Figs for Thought

Bahu-Beti-Biwi (Daughter-in-law, Daughter, Wife) from Sheetal Gandhi on Vimeo.

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On Staying…

Paper Crane

“I’m still discovering, right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It was probably the heat, or the relentless reality that I was almost 6 months past the age of 25 and my life showed so sign of progressing beyond that of physically aging. Whatever it was, I was contemplating ditching the Bay Area and moving down to LA to study writing of some form or another. I wanted something to get me out of the 9-5 job that I had gotten into. I wanted to leave and fulfill the need of adventure and act of physically moving that often marks the next stage in life as a young adult. No coming of age story has the young protagonist leaving home only to retreat and home back as a disastrous failure, that is, unless you happen to be the prodigal son in one of Jesus’ parables.

Then I realized, I didn’t actually want to leave.  I decided to stay.

A month after, I quit my job, the first job that I had gotten out of college. In retrospect, it was what I wanted to do all along, only I was too chicken to do it without something to fall back on. I remembered that moment when I realized that I wasn’t going to go anywhere, and I needed to leap. Maybe it was foolish looking back at it now, but in between coming back to the Bay Area in desperation and being willing to take any job followed by a family health crisis almost two years ago, I needed to know that I was able to make an active decision instead of a passive one for once in my post-grad life.

I’m trying to make sense of what it means to be living here, as in, to live here fully and experience both the joys and sorrows around me. After trying to leave this area over and over again in various ways, and utterly failing every time with an exception to a change in decision, I’m slowly realizing that I cannot continue on living in a blur of busyness while in pursuit of some grand dream or scheme that I barely even understand myself.

I’ve been learning to share in the happiness of upcoming births, and I’m learning to mourn the loss of someone I barely knew who died of cancer earlier this week. The best writers, I once said, are the ones who are able to articulate the realities of life and speak to their readers in a transformative way. The best writers observe through their experiences by living through them fully in all its rigorous disappointment, anguish and joy, because only then can you speak truthfully, even in fiction. So I’m learning, I think, to share in that grief, joy and suffering, and to experience it in all its intensity… I’m learning to have faith.

So this is a new season.

Of the mundane and ordinary choices

 

There’s a scene in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and her friends end up in a field of poppies, and they start to fall asleep, endangering their goal of meeting the “Wizard” and getting home. I often imagined that the daily grind and expectations for a life characterized by a 9-5 job and a stable salary to be the real-world equivalent of this scene. And it could be, if you fell asleep to routine.

If you had asked me when I was twenty-two what I was afraid of after graduation, it would’ve been that I’d live an ordinary life, not realizing back then that I was confusing “ordinary” with complacency. In reality, nothing is “ordinary.” Even the basic day to day activities we’d characterize as “mundane” in lieu of chores and responsibilities characterizes a life that needs to be led with an awareness of a gardener who knows that small things add up at the end. There are weeds to pull and seeds to plant for a season to come, but the result of those efforts are often extraordinary.

We don’t normally live our lives in those great epic adventures. It’s not so exciting anymore once you realize that much of what you read about in those stories as a kid were adventures that often strove to restore what is termed ordinary. Is it ordinary to have a job, a stable income, a family to love and a roof over your head? It isn’t when there’s a war; it isn’t when there is persecution and political instability; it isn’t when you’ve been diagnosed with a disease that threatens to cut your life short. That’s why none of those things are “ordinary,” not in a world with limited resources and a life with limited time.

But in the day to day decisions, either in the form of moral dilemmas and seemingly unimportant ones, there’s also that choice to either fall asleep or be awake. When you can so blindingly head off to your dream job without knowing the person you’ve passed the 60th time on the street, never saying hello and take the time to know that there’s another human being standing next to you, you’ve fallen asleep. When you can so easily ignore the daily responsibilities to fulfill some fleeting moment of pleasure, you’ve fallen asleep. When you’re making fear-based decisions that compromise who you are, you’ve fallen asleep.

When I was twenty-two, I was afraid of falling asleep, not understanding that life was in fact, never “ordinary,” at least not where choices were concerned.

January blues

Chanel no. 5 illustration by Moaza Matar

Chanel no. 5 illustration by Moaza Matar

On a day like this, I feel oddly happy with the reliable Chanel No. 5 as there is no one to impress; it’s just good old classic perfume. I had an oddly draining and hectic day today with my mother being sick. I’m sick too, but I think no where as bad as her’s was. While I wasn’t wearing it today, I wore it after a long bath in the afternoon, a bit like reclining into the arms of something stable.

When I was younger, this one would tickle my nose and scratch the back of my throat; there was something that smelled of civet, and I’m not a fan of civet. I don’t know whether they reformulated it, but I found that one day, I could wear it. I finally appreciated the dry down, which was a nice musky sort of vanilla, a bit sweet and not at all cold and austere as it had first appeared. I have a small bottle of the EDT, which is the version I like best as I’m not made of gold and the EDT has an almost cologne-like quality to it.

January always seems a bit depressing, as does March (after the initial hype of Valentines day in February). I think it has something to do with the lack of holidays, as if you’re going full force and having an jolly good time only to suddenly hit a brick wall of sobriety. For some people, that sobriety might actually be a good thing, especially for their liver. Unfortunately this January seems to be characterized by a broken heart and a bad cold…a very bad cold.

