Cultural Loss Over the Years

Tomorrow is the Lunar New Year or, as we’ve been calling it for many years, Chinese New Year.

My memories of this holiday growing up are vivid. My mother would spend days scouring the house from top to bottom like a mad woman, because a huge part of the tradition is to clean out the old and presumably evil spirits in order to ring in the new year on a literally clean slate. With a traditional (read: didn’t lift a finger) husband who was always at work anyway and two uncooperative children who couldn’t see the point, my mother was at her crankiest on the days leading up to New Year’s. Every year we spent those final days of the year wishing we could have our old mom back.

Then there were the rules. We had to get our hair cut the week before New Year’s, even when we didn’t need a haircut. We weren’t allowed to say anything remotely hinting of ill fate or that included any version of the word death (as in “Ha ha ha, you’re killing me!” or “Wow, I would die for those shoes!”). Worst of all, we were forbidden to shower, bathe, or wash our hair on New Year’s Day lest we cleansed all the good that had by then reached our bodies (which only led to more cursing about how we were going to die of stink).

And there was the food, lots of it. Chinese New Year is celebrated on not just one day but over a period of two weeks. We had an enormous dinner on New Year’s Eve and another large meal on New Year’s Day to “open” the year. Two weeks later, we would close out the celebrations with another final large dinner.

My brother and I met these meals with some groaning. Because Chinese New Year dinner is not spring rolls and sesame chicken and sweet and sour pork (well, not that my mother ever made those dishes (they’re not real Chinese food, you know)). New Year dinner was a big, pimply, ghost-white chicken with its loopy head and neck still on the plate. It was dishes and dishes of healthy blandness that we normally never saw during the year, with ingredient names like “dizzy ear” and unidentifiable foods that looked like tangled hair.

Chinese New Year, to me, was a lot of Chinese-ness that went against my whole plan to be American and “normal.” So I mopped the floor (reluctantly) and skipped the showers (until I was brave enough to dare the evil spirits to take me on) and ate the bloody chicken (there was literally still some blood in the cracks of the bones). Until about fifteen years ago, which is the last time I celebrated Chinese New Year. Because of my time in Japan and then my work schedule, I haven’t been back to spend any of the holidays with my parents in all these years.

During this time, of course, I’ve formed a family of my own. We’re a tri-cultural family now living in America and following American traditions. Lack of access to ingredients, information, and shared celebratory spirits is one major reason. There’s also the lack of confidence. My Singaporean friend suggested getting together for New Year dinner, and I immediately felt overwhelmed at the prospect of cooking for the occasion. I wouldn’t know where to start. What to cook? How to cook it? How to shop for ingredients?

But maybe saddest is my lack of connection. I’d spent so much of my youth rejecting my heritage, seeing and looking for all the parts that threatened my chances of being accepted in America. By the time I became more curious about my Chinese roots, I’d already distanced myself too much. I sometimes view the Chinese culture now the way any foreigner would.

I only realized how far I was when Fred once remarked, in a crowd of Chinese people, that he and I were the only non-Chinese. He knew he was American and he knew he was Japanese, but he did not know that a significant part of him has its roots in China.

But is this something that I need to worry about? Why does it need to be important for me to maintain my heritage, when obviously I had made my choices long ago in terms of how to live and who I wanted to live as? I think the sadness for me is that in loosening my connection to my heritage, I feel I am losing some part of a shared identity with my parents. We all disconnect in some ways and to some degree as we mature into adulthood. Being on the other side of the cultural divide within my own family just seems more severe, an ultimately necessary part of feeling at home in my own country but a division I hadn’t anticipated.

Disillusionment in marriage, home, and life: The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic is Julie Otsuka’s 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novella about Japanese picture brides trying to start new lives in California during the first half of the 20th century.

The book opens with the young women’s journey at sea. They are frightened, nervous, hopeful, excited, and uncertain about what awaits them. They are from different walks of life and from different parts of Japan, but they all have in their hands (or in the sleeves of their kimonos) the photos of hope: handsome, young men who have promised that they can provide for them well in the new country.

Once the brides are literally off the boat, they cannot find the faces to match their photos. The young and handsome businessmen are, in fact, older, haggard, and sometimes cruel farmworkers and laborers. It hits the women at this point that they have been deceived and, unbeknownst to them, that this is only the beginning.

The chapters that follow cover the new wives’ lives over the next few decades: marital rape, infidelity, hard labor and long hours, sexual harassment, the struggles to care for their children, children who reject them and are embarrassed by them, acculturation, racism. The book ends with the mass exodus of these now Japanese-American wives and their families and neighbors to internment camps as per Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order issued shortly after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.

