Wednesday, November 3, 2021

MINOR FEELINGS by Cathy Park Hong

There is a passage in Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong where she explains to her friend Erin that "it's a problem how Asians are so private about their own traumas, you know, which is why no one ever thinks we suffer any injustices. They think we're just these robots."

The passage reminds me of one of my deepest traumas that occurred during my senior year in high school in Bakersfield. It was toward the end of the school year and I was sitting in my usual seat in the very back of Chemistry class with our teacher Mr. En trying to keep our restlessness on a low simmer as we were waiting for class to end, the year to end, and something new to begin. During one such afternoon, Bouncy Cheerleader Em was playfully teasing Mr. En asking him "Mr. En, will you remember us after we are gone?" 

To which Mr. En said "Bouncy Em, there are some people who will be remembered, like you. And then there are some people who will never be remembered and always forgotten, like ... like ..."

As Mr. En was surveying the classroom to select the student that he would name as an example of the forgettable, my stomach sank as I prayed silently and fervently: "Please God, please don't let him say my name. Please God, please make the minute hand go to seven so it can become 3:07 so the bell can ring and I can leave. Please."

"Like ... like ... Jenny Doh. People like Jenny Doh will be forgotten."

From the time that Mr. En uttered those words until it became 3:07, everything seemed to go in slow motion. My affect flattened but everyone else seemed to be just fine. Nothing about that moment horrified anyone else but me. I wanted to die and I wanted to appear perfectly fine all at the same time. I kept that trauma private and allowed people to think that my robotic self hadn't been hurt. 

Like most Korean Americans, I was raised with a belief that it is a virtue to quietly endure. In Korean culture, the word is 차마 (pronounced chamah). Where no matter how deep it hurts, we endure it. In a scene where her artist friend Helen experiences deep trauma, Park Hong wonders whether Helen is going to kill herself and then remembers that stronger than Helen's "will to die was her will to endure" and that "This was the most Korean trait about her, her intense desire to die and survive at the same time."

Other related Korean virtues include 고생 (pronounced gohseng) which means to suffer, and the ability to repay 신세 (pronounced shinseh) which means indebtedness. It is no wonder that to endure, to suffer, and to repay debt are the virtuous cornerstones of the Korean people. Historically, we are a people who have been occupied, divided, and underestimated. And quietly, we have endured, suffered, and worked diligently to repay real and perceived indebtedness.

Park Hong describes the dynamic of how language of the dominant and the language of the dominated develop differently by saying that "English tuned an experience that should be in the minor key to a major key; there was an intimacy and melancholy in Korean that were lost when I wrote in English." For me, it's not just in the written word, but in the spoken word, where in English, I find more know-it-alls who for whatever reason wake up every morning and decide that it is their job to shout out answers to questions that no one has asked of them. Because they know it all. All the time and always in the hyper major key. 

But put them in a room with a Mr. En who publicly characterizes a quiet Korean American girl as forgettable and they won't say boo, because as Park Hong cites Robin Bernstein's book Racial Innocence, "Innocence is not just an 'absence of knowledge' but 'an active state of repelling knowledge,' embroiled in the statement 'Well, I don't see race," where I eclipses the seeing." 

Says Park Hong, "I sometimes avoid reading a news story when the victim is Asian because I don't want to pay attention to the fact that no one else is paying attention. I don't want to care that no one else cares because I don't want to be left stranded in my rage."

Maybe that's why we Koreans are frequently silent. Because in many ways, forgetting Mr. En through silence is easier than remembering him and all the inattentive witnesses through rage. But says Park Hong, "The problem with silence is that it can't speak up and say why it's silent. And so silence collects, becomes amplified, takes on a life outside our intentions, in that silence can get misread as indifference, or avoidance, or even shame, and eventually this silence passes over into forgetting."

Friday, October 29, 2021

The Horror and Hope of Squid Game


One of the most memorable words that come out of player 067's mouth from Squid Game is: "난 사람 안 믿어" which translates to “I don’t trust people.” She reflects the rigidity that exists within a people that have historically been occupied and stripped of dignity. As Cathy Hong Park effectively summarizes in her book Minor Feelings, that Koreans are a people who have always been on the run as we "first went to Manchuria to escape the Japanese occupation, then to Seoul to escape the Soviet invasion, then to Busan to flee North Koreans, and finally to the United States to escape thew South Korean dictatorship. And in this 21st century, we know that life in North Korea remains a nightmare, causing people who choose the potential terror that will be theirs if caught defecting, to try anyway.  

