Category Archives: memory

Thank you from an almost thirty-year-old

When I was 16 going on 17, I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. When I was 16 going on 17, I tried to read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. That year in AP English, my teacher’s comment requesting that he keep my homework musings on home kept the tender embers of desire to be a writer alive. Thank goodness.

4 years later, I re-read Beloved in a Black Studies and literature course. The other young women and I marveled at our brilliant professor, especially as she was young, black, female, and did I say brilliant. That year I was applying for a teaching program and ripping down Teach 4 America posters on campus. My mentor and advisor stopped our meeting to make copies of bell hooks’ Teaching to Trangress. I didn’t know it then, but he was handing me yet another mentor. Thank goodness.

About 9 years later, I was teaching and learning about excerpts of Pedagogy of the Oppressed with middle schoolers. I had them playing with Morrison’s language to learn about poetic line breaks. These writers and thinkers paved the ground I walked on, and I kept their work alive, while stoking the fires in my young charges. They taught me how to break open my heart and let them in. They flood me to this day, and I have cried more than ever. Thank goodness.

About 13 years later, I am teaching undergraduates, and today I tacked up a collage of Kendrick Lamar reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eyes at my desk. Morrison was a poet, who became a professor, who wrote novels, who changed us. I ponder now about my work, my writing, and what’s next for me.

Age is a funny thing. While I am so ready to be 30, I am still 16 going on 17. Still eager, still social introvert, still reader, still laughter, still nervous and moving. But also, I am so not 16 going on 17. Not pining after some baseball player, not wishing to fit in with the right clothes, not wondering about college, not crying under the sheets, not anguishing about my thighs, not writing poems in a secret notebook. Nope. Now I talk too much sometimes. Now I risk not fitting in more. Now I cry in public—all the time. Now I love my body more than ever. Now I don’t wait for no man. Now I write poems in journals and journals and journals. Even read them aloud. Might even call myself an artist or something, sometimes.

***

Age in a funny thing. When my mother was 3 years older than me, she gave birth to my brother. About a year later, she gave birth to me. When I am 33, I may give birth to a book. About a year later, another. In her thirties, Toni Morrison raised two boys and wrote her first novel.

***

Age is a funny thing. Sandra Cisneros might call age an onion, layers on layers that you feel at times. I think it’s more like leaves on a tree, shimmering all at once in the wind. And as these leaves flutter and I stare—mesmerized in the sun—I am full of wonder, joy, appreciation. Disbelief.

When I was a toddler, I would cry when given gifts. I would overwhelm myself. I don’t know exactly why I cried at 3. Now at 30, I know I cry because I feel so much. I am full of all those who made me me, as I am becoming me. I am full of immense gratitude that my body cannot hold without release. So I cry. I cry because I am 3, I am 16 going on 17, I am 30. I cry because—thank you.

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Filed under age, essays, love, memory, prose, writing/writers

On Age: The Wisdom of Youth

“You know you look like you eighteen, right?” said the store-owner skeptically. Without knowing it, I was speaking to Regina Y. Evans, the owner of Regina’s Door, which is a social enterprise, vintage shop in Oakland that I was peaking into when our conversation began. I was happy that she noticed that “Black don’t crack” applies for Asian folks.

After we parted, I thought about my age and walked down the construction-ridden Webster Street passing 18th, then 19th—for this is the view in Oakland’s downtown now. The ripping up of old buildings, the invasion of hipster art and white-owned shops. It is getting even more personal to me now that the edges of Chinatown are being engulfed.

Like this disrespectful gentrification, I can learn from the layers of the past that was there. In this case, I reflect on myself. Age, experience, and purpose have been on my mind recently. On my brother’s birthday a few weeks ago, I thought he was older than he was because I had it fixed that I was 28. For whatever reason, I have been collapsing these last years of my twenties. Maybe wanting my uncertainties to finally reach clarity. Or for desires and needs to be better met. For a sense of confidence I still crave. With all these conditions and the sense of being that I wanted, I sometimes lose track of what I have achieved and who I have become—as I continue to become even more.

I started to think about the younger versions of myself. While there are wounds to be studied, cleaned, and healed, there was a liveliness and strength I sometimes forget and can still learn from.

For instance, as I ponder and plan intentional steps for entering graduate school, I found myself so careful to the point nothing seemed to fit what I wanted in a program. I wanted a school that did not isolate itself from the surrounding community, students and faculty of color, a school large enough and a program supportive enough of taking classes outside the writing department. I wanted an Ethnic Studies program and an Asian American Studies program. The list goes on, and I actually think it is a reasonable one and well-informed by past experiences and current goals. However, this thorough list was keeping me from going for it.

Interestingly, my older self wants to be cradled in a world not made for me. Yet my younger self would have not have been so hesitant; it has been ready to break the cradle and reach for independence.

For example, I forget my courageous 17-year old self. The one that did not question the fact that learning and college were made for her. (And it was. And it wasn’t.) The one that assumed she could do anything rather then be filled with caution. (Travel across the world? Check. Make new friends? Check.) The one who fought for what she needed rather than feel full of fatigue, heavy with grief, or cringing from cynicism. Looking back, I feel that my younger self demanded these experiences, knowing I could find what is worthwhile in them.

As I approach 28, I desire those experiences but wait and think them through. I imagine my hesitation, caught between biking down a hill and thinking about biking down the hill. The thinking is often more frightening than the act itself. As I get older, I want to find myself caught in the act more often—present and demanding of the world. I want to ask myself what I want and what to do to get there. To shrug off the sense that time has shortened, that my next steps need be painstakingly planned, that there is no room for risk-taking.

In giving value to my younger self, I won’t downplay the growing sense of nuance, knowledge and sense of self that comes with more experiences. Yet with awareness, we can benefit from all the parts of ourselves, playing synergistically. As living more may temper the fires of youth, youth can fuel the embers of wise living. Being wiser and gaining experience shouldn’t mean we stop still in our tracks, frozen in fear of what’s possible. I want the growing wisdom to clarify what I want and need, and the strength to help me communicate and achieve it. I need the younger versions of myself to inform this wisdom and strength.

I am so grateful for this more complex awareness of myself and the concepts of “young” and “old.” I am my 17 or 18-year old self. And I hear the wisdom of old age saying There will be pain and the spirit of youth screaming I will survive!

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Filed under essays, memory, prose

Against the Myth of Easy Achievement (esp. on Social Media)

I had to write this to do justice for myself, for other writers, and just living, breathing people who know what it’s like to struggle and to have dreams. (Not to mention it’s been more than three months since my last blog post. Why not?)

So recently, I was accepted into Voices of Our Nation’s Artists (VONA/Voices), a writing workshop focused on nurturing writers of color. The program is now housed at the University of Miami. (You can donate here to get me there!) A solid 30 hours after the high of my acceptance notice, I was feeling like myself again– critical. I remembered that a friend’s old facebook post about being accepted into another workshop years ago showed up on a search that day. It was typical of the status posts on social media, especially those of facebook. It was excited and celebratory. It reeked of a sense of achievement. Good for her. I had no reason to feel frustrated; I had even helped to edit some of her poems for another writing program.

Like I said, 30 hours later, I began to understand my feelings. My friend’s post is an example of the way we share our lives in this modern world and therefore, a sign of how we live it. Our connections are brief, often shallow and limited by the medium of social networking. For example, how many times have discussions of race, class, gender, queer issues, and transphobia been discontinued, because social media has been restrictive to our communication (granted, this would be helped if people were better writers and regulators of their expression of emotions).

Social media is the equivalent of the question “How are you?” in U.S. culture. Although the question is asked, cultural norms require that you reply with something brief and relatively up-beat. When I’m not doing well, I pause and lie, “I’m… O.K.” Getting into specifics of– for example– your great-aunt’s death is not socially accepted, for the most part. I even have friends who consciously ask people three times, “how are you?” so they challenge the speaker to open up beyond what is socially accepted. Also, some writers punctuate this question with a period, not a question mark. “How are you” in this culture isn’t a question. Just a passing statement.

Social media postings are similar–brief, often shallow and limited. They say “Hey, how are you,” post a grinning picture, tweet a 140 characters. Rarely do people detail their life’s journey through grief, uncertainty, or other struggle. It is culturally accepted that we refrain from sharing how depression affects the way we get up, how we work through relationship blocks, or how grief-ridden we feel after a death. The mothers posing with happy toddlers don’t share about custody battles that lay behind the facade. Teachers don’t rant daily about their long hours and labor contract infractions. The list goes on. Sound happy. Show your achievements. Stay in the social norm. I’ve even noticed this norm affecting people posting about their elderly parents passing away. The posts may be upbeat or end with a remark about the life lessons learned. While these feelings could be true, what do we lose when we rush to hide our difficult emotions or grasp for wisdom that needs more time to ripen?