I’ve read other longer, more plot-driven books about the immigrant experience and I was surprised at how powerful this experimental novella is. This is both for your information and a warning: Otsuka’s narrator is a lyrical, first person plural. The book doesn’t focus on any single character or even a handful of characters, but instead covers the range of experiences of the collective group of brides. Here is an excerpt from the second chapter, entitled “First Night”:

That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently, but firmly, and without saying a word . . . they took us flat on our backs on the bare floor of the Minute Motel . . . They took us in the best hotels in San Francisco that a yellow man could set foot in at the time . . . they took us for granted and assumed we would do for them whatever it was that we were told . . . they took us violently, with their fists, whenever we tried to resist. They took us even though we bit them. They took us even though we hit them . . . They took us shyly, and with great difficulty, as they tried to figure out what to do. “Excuse me,” they said. And, “Is this you?” They said, “Help me out here,” and so we did . . . They took us with more skill than we had ever been taken before and we knew we would always want them. They took us as we cried out with pleasure and then covered our mouths in shame. (pages 19-22)

I didn’t feel that the narration took away from the intimacy I felt with the characters’ experiences (though admittedly it is a different kind of intimacy) and in fact maybe it is the collective voice that makes this book so powerful: seeing the range of experiences drove home for me how much these women were going through and what it meant to be a picture bride in a country that was, at the time, still very hostile to unfamiliar cultures.

The women in this book arrive as strangers to both their Japanese-American husbands and America. It is a tale about what it’s like to land in hostile and unfamiliar hands, and it is as much about marriage (and its disappointments) as it is about immigration. The issues are heavy but somehow Otsuka’s writing translates the difficulties and hopelessness into something that is emotionally impactful and not bleak. I would have read this book in one or two sittings if I had the uninterrupted time (I read it in three); I thought it was wonderful.

Defining home

When I was in college, a “worldlier” friend used to enjoy making digs at me because I’d never left Boston. Indeed, I went to both college and graduate school right outside of Boston and I started my career 15 minutes from where I grew up.

So when a young attendee at one of the work events I was hosting read my palm (she just happened to be psychic – I wasn’t working with the paranormal ;-)), I soon learned that a foreign country was in my future. I balked at her prediction, because I was every bit as domestic as my college friend accused me of. I’d just gotten promoted at work and moved into a new apartment (10 minutes from where I grew up) and I had no interest in going anywhere.

Then, sure enough, one fluke event led to another, and two years to the month that I’d met the palm reading woman, I was standing at Narita International Airport with the two suitcases from which the next eight years of my life would grow. I would end up changing my career, meeting my husband, and becoming a mother in Japan.

Nearly a decade later, we – Max, Fred and I – relocated to the States, to the south. We wanted warmth and affordability and we wanted out of the city. Our son gets to now grow up with the kind of life I used to only dream about and see on television: a neighborhood filled with the laughter of children, an American-sized house, trees, yards, elementary schools with campuses, neighbors who smile and lend you eggs and butter if you need them. While there are larger, serious problems with our state, I do love the idyllic, international, intellectual, liberal-minded and friendly town we live in.

But I started to have second thoughts this year, when the bombings in Boston pulled me back to a familiarity and security that I’d long resisted. Mourning in the shared pain back in April, I realized that I have roots, however ambivalent I may be about my actual experiences. Boston, with its harsh climate and harsh personalities, was not an easy place to live or grow up in. But it was home – the place that I will always associate my family and childhood with, and the security that family and the past bring.

That I felt rooted is significant, as someone who for a good part of her life didn’t feel like she belonged anywhere; I was too American for my Asian friends yet not quite western enough to be seen as American. Coming back after almost 10 years overseas, I have an affinity for other expatriates and international people.

I found myself wanting to move back to Boston – for my parents, for Fred (there are better educational opportunities in Massachusetts (read: feeder schools)), for myself. I’d even managed to convince Max to seriously consider the possibility, which was no small feat given that he’d left one home behind for me already.

After some gut wrenching ruminating, I told Max I’d changed my mind. I couldn’t make the possibility work without throwing a grenade into our family. Our time line would mean sending Fred to 3 different schools in 3 years. We would need to downgrade our living space to a small apartment. Finances would be tight. And I’d need to pull both my husband and son from the only home in America they know, a home and community that they absolutely adore.