It’s nice to know some things are classic and stable.

Progress

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

There’s a number of circumstances that I have been involved in that I will not want to respond in the same way again, not unlike adjusting a habit when one realizes that it causes pain. Don’t do it again. It’s a part of growing up, and while sometimes frustrated, I also understand that part of the frustration comes with knowing that I could have done it differently. I now know to do it differently. Ira Glass’ spiel on writing was shown to me by a good friend of mine when I had been looking through creative writing classes, but I think it’s applicable for other fields as well.

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.

Dear Joe

coffee

Dear Joe,

I’ve held onto you through many a great wee morning hours and late night ones, especially the ones where I’d be so tired the world only operated sideways. You were there for me all those college years, through all my papers and projects. Your warmth reassured me that everything was going to be okay when you sat there as I typed away toward the deadlines. You were hot, sometimes cold, sometimes downright icy. I liked you hot.  Occasionally you would keep me awake all through those nights and made my pulse race in ways that were definitely not healthy as I tossed and turned in bed.

You were like a drug, no you were a drug and every time I’d try giving you up, I’d come running back to you all over again when the days ran long and I simply didn’t have enough strength to resist. Maybe I fancied myself the young sophisticate taking you in unadulterated states; you made my stomach do flip flops and that was when I realized that you were a bit too much.

But, I simply can’t continue this love affair anymore. You were appropriate for that season in life, and now I’ve discovered the inevitable.

You see Joe, you’re causing my acne breakouts. I don’t know why this is the case, and ideally, I’d love to be able to continue drinking you, but my skin just doesn’t agree. I went two weeks without touching you, and when my employer brought in a new fancy coffee maker, I started drinking you again. In those two weeks, my skin had cleared up unreasonably well thanks to a new routine, but suddenly it all came back and this afternoon, I realized that the reason was probably you.

So I’m returning to my old and steady flame (tea) and maybe I’ll flirt with you occasionally and even take a cup once a month, but you can no longer be a part of my daily life.

-J

Boundaries

“Yeah, I don’t think it exists for Chinese parents,” my friend said when I mentioned how I was struggling to establish boundaries with my mom and dad during our hike together last month.

It’s been one full year since I came back in a harried haphazard state, and adjusting to living with my parents again is both one cup regression and two parts coping lesson with a dash of ambiguity. I can’t say that the concept of boundaries is totally non-existent from my observation; it exists when your Chinese parents decide that it’s “time.”

Unfortunately, “Time” is not some agreed-on age. It’s nebulous, and even then you wonder whether it actually happens. For some, separation between you and your parent is inevitable. It occurs regardless of whether we want to or not. But in between that inevitable permanence that sadly happens, the Asian parent is a diligent creature.

On my part though, the roles reversed when I had first returned home. The occupational therapist who visited my father once he got out of the nursing home pointed out to me that I needed to step back, which I hadn’t realized because being the oldest, I was expected to do everything and take care of everything. After all, this is what my parents do with my grandparents. We never had a caretaker for them as the women in the family were the ones who cared for them once they got older. I was doing something that I had seen, and I spent a month being the parent without questioning until it became clear that my father needed to do those things himself if he wanted to regain the freedom of mobility he once had.

So I stepped back, only to realize that inevitably, I’ll be in that position again since the expectation of being the oldest will always come back as my parents age and get older. Boundaries, in this case, is no match for the cultural principle of filial piety that’s seeped so far into my pores I don’t even think about it when I react the way I do. Boundaries are a luxury in my parents’ world, because the lack of an ability to progress career-wise means that you take on a great deal of sacrifice and disrespect that comes with being a non-English speaker. In other words, you do back-breaking crap-work to get to where you want to get to, which in their case was to pay the bills. I’ve inherited that attitude in many ways, and while to endure is good, I’ve fallen short on recognizing when I’ve needed to step off.

I suspect that they’re establishing it, or trying to (or struggling to) with certain things in particular in our lives right now, but boundaries on my end occurs as a response to their preferences on curfew and matters pertaining to me going out at night.

I’m not the product of circumstances, just someone who’s learning to fall properly.

Closure? Not quite

I heard firecrackers when the news came out last night, like a long awaited celebration that had been waiting so long that lone fire cracker was all that was around. Or at least that was how it was like for me, because by now, it’s been ten years and the news of Bin Laden’s death isn’t so much celebratory as it was some inevitable thing. While I’m glad this event brought closure to the families who lost their loved ones, his death doesn’t mean much in the grander scheme of things.

There will still be fanatical people of all religions, still hatred and anger, still poverty and desperation that allows those first two to take root and dictators as well as regimes to rise. Hitler’s death and WWII neither ended wars nor genocides.

And there’s still us, preferring to take the short cut rather than preventative measures. We like to think that the Taliban and Bin Laden came out of the far corners of hell and that his end meant justice. But I don’t see justice, just the conditions that exist which allows for the propagation of oppression. Let’s not forget our own role in Afghanistan’s political troubles which lead to the Taliban’s rise.

Tomorrow, people will still starve and live below the poverty line, many will not have the education they need and their lives will be the expense for some of the choices that we make. I ask where’s justice for that?