Saturday, January 1, 2022
Sunday, December 26, 2021
By 6PM, Gerardo is finally in a bed and I along with all other hospital visitors are kicked out and I decide to not return home but to check myself into a Hilton. I need to enter a room where nothing about it is medical. And before I do, I need to find a table for one where I can order an entree from a menu that I eat while being seated the whole time. And after the meal, I need to dive into a bed with crisp sheets and before I fall asleep, to allow myself to break apart into tiny pieces as I sob into a pillow. I don't shower. I fall asleep in the same clothes.
I text with friends to express my anger about everything. I hate everything and everyone and most of all I need the pressure of Christmas to be over.
I wake up and go to my local Starbucks on Main Street where the manager and baristas know me and my family's situation and have been nothing but classy and comforting to me. As I approach the counter to order my usual (Hot Venti Americano with cream on the side), my favorite barista is two steps ahead of me because he's seen me from afar and likely surmised that I've had a rough night. He has already made me my usual and comes to give it to me in the middle of the line and says it's on the house. The Americano gets mixed with tears that I chug down. Salty good.
Gerardo is discharged that night. Christmas is almost over, thank God. And as we carefully walk up the two stairs to enter the house, I am reminded that I need to contact John, our handy guy, to build us a ramp so Gerardo doesn't have to climb up and down the two steps every time. Two steps don't sound like much until they become much. I see the holiday wreath that my talented friend Dori has made and quietly hung on my door, along with black and cream ribbon that I had admired on her neck some weeks ago left for me with a note of friendship.
Sleep happens. Wake happens. I start tidying the house, and see this card atop a gift bag that I can tell Monica will be giving me later in the day. I weep again, not because I feel myself breaking apart but because I feel myself gathering my parts back together. And I say to myself what Mr. Bergstrom has reminded Lisa Simpson to do in times of need, which is to remember who I am. I shower, tie the ribbon around my neck and get to the business of getting our family to exchange the love.
Tuesday, December 21, 2021
Wednesday, December 15, 2021
Wednesday, November 3, 2021
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
Sunday, October 24, 2021
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?