The whole process made me rethink the meaning of home. Is it where I have my roots, my childhood memories, my parents? Is it a place that is defined by history, or is it a starting point for history? Is it the place brimming with opportunity and stimulation, or the place where you feel most serene? Can home be a home if one has chosen out of duty – for filial piety, for a better shot at Harvard for your kid? Can it be a home if one half of your partnership doesn’t feel the same way you do about it? Can you love your home and yet still long for another place? Questions like these made my head spin.

In the end I understood that home is where all three of us are happy, and eventually the place where my parents are better off retiring to. I decided that home for me needs to be about peace and comfort and space and freedom, a place without resentment or constant anxiety…and it is what we already have.  But the decision is also a compromise because we don’t have the luxury of having it all, and no matter what we choose we do end up sacrificing.

The American piano

piano inside

Photo credit: Fred

Over thirty years ago, when I was about Fred’s age, my mother took me around to a couple of piano retailers. I had somehow gotten chosen to take piano lessons through our school’s music program, and after a year or so of lessons, my mother thought that to make any improvement I was going to need a chance to practice at home.

Eventually, and to no surprise, my mother told me that we weren’t going to be able to afford a piano after all, or even a keyboard for that matter. And it wasn’t just the piano, but a house large enough to accommodate a piano and the private lessons that I would need once the music program ended when I entered middle school. I knew it was a pipe dream anyway, but it moved me that my parents – recent immigrants who wouldn’t even treat themselves to an occasional coffee – would even consider the possibility of piano lessons for me.

I don’t remember feeling overly disappointed about stopping piano, as my interests in playing music barely had a chance to germinate. Whether it was a way to rationalize our inability to afford music or actual belief, the refrain “We’re not a musical family [and thereby have no talent or potential]” came to play over and over, so much so that I never picked up another musical instrument again, nor did I ever expect or plan for my own child to play music.

Then one day we were at a friend’s house for a playdate. Fred was three years old at the time. While the other children were playing, Fred caught sight of my friend’s piano, and walked over and planted himself on the bench. He grabbed a pizza take-out menu, placed it on the music rack, and began “playing” with both hands. He kept his eyes intent on the menu, following the “notes” dictated by the different pizza and side order options and periodically flipping to the next page of the fold-out menu to continue with the piece. Emotion took hold of his small body as his entire posture took on the shape of his impromptu pizza masterpiece.

We adults all gathered around this toddler “virtuoso” and laughed and applauded. In the years following this episode, Fred would gravitate toward pianos and keyboards at friends’ homes and at electronics stores and experiment with the keys.

When he was eight, I finally decided to find him a piano teacher. He will never be really good – I’d convinced myself of that at the time, and told all my musical friends that we are not a musical family – but since he seemed interested, I thought it would be nice for him to learn to play, and to make music a part of his life. We got him a $250 keyboard using credit card reward points and found a graduate student in music who was teaching twice a month. This more relaxed schedule suited us and the expectations that I had for Fred.

Fred’s been playing for a year now, or technically a half year, since he only meets every couple of weeks for lessons, and has performed wonderfully in two recitals. Sometimes (often) he complains about having to practice, but there are times when we can’t get him to stop. He enjoys taking familiar pieces and playing them in a half dozen different ways, making his own “Chinese” versions and “Halloween” versions, or creating his own pieces inspired by commercial jingles. Once, a couple of musically sophisticated friends – the type of near-prodigies that I always imagined the children of real musical families to be – laughed at Fred’s rustic pencil-scrawl compositions. Sadly, my normally assertive boy did nothing to defend himself and I knew it was because deep down he believed himself to be inferior. But I no longer believed this of my son, and while I typically stay out of friendship squabbles, I stepped in this time to stop the ridiculing. No, we had come too far to be shamed back to square one.

This weekend, we bought a piano.

When I was younger I’d always known I would one day own a car, a house. No matter how modestly one starts out, a car and a home are always an accessible, equal opportunity part of the American Dream. When I put my signature on our piano purchase this weekend, it dawned on me that the dream I never dared have was suddenly realized: more than just ownership of a magnificent instrument, it was the lifting of barriers through the generations in my family that said “We can’t.”

Growing up and letting go

Our house was like Grand Central this weekend, with the neighborhood boys streaming in and out. We love these Social Sundays, especially now that I’ve gotten over the early bittersweet of my baby forming his own world without me.

Then that day came another milestone.

After playing with his friends on our street, Fred asked if he could go to Brian’s house, 2 blocks away. Straight path, no traffic. It seemed high time for him to go there on his own.