Player 067 and her family are one of the families that try anyway. Player 067 makes it to Seoul but along the way, her father is killed, her brother taken into an orphanage, and her mother stranded in North Korea.

She doesn't trust people and she speaks volumes through her stoic silence. But she is intent on reuniting with the people she loves: her mom and brother. Her reasons to live. And as bloody and violent as Squid Game is, we suspect 067 has lived through a brand of horror already. 

In a later episode, when male protagonist 456 is about to kill another player, 067 says to him: "그러지 마. 그런 사람 아니 잖아" which translates to: “Don’t do that. You’re not that kind of person.” It's a pivotal moment because even though 067 has gone on record early and often to profess her distrust of people, we learn through this scene that she knows that some people can be trusted. Some people, when sobered up, know right from wrong and choose right.

The piercing gaze of 067, coupled with her pained silence are the kind that is familiar to me. It is undeniably Korean. Cathy Park Hong knows about this silence as she writes: "But I grew up in a culture where to speak of pain would not only retraumatize me but traumatize everyone I love, as if words are not a cure but a poison that will infect others."

It could be called ironic that 067's name is 새벽 (pronounced Sae Byeok) which translated means "dawn" — the first appearance of light before sunrise. Also known as hope.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen


I have a memory of when I was a little girl in Korea, maybe when I was four or five years old. My family joined other families to vacation at a beach and though my memory of that time is foggy, there is a scene from that vacation that is horrifyingly vivid. That's when I stepped into the ocean by myself and nearly drowned. There is a photo of my parents pulling me out, with Dad holding my hand, Mom holding my other hand. My face looked contorted as I was managing many emotions including fear, anger, gratitude, all at the same time. Because I was so young I don't think I felt embarrassment. I knew deep inside that I had almost died.

I have another memory of when I was older, relocated in America. Maybe third or fourth grade. I was in a pool with my brothers and family friends. I still didn't know how to swim and there was a split second where I stepped one step too far and the bottom of the pool disappeared and I was drowning. I panicked and said a quiet water-muted "h lp" with flailing limbs. No one heard me. Thankfully, my flailing shifted me enough for me to feel the bottom of the pool again and I was ok. I stepped out of the pool and my much more self-conscious ego pretended that my near-death experience hadn't happened. 

Things we Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen is about roots, relocation, losses and near-losses with water always close by. Water is close by when in 1979, pregnant Huong boards a boat with her little son Tuan to escape the Viet Cong. The plan had been for her husband Cong to also join the boat but at the last minute, Cong doesn't board. The memory of whether the inclement weather and chaos of the moment prevented him from boarding or whether he simply chose to stay behind remains unclear. This murkiness causes Huong to create a false narrative to have her now two sons Tuan and Ben (born after their relocation to America) believe that Cong didn't choose to be somewhere other than with his family.

The trauma of relocation affects Huong, Tuan, and Ben differently. It's hard to be uprooted. Even harder to grow new roots. And for most of the book, we see these three souls limp along as they navigate their sapling selves in New Orleans.

When Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans in 2005, there are harrowing scenes of Huong frantically searching for higher ground while also trying to locate Tuan and Ben as the town is literally and speedily drowning. In such life-threatening moments, what is a good mother to do? Is it to make a decision to take a step to ensure her survival? Or is it to take the opposite step to search for her children and potentially risk her life? 

In the hurricane, Ben and his partner find unexpected refuge in the home of an elderly man. They knock on the door of his still standing house and he lets them in with a smile and explains that "When they announced the evacuation, I couldn't leave ... I just couldn't! I have roots here."  

Several scenes before the hurricane, we find academically gifted Ben living in Paris, France as he pursues the romanticized notion of the Bohemian life that he read about in Henri Murger's book: Scenes from the Life of Bohemia. It's a voluntary and temporary relocation for Ben and he learns quickly and hilariously that the idealized Bohemians of Murger and real life messy and filthy house mate Bohemians in his Paris apartment are radically different.  

