Coming to Terms

It may be that I’m coming from the traditional Asian family. In such a context, there are only a few career paths worth taking. Doctor, lawyer, engineer – anything that can be labelled and understood as smart and difficult to achieve. Or anything that makes money. I am decidedly none of these. I would say that I ended up label-less, in a field difficult to explain to my mother. I shrink the job description to a few words. Despite the universities and degrees, the cost and travel, it’s not as glamorous as she’d hoped. She can’t explain it in a word to her friends, to my aunts or my uncles. All she has to show are the names of various institutions, places where they’ve never been, but only hear about in the news. Huge organizations where working there doesn’t mean much unless you can say that you actually do something apart from the ever-nebulous, analyze.

Anything that has a label would be better. Or else, anything else would be better.

“His degree will essentially be in Neuroscience. That’s not what he does, but that’s what will be written on his degree in any case.”

(This last comment goes unheeded. Neuroscience is a known, labelled, respectable science, bien sûr.)

“See, that’s what I dreamed of you doing.”

(I had no knowledge of said dream.)

She continues, “Anything would be better.”

(Really? Anything?)

I put aside the fact that after ten years, she doesn’t really know what I do. (But perhaps I’m giving her too little credit, and her statement still holds. That is another matter altogether.) And that, even if she doesn’t know it, this is what she wanted at one time. It’s just that my ultimate employer doesn’t yet start with “World” or end with “Bank”. In her mind, she knows what those people do. And it’s respectable.

My efforts to explain the last ten years bear little fruit. Through a mishmash of opportunity and ‘interest’, I have fallen into what I’m doing today. Your school teachers and professors don’t seem to mention the significance of a label once you get out into the world. It’s somehow important. It’s somehow critical that you can fit your days into a single word, or maybe two. At some point, I came to envy those who could graduate and immediately say, “I’m an engineer.” Or “I’m an accountant.” Or “I’m a doctor.” And people know what they mean. There’s no need to go further. They don’t endure the moments of pause or confusion and the necessity to breach an entire subject matter just to convey how they spend their time. Yes, I envy that. Or perhaps self-branding is a skill I don’t have. But I’m skeptical that that is the solution.

The closest label that we’ve been stamped with is social scientist – a label that could mean nearly anything and one that has been gendered and pushed aside as soft. And this is forever hard to swallow. But perhaps I’m finally coming to terms with the idea.

“What do you do?”

“I study *mumble mumble*…”

“Hm okay, but you do do statistics? That counts. I’ll add you to the mailing list for our seminar.”

THAT COUNTS.

And with those couple of words, perhaps I finally began coming to terms with the label. For now, let’s set aside the fact that external validation seems necessary for me to accept what I’ve become. And that there’s some feeling that the career defines me. With those words, it began to take the form of something real, respected, and worth the brain energy spent. Based off a simple interaction, this is delusional, of course. But perhaps, all the same, it was some recognition that I’ve spent some of my years learