Figs for Thought

Because sometimes, it’s good to be angry

“Life is a dance,” in vinyl lettering decorated the wall behind my father’s bed at the nursing home last summer. It was credited to Katherine Hepburn courtesy of the hyphen that followed, but I found it hard to imagine her saying something like that. A search online never revealed her saying anything close, but I guess one of her other quotes, “Life is hard. After all, it kills you,” wasn’t nearly as appropriate.

In the month that unfolded at my father’s stay at the nursing facility, I’d end up discovering that he was never appropriately registered. What resulted in a typical visit from my aunt ended up with her pointing out the fact that we were told we would have to pay out of pocket there and he wasn’t receiving the appropriate therapy. As the oldest child, I was asked to speak with the staff, or rather, confront them.

They never took ownership over the mistake they made. Walking into their conference room was like walking into a table full of people who had all agreed on the same story. It was not a problem. It was not a big deal. I was overreacting. When I confronted them about the fact that my mother had found soiled sheets from the morning that were not taken away, that were still there in the evening, I was told rather abruptly that it was “stupid that you and your family never said anything earlier.”

Stupid

There is nothing quite like being spoken down to. When you’re fresh out of college. It’s like the entire world wants to scrub the last remnants of whatever “entitlement” and “idealism” you have by dismissing you, and while entirely out of context I’d also spent the months prior to that feeling generally dismissed as “stupid” even though those were not the words that were used. In fact, there were no words. It was usually nothing more than well-meaning advice who came from people I respected and looked up to over the years only to learn later on that looking up to people inevitably meant that they were looking down at me.

And I learned, that I was stupid for being passive, for giving other people’s opinions power over me. I would learn it repeatedly after this incident as well.

But in this case, stupid was my family, or rather me (since the responsibility was left to me for making all of these decisions at that time) for not having known that when you send someone to a nursing home to recover, you can’t leave them there for the staff to take care of them even though it costs $300 a night to stay there.

As much as I hated hearing those words, she was correct. We were clueless. We were clueless that they would be so negligent. I never quite forgot those words. They stung and they hurt, because personally they were right in the sense that I was naive.

It was quite possibly the loneliest summer I ever had, and while people excitedly graduated my response to curious peers who would ask me what I was up to ended up in an awkward explanation with how my father had a stroke and I was taking care of things at home. When I wasn’t job searching, I was visiting the nursing home to make sure everything went exactly as it should. There would be no mistakes allowed after that one incident.

I go back to this point last year, not because I’m masochistic (maybe slightly), but because that one incident exposed all the fears and anger I had pent up. It wasn’t just the staff that I was angry at up at that point. There was a whole entire slew of people who “meant well” and had left me with some advice that was good and many that were bad. It was my anger towards my passiveness at simply doing whatever I was told. It was my anger toward people, so fraught with expectations I had on myself as well as others. It was that condescending tone reserved for the young from “older” people, that tone that I had mistaken for concern. I decided to stop listening.

I took the first step to becoming an adult, when I stopped looking for affirmation over the decisions I made. And I stopped looking for affirmation, when I finally became angry at the people I thought I could depend on for support who were not really there for me. I know they meant well, but at the end of the day, so did that staff at the nursing home.

I learned after that summer that you take care of yourself, because while others do have good intentions, they don’t actually have the capacity of knowing everything that’s going on. Perspectives are limited, no matter how well meaning people are, and expectations can only lead to disappointment.

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A TV and a Microwave

My mother was telling me about a distant relative of ours. His mother was white, and his father was Chinese. After a while, his mother passed away and he grew up more or less with his father. At some point, he decided that he wanted to meet his father’s side of the family, “because family was important to him,” my mother said. After all, if there’s one thing that’s been repeated over and over again, it’s that family comes first, beyond friends and anything else. It’s a Chinese value as implied over the years, not American, like a carefully measured differentiation in these two systems that do not mix in the way oil and vinegar does not. If you don’t have family, you don’t really have much, she mentioned.