Back in the hurricane, relocation happens moment by moment. During a scene where Huong is catching her breath and not drowning, she pleads to a stranger that she has two sons. Where, she isn't sure. But she declares "They're somewhere. They're somewhere."

The somewhere where we are at at any given moment may come with gnarly roots. The kind that Ben describes as taking "a lifetime to make a place lived in." The kind that might prevent a person from evacuating a storm or a person from boarding a boat to escape political oppression in one's homeland, or a plane for the land of opportunity. Because, the person might wonder, how can I be sure that out there, with no roots, I won't drown? 

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Realizing & Revising


Once in a rare while, I find myself in the company of white people who use the N-word as if it's no big deal. They are also usually quick to reveal their love of people like Dave Chapelle to perhaps establish some kind of street cred—like they're using the word not because they're freaks but because they're cool, progressive, and free. And I say to them: "STFU. You're not Dave Chapelle. And you're the opposite of cool." 

Some might argue I am the unreasonable in such scenes, imposing restrictions on people's right to free speech. After all, even the couhl should be free to say whatever they want, whenever they want.

In the first chapter of On Freedom by Maggie Nelson, I learn about a classroom scene with instructor Catherine Opie at UCLA where a student criticizes the work of another, accusing it of being colonialist. The criticized student: 

"appears dejected, and mumbles from the corner, 'Damned if I do, damned if I don't.' Opie then hectors him kindly: 'Stand up for your work! ... Open it up! Don't shut it down, man.' Opie is not counseling the student to become a rigid, narcissistic jerk unable to absorb any deconolonizing critique. She is just reminding him that if you truly think your art is worth it, you've got to be willing to stand beside it and up for it, rather than slink into the all-too-familiar postures of woundedness, defensiveness, paralysis, or retaliatory aggression."

I just bought tickets to go see Louis CK in a few weeks at Long Beach. Yes, he's touring again. And yes, I can't wait to hear what the first words out of his mouth will be, after this long stretch of silence. Not that he's been COMPLETELY silent. I've kept up with his occasional funny missives and endearing podcast with his French girlfriend that he released for people who have stayed on his mailing list (like me).

Some people express disdain for my continued interest in Louis. And the point I try to make is that maybe he has realized that in this day and age, taking his penis out in the company of others is not ok. And that we ought to allow one another the opportunity and space to realize things.

The other point I try to make is made by referencing The Art of Cruelty, also by Maggie Nelson, where she cites philosopher and composer John Cage who argues against The Golden Rule: "I think the Golden Rule, which is often thought of as the center, really, of Christianity, is a mistake: Do unto others as you would be done by. 'I think this is a mistaken thought. We should do unto others as THEY would be done by."

In other words, who is anybody to say that everybody should be treated or behave a certain way based on anybody's preferences? At the grocery store, the office, the theater, and of course in bed. What is the Golden Rule in bed? Slow and gentle? Or rough and tumble?

I think what Professor Opie is saying to the criticized is to not cower away from robust debate. Take the criticism and potentially revise OR push back with intellectual honesty as you influence a critical mass to see the genius in your masterpiece.  

Like Sarah Silverman, I wouldn't have been upset if I had been in that room with Louis. But because some did get upset, it means that it's upsetting to some. And if Professor Opie would have been in that room, she might have told Louis to fight for his right to do whatever he wants with his penis OR she might have counseled him to make realizations about the times and The Golden Rule. And then to revise. 

Friday, July 16, 2021

Some will call it a miracle. I will call it science.

Did you know that UCLA Health conducts approximately 440 liver transplants every year? That's more than one transplant a day. Did you know that nationally, there are more than 14,000 people at any given time, on a waiting list hoping to be matched with a new liver from an organ donor? There are many other mind-blowing facts about organ transplants that you can find out about online, if you're interested. 

Gerardo and I have been spending much time at UCLA Health as he has had to undergo numerous tests required before he is either accepted or rejected to the UCLA liver transplant program. The tests are what inform the medical team whether the rest of his body is ready to receive a new organ. (His failing liver is related not to alcohol, but to bile duct cancer that he had removed in 2013.)

Today, July 16th, has been on calendar for some time, as the date when our caseworker would present his case to the UCLA medical board to determine whether he would become accepted. I'm more than happy, jubilant really, to report that UCLA Health has officially accepted him into the program. For that reason, we are celebrating and feeling grateful for the team of UCLA doctors, nurses, and administrators who have provided and will continue to provide us with the highest of care. 

