese immigrants were by no means welcomed with open arms. The denigration of the Chinese through dehumanization and exploitation of labor should not be taken lightly. Surviving in such an unwelcoming environment meant working as hard and as fast at becoming “American”. It meant blending in. And blending in meant speaking English and being as close to your white counter parts in dress, language, and mannerisms as possible.   It was the only way to escape the bullying and harassment that came with being a Chinese immigrant (or any immigrant, really).

It is why my father doesn’t speak Chinese fluently, and why my brother and I never learned. It is why growing up, I naively conveyed confusion and slight embarrassment that my mother’s mother never learned English after over forty years in the United States. It is why not one of her ten grandchildren can have legitimate conversations with her and why she still laughs at me when I struggle to convey affection in broken Cantonese. It is true irony when you uproot your family to find a better life, only to realize that that life includes ten grandchildren you can never communicate with.

In short, it matters a great deal to me that I cannot speak Chinese because it is a symbol and a symptom of the oppression of my ancestors, of the collateral damage we all have from being children of immigrants.

It is also a constant reminder that in my life, no matter how hard I try, I will never be Chinese enough or American enough to even the most well trained eye.

So, the next time you ask a question about speaking my mother tongue as some form of introduction by saying, “It’s curiosity. It’s just a simple question meant to spark conversation.” I will not smile and nod. I will be sure to tell you otherwise.


* I could dedicate an entire collection of blogs on this. The worst part about the “what ethnicity are you?” question is when people try to guess before you answer by running down the list of every single type of Asian ethnicity they can think of. And when you finally confirm one, they say, “I knew it!”

How on earth was it so glaringly obvious to you if you had to guess a number of different countries before you landed on the right one? It’s not that hard either—China is the biggest Eastern Asian country there is. You do not win a prize for boiling my ethnic and cultural identity down to a super fun guessing game.