I don’t know whether she was trying to make that point with me when she randomly told me this story.

But in any case, this man, biracial by birth, sold his house, quit his job and moved to China to find that side of his family. My mother knows this, because his TV and microwave were our first when my parents came here during the 80s and had us. We were on the receiving end of his moving out of the states. I remember breaking off a little cover piece and discovering little knobs for the TV that changed the channels without the need of a remote control. I remember the dust that settled on the brown finish and glass-like screen. Curious appliances.

“What happened to him?” I asked.

“He came back,” my mother said. China apparently didn’t work out that well for him. Or maybe he realized that it was time for him to return to the states. Either way, he didn’t stay there excessively long. I don’t know this relative of ours; he was apparently distant enough that we never met him and I didn’t know of him until my mother spoke of him several months ago. But we had his microwave and TV, and those two items lasted us all the way through those early years in the outskirts of Chinatown and Oakland when my parents were adjusting to living in the states.

I’m trying to imagine him as someone who had decided to make a major decision in his life, maybe with a streak of adventure, or someone who worked in a cubicle until he had a wake-up call one day. I want to make meaning out of this story, but I don’t know anything about him at all. All I know is that we got our TV and microwave from him when my parents first immigrated here because he decided to move to China.

At the Dentist Office

“Oh yes, my son is going to UC Davis this fall,” my dentist said. He hadn’t seen me since my junior year of college. I was wondering how many cavities I had since I’d last had that last check-up. Being back in that chair brought back some vague memories of being younger and stupider; I had a perpetual avoidance for flossing since I was so reliant on my parent’s dental insurance. Dr. Chen is a Chinese-English speaking doctor; a reassuring presence for many a great immigrant parents with American-born Chinese kids who developed a taste for American-strength sugary sweets

He asked me what my major was and I told him I did Visual Communications as well as English.

“Oh English, how is the English program there?” he asked.

I was looking straight into that eerie bright light as I reclined back into that chair.
“I’d say pretty good..eh, lots of writing and reading…”

We had just taken my first set of x-rays and I was wondering what might be discovered. I had had a tooth ache a couple weeks ago. Maybe there were four or five cavities. I was bracing for four cavities, but maybe there were more.

“English is my son’s thing you know,” my dentist continued, “that’s why I asked about the work load there.”

“Oh yes,” I responded. Suddenly emboldened by a knee-jerk reaction of most English types in a heavily research-science oriented university, I launched into the usual summary before he started working on my plaque-covered molars.

“It’s a decent program, you get on average ten books to read a quarter depending on the class you’re taking, lots of writing you know, lots of writing. We often found ourselves reading two novels a week…”

“I see,” my Dentist responded.

As he examined my teeth, he looked distraught. I knew that I hadn’t been flossing and it had been a while since I had a proper dental exam. Something must have been really wrong with my teeth. After rising out the gritty toothpaste that seems like a staple in most dental offices, I told him that I thought I had cavities.

He was looking at my X-rays, “Why do you say that?”

“Well I had this tooth ache a while ago,”

“I see,” Dr. Chen responded. He still looked distraught. “Where did this tooth ache happen?”

“It was somewhere in the back…on the top I think?”

“Well you do have one cavity, a tiny one….on one of the bottom ones,”

“Oh”

He took off his mask, “I have to ask, you said that you read ten books a quarter, but that’s usually for the upper division English classes, right?”

“Uh…right?”

As it turned out, his son was going in as an Environmental Science major. When he said that “English” was his son’s “thing,” he meant that it was his weaker subject. He was actually asking me about the GEs, like any worried parent with a college-bound kid might, except I misunderstood him. He had been distraught the entire time because of that, not because of my imaginary cavities wreaking havoc.

Of course. He’s a dentist. He’s seen lots of cavities.

College-bound kids aside, I am happy to report that the cavity doesn’t need any fixing for now since it’s too small to drill even. I need to floss more often…although given the location of this tiny bugger, maybe I need to brush better.