When it turned out Brian was still eating lunch, Fred came back and asked if he could go to Kyle’s house, a more complicated path 4 blocks away within our subdivision. Again, we said yes.

An hour later, Fred came back with Kyle and asked if they could go to the park. The neighborhood park is a little under 10 minutes away by foot, and up until that point Fred had never gone there without an adult. It’s not that we had forbidden it; he simply never asked and we never had to think about it. But today it came up, and again, we said yes.

I was surprised to feel relieved. Max, too, added, “This is how boys should live.” Coming from a country where kindergarteners commute alone on public transportation, Max has since adopted my American wariness and done his fair share of standing guard at playgrounds. But we always recall our own stories of how much more carefree our childhoods had been: how Max traveled alone from one end of Japan to the other at the age of 9, how I was walking 3 blocks through traffic in a much rougher neighborhood to catch the school bus when I was 8.

I didn’t realize how exhausting it was to fear and worry…not about safety from speeding cars or kidnappers but about how to make sure we don’t overprotect Fred.

In the second it took for me to calibrate the risks of letting Fred go to the park, I asked myself what it was that I was fearing: Was it child molesters? Traffic? Getting lost? Given our neighborhood, getting lost was the greatest risk, but even that was basically nil. There was more to lose by holding Fred close.

But I will tell you the bigger anxiety I had that day, once I’d let him go.

I wasn’t worried about Fred getting to and from the park safely, or being safe while playing at the park. I worried about what he would do – from now on – when there is no adult to say, “No, don’t do that.” My mind flashed back to all those stories of dumb pranks performed by my perfectly intelligent male friends, antics that helped build up my earlier vow never to have a boy. But you know, writing this, I am ashamed to admit to my own fair share of regrettable choices and dumb behavior. This latest milestone made it clear that I have entered that parenting stage where the most important thing I can instill – and rely on – is my child’s good judgment.

And suddenly potty training feels like a breeze compared to trying to shape a child’s moral compass and self-control.

This post took me three days to write. I didn’t know where to go after the above paragraph. Then, in trying to find my direction I ran up against this question again: What is it that I’m afraid of? Has Fred chosen bad friends? Has he made poor choices in judgment? Has he given me any reason so far to worry that he will one day binge drink at his first fraternity party (because, you know, that worry ranks right up there with doing bike wheelies and entering hotdog eating contests) ?

One of the incidents that triggered my worries was how oblivious Fred became to me as soon as his friend told him she was organizing a neighborhood talent show. He became so giddy he ignored my warning that it was dinner time, and threw himself at the piano to practice Jingle Bells, his latest and proudest piece.

After I’d gained some perspective, I realized, it’s Jingle Bells, not crack.

So, after more than eight years as a mother, I’m learning to let go…to let go of not my child, but my fears.

 

 

 

 

 

My story

Forty years ago today my family (originally from China) arrived in the U.S. from Peru. I was three years old and my memories of that night are still vivid: stepping out of a taxi into blackness; feeling the balmy air after an early rain; exploring our 3-room apartment with excitement; feeling pride when my dad said, “Ceci, you can take your shoes off all by yourself!”

My earliest memory is that of anticipation and togetherness. I remember waving good bye to my grandparents from the airplane in Peru, but I don’t remember missing them. I don’t remember what, if anything, I was told about the new life we were undertaking. But I must have been an adaptable child, because I remember being happy.

And in time the joy and excitement gave way to reality, the kind of reality lived when you are undocumented. We received court orders to be deported. My parents came home from their jobs describing with rapid heartbeats their narrow escapes from arrest by the INS. My mother would grab my younger brother and me whenever someone knocked on our door, huddling in a corner, clasping her hands over our mouths until the footsteps faded away.

I will stop here, because this is as far as I feel comfortable going. This is a story that I am telling “publicly” for the first time in 40 years. My former writing instructor has urged me to write a memoir, as has my husband Max. I am not sure if I will, or could. But today as I set out to write a blog post commemorating my family’s journey to America, these are the unplanned words that are spilling out.

The huge irony that I grew up with is that my parents had stressed honesty above almost everything else. Honesty in one’s deeds. Authenticity as a human being. When I was 14 I was a dime short when purchasing a pack of cough drops at the local store. The shopkeeper told me I can take the cough drops and just pay him back the next day. So the next day after school I got off my bus a stop earlier and handed him the dime I had owed him, shocked that he was shocked.