There are many more mountains ahead of us, including the most daunting one which is that his liver needs to become much worse (as measured by the MELD score) before he moves up on the priority list and then into surgery, followed by recovery. As his full-time caregiver (and part-time everything else), I shudder to think that he will suffer more as he moves up to the top spot on the waiting list. He has suffered so much already.

It's better not to fixate on that too much as we take one moment at a time. One breath in at a time. One breath out at a time.  

I like to imagine surmounting every mountain and hoping that maybe one or two years from now, he will have a new liver, with no more days of acute suffering, with the coffee brewing, the sun rising, the trees rustling, and the birds chirping. That's my hope. I suppose if all this comes into fruition many will call the transplant a miracle. But I will call it science. And I'll give credit to the brilliant doctors and scientists who instead of squandering their God-given talent, they applied it to study and practice their specialties in medicine for the benefit of humanity, no matter the outcome.

Per learning about organ transplants, I've decided to become an organ donor when it's my time to leave the earth. It's been freeing to realize that burial and cremation aren't the only two options at the end of life. As an organ donor, my parts could help many humans experience more life and less suffering. It's important to note that more important than checking the box at the DMV or registering at assorted donor registries, the most important way to be a donor is to make my family and all of my doctors know that that is my intent and desire. 

I will be providing periodic updates here as we continue on this journey. And as I meditate on the wisdom of I Thessalonians 5:18, I shall IN all circumstances, give thanks.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Reading Lab: Free Speech & Activism


When we think of the concept of freedom, do we value only the freedom TO?
To speak.
To think.
To act.

Or do we also value the freedom FROM?
Freedom from harassment.
Freedom from intimidation.
Freedom from violence. (The kind that the Asian American community has been experiencing a lot of lately and other moments in history.)

When we think of freedom, is it something that belongs to an individual or also to a community?

When we start to notice harassment and demand that it stop are we cancelling the harasser or is the harasser feigning censorship because they’ve not been kept accountable before?

We will pursue these questions and more in my new online class in collaboration with Professor Lonce Bailey, titled The Reading Lab: Free Speech & Activism. Class begins April 9th. Details and enrollment info can be found here.

Everyone welcome.

Monday, March 1, 2021

THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS by Isabel Wilkerson


Approximately from 1915 to 1970, the servant class of America took action to leave the southern states of the United States as they embarked on a journey that would land them in northern and western states. About six million Black Americans took this action not by first asking for permission or announcing that they would. This historical truth of The Great Migration comes to life as Isabel Wilkerson, author of THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS, focuses on the stories of three specific black Americans who took this action:

  • Ida Mae Brandon Gladney took action to leave Mississippi and settle in Chicago
  • George Swanson Starling took action to leave Florida and settle in New York
  • Robert Joseph Pershing Foster took action to leave Louisiana and settle in Los Angeles. 
The research that Wilkerson conducts in order to present the pushes and the pulls associated with why blacks left the south is epic.

The big push to leave had everything to do with the indignity of living under Jim Crow laws that protected the practices of white people -- from segregation to abusive work environments, to lynchings. Pershing  Foster knew firsthand, about the indignity of living under Jim Crow. A man who would eventually become a medical doctor with a thriving practice in Los Angeles knew before the migration while growing up in Louisiana how he had to swallow his rage in order to survive Jim Crow. The need to do bide his time, and to do whatever it took to survive the oppressive eye of his white bosses ... in the streets, in the fields, in his dreams:

"Sometimes" he said, "you have to stoop to conquer" (page 117).

The big pull of the migration contained the stories of more enlightened northern and western states, where Jim Crow was reputed to be less overt and dignity for blacks reputed to be more attainable. Wilkerson presents fascinating research that documents migrants as having an unparalleled will to survive. Though they didn't cross bodies of water or actual borders separating nations, the hardships they endured by making this move caused them to do whatever it took to survive -- including working longer hours, taking multiple jobs, and taking jobs that others didn't want.

As an immigrant myself, I get that to my bones. 
And I get the value of:
  • delaying gratification
  • swallowing the rage, and yes, 
  • stooping to conquer.