Diving even deeper, how does social media perpetuate beliefs in a post-racial, meritocratic, and arguably worst– a classless U.S. society and world? When achievements seem to spring up for people around us, one can feel that achieving in our society must be easy, must not be tainted with systemic oppression. Status posts, tweets, and even this blog offer no deep, consistent window into people’s lives. You don’t know from my facebook the changes that I have made in my life to invest in writing. Or how I feel on days when I have nothing to say. Or how the choices I make are financially difficult, let others down, and still offer no guarantee. What is shared on social media is brief, often shallow and limited. The palpable disconnect between our lives and social media (others’ lives as represented) can bring up feelings of rejection, questions about self-worth, and perpetuate this already free-flowing myth of easy achievement.

While there exist examples disproving what I’m describing, for the most part social media users accept these cultural norms. This begs us to ask, how will our children grow up in this world, especially buttressed by the “How are you” culture of the U.S. and neo-liberalism worldwide. Or– even closer to home– how are we faring? What happens when we don’t have a culture that can grieve together? That demonstrates and embraces the real time and labor it requires to achieve something. That can step back to appreciate and question all the different types of risk involved.

As I write, I remember the many leftist thinkers and their thoughts on how technology can be used. I’m hopeful because of writers, thinkers, and activists like those at Jacobin magazine, whose current issue explores technology’s dialectical relationship to revolution. Older thinkers like Ivan Illich, in De-Schooling Society, envisioned a world where essentially the internet helped us form webs of connection for skill-sharing and self-education. Social media is already a part of what we can and are achieving for ourselves. (Heck, it will help me get to VONA.) These achievements, however, aren’t easy and offer no guarantees. We won’t get there unless we keep an eye on goals we would like to achieve with social media and technology, rather than give into the ways these potential tools dominate us, obscure our humanity, and produce culture counter to our highest good.

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Filed under culture, essays, memory

3.

Reasons why–

 

1. Aunt– full of love, hugs, the power to be so different in this world that tells you not to cry. In this place that tells you that you cannot be– hide your feelings!

Aunt. There is a spirit in you that keeps me going. I honor you.

 

2. Water meeting land. There is so much that people think when they arrive at this place where water reaches land. They say thank you for the peace. A chance to feel themselves be small and powerless. A chance to see such power. To see what it means to bear witness to movement. Comings and goings. People see this place as a chance to take their lives. Jump from bridges, or the water pulls them in and in and under, over and over. For me, water meeting land is what holds family together. It is a place of possibility. One can combat time by crossing waters. From one shore to the other, just one leap. This place where water meets land is what connects home to home, Viet Nam to California. Just water. As thin and as vast as water.

 

3. There are 3 persimmon trees my father planted in front of our ancestral home. Just 3 trees. 3 trees bearing sweet fruit, ripening in monsoon winters. He chose them because of love and money. He loves his family so much– his ailing mother and generous sister– that he thought about how these plants would mature, become plump and fill their income. It reminds me that love creates and love works hard, even when it seems like it is not there.

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Filed under asian americans, immigrant, love, memory, prose, third world, viet nam

mourning ritual

the wind sifted through our mutually black straight hair and, the late morning sun shone softly on the green hillside where a crowd of people stood dressed in black. on one side of you was a sprinkling of california’s golden poppies—spring having officially bloomed. the other side opened to the flatlands of the east bay. so open you could hear momentary laughter and cheer from happy people. as someone’s life went on, all of ours had stopped.

 

please choose one of the pre-selected flowers to place on her casket, directed the pastor.

 

when it is your turn, after you have taken slow steps towards the casket, you reached out for a white rose. each step you take you wondered if you were doing the right thing. and for what? is this enough to pay respect? what does respect mean now to this person, whose hands lay folded, eyes closed, and skin and bones having gave way to the next life? you never had thought funerals would be like this. so formal, so organized. never would you—who cry in bed and leave tears stained on pillowcases or loved one’s sweatshirts, who would choose sticking flowers in your hair and kissing instead of a marriage ritual, you who believe mourning should be welcomed and embraced—never would you have imagined  being so grateful for these orchestrated steps.