My parents were, are, good people…amazing people. That they broke the law confused me as a child. But I understand better now as a parent. How far would you go to ensure that your child will not have to go hungry or live in fear? As a child my father used to figure out whether or not there would be supper by seeing where the cooking pan was. “If it was hanging on the wall, it meant no dinner that night.” It is a primal parental instinct to want our children to have more than we did. Among my generation, it is the wish to be able to afford music lessons, private school if we wanted, international travel. Among my parents’ generation, it was the need to provide safety, food, shelter, a shot at a decent education, and hope. My father said that there was absolutely no hope for any kind of future for us if we’d stayed.

My family has been US citizens for many years now. I remember the first time my father could vote in a presidential election – he got up at 5:00 in the morning, dressed in a nice crisp shirt and vest, ate breakfast, and was ready to go. “The polls aren’t even open yet!” I had said, laughing, with tears I tried to hide. My parents now live a quiet life in a house that they own. My father’s retired, and enjoys daily swims at a local gym. A few years ago he told me, laughing, “Ceci, I am happy! You know, for the first time in my life, I am really happy!”

Those days when we lived under a shroud of dark and constant threat of losing everything we had seems like a lifetime ago. And I’ve battled depression and anxiety for much of my life. There is a part of me that still questions “Why bother?” Small things like redecorating our house, or buying a new outfit…an irrational part of me sometimes wonders what is the point, if ultimately everything could be taken away from me. And I have struggled between how close I want to be to my parents and brother, because it is sometimes too painful to be in the family unit that triggers so much. It is nothing that they have said or done, but everything that being in my family reminds me of. I have hurt my parents and brother by pulling away.

But time is healing. As is a conscious effort to understand what belongs in the past, and what can belong in the present. My family, my parents, belong in the present, as does acknowledgement that yes, this is a dream, but it is the American Dream: solid, secure, and mine. I, too, am truly happy for the first time in my life.

Constructive Criticism

I was doing some work earlier today when the words “constructive criticism” triggered an old memory of mine, of my boss Gloria who had called me into her office one day almost 20 years ago.

“Cecilia, I want to talk to you about something. When you’re at work, you wear a jacket. Always wear a jacket.

I was 24, working at a university and no one but deans dressed up. I mean, the head registrar even walked around in tennis shoes! But I was too frequently mistaken for a graduate student. I looked too young, behaved too young.

I was not the type to argue back then, just the type to curse people under my breath.

Nine years later, I was asked to send a message for Gloria’s retirement book. I wrote about that meeting we had in her office, how insulted I had felt at the time…then I thanked her for looking out for me. I told her I was now in Tokyo as the only woman manager at my company.

In my 40s now, I see so plainly the good that Gloria was trying to do. I would do this for any young female employee in a heartbeat if I cared about her. But as an immature 20-something I had resented her advice, which I viewed as clearly an attempt to embarrass and denigrate me.

I thought that and other similar things whenever I heard anything non-positive coming from my mother as well. “You’re so critical!”, “You’re never satisfied!”, I would cry back whenever my mother pointed out something I wasn’t doing perfectly.

My 7 year old hasn’t quite mustered the same words, but with every grunt, sigh and roll of his eyes I would start hearing more and more of my mother’s old words in mine. “I am not criticizing; I just want you to do better…” I found myself saying once to Fred, and then trailing off. My mother used to say the same thing.

But I think the difference between the motherly criticism in our household and the constructive criticism from Gloria is delivery. With every action of Fred’s, I’m unconsciously trying to see if he is measuring up to a standard. Is he getting dressed quickly enough? Why does he make a huge mess when he erases? Why can’t he remember to turn off the lights each time he leaves his room? It’s so easy to insert a mini personal attack with every reminder: “Please go back and get your book bag. You’re always so forgetful.” Part 1 – “get your book bag” – OK; part 2 – “you’re always so forgetful” – can do without.

Maybe there’s this feeling that if I don’t inject a criticism then he won’t get it. Or maybe, really, it’s my way of wanting to let him know that he’s disappointed me.

Growing up I’d heard the label “procrastinator” so much that by the time I got into my teens I purposely made no effort to improve. It was who I was, what was expected of me. A (big) part of me didn’t want to give my mom the satisfaction of improving, because it would mean that she had won.

I came to see myself in terms of the many labels with which I was attributed, but seldom did I focus on actions that I could change. And I think that is why Gloria was so effective. Though I had felt humiliated, she, in fact, never once told me I was immature or unprofessional; she simply told me what I should do to be a better professional.

And become a better professional I did…who procrastinated. Sometimes.

How do you handle criticism as a parent? Do you ever say more than you feel you should (please tell me it’s not just me ;-))? And did you get criticized a lot growing up?