 

earlier, you walked the same slow step after step for a last viewing of the beloved. how similar this ritual felt to your friend’s wedding rehearsal, how similar to school promotions, as simple as waiting in line to pay for lunch, as practiced as students who walk orderly down hallways. and yet, how grateful you were to reach the end of the line, greet your own humanity at the casket, give hugs to her family members, and offer your love in however impossibly little can be offered in words.

 

in moments like these it is not the ritual that matters, it is not performance or societal approval. sometimes mourning rituals offer the only way out of grief, a step-by-step handbook of actions through the darkness.

 

by the end of the morning, her mother and father leave one last glance at her resting place. the diggers come in and their knowing hands begin to remove the protective railings. her sister and her aunt laugh about how she would have appreciated being buried with liquor. the sister’s fiancé lingers, ready to hold a hand, rub her back, hold her up whenever it may be needed. the sun maintains its soft glow over this green hillside. and slowly, the mass dressed in black file down the slope or back into cars that will eventually lower them to the land of the living.

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Filed under asian americans, love, memory, prose

Yogi teachings

Dear ____ ____,

 

You are not a yogi.

 

No. You are a white, Latino queer man rocking skin-tight leggings from your trip to Hong Kong. They are a gray blue with tan wisps to mimic years of wear on this fake denim. You are teaching on your birthday. You are bringing your “friend” from San Francisco to visit us. You are throwing gifted lemons at your Lululemon-wearing students and sharing peanut brittle from aluminum tins. You are sharing your wisdom and your wealth. You are Angela Davis’ yoga instructor.

 

You have made me cry in each yoga class I’ve taken with you thus far. This morning, you say—remember you are possible because of your ancestors. You tell us that you have a small ritual of offering them a bit of water or flowers each morning at your altar. My tears begin to seep from my eyelids, beneath my relaxed yoga brow. Can you tell I am angry? Can you tell I am sad and ignorant?

 

I want to be that person, but I am missing so much in between. I am mad you are reminding me of the very Vietnamese tradition on this first day of the Year of the Horse. I am feeling lost and without my ancestors. Angry about their disappearance, at how I participated in their erasure. I am angry at not believing, but wanting belief.

 

I imagine you. In 1954, when you were born, what was the world like then? When you knew you liked men, who beat you? Who held you? When you thought about growing old, who taught you about ancestors?

 

By the end of this yoga class, you have been blessed with flowers and candles. You have had us breathe like bumble bees and turn down tailbones and rotate thighbones. We breathe deep. You turn on “We are Family” by Sister Sledge and everyone dances. You hug Angela. I scurry away and put on my shoes just before Whitney Houston comes on in the room. I spend the day thinking of ancestors.

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Filed under asian americans, memory, prose

Freewrite: Part 8 response to “10 Things to Ask a Stranger”

8.

If your actions and habits and experiences
And favorite foods and past lovers and songs from your adolescence
Make you what you are,
Then who are you?

(from “10 Things to Ask a Stranger” by Safia Elhillo. Full poem here.)

i am the capoeira dancer, the father, the educator, the anarchist rastafarian. i am mistakes. i am deciding to leave. i am selfish at best and dishonest at worst. i am the abuser throwing words at the walls and shattering them upon your ears. i am reaching for you in the sunbathed room on a lazy sunday morning. i am the free-spirit film-maker in my motherland. i am listening to my heart. i love and want you, but i love and want me more. i am complex. i am torn. i am beautiful.

i am rice vermicelli, rau muong, watermelon, and juicy summer peaches- perfume in the kitchen, with the window opened to a breeze. let me run down your chin.

i am misplaced love in white boys named backstreet. i am janet and sade, brown and beautiful, sultry and sensual. i am mary, maybe lauryn.

i am the moleskin planner, the always book-in-hand, present and hiding, the grounded one, alone, listening to her insides. i am learning to trust my self. i am humbled and often more scared than you know. i am wise, more often that you can admit.

i am the mountains of tibet, the angry marxist revolutionary, the smell of dusk in viet nam. i am both the heaviness and hope in heavy boughs of blooming flowers. i am the dragonfruit breaking open, a surprise unfolding on tongues. the ripened flower of a fighting cactus. i am fresh-cut grass. i am the daughter of immigrant men, the ones who carry aromas of gasoline-powered lawn mowers in place of aftershave. i am the builder of picket-fences, not their owners.

i am the graffiti of oakland, fuck la migra, the student walk-out, i am stories of the black panthers and richard aoki.  i am underfunded.  i am living, breathing, and waiting to be discovered still.

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January 26, 2014 · 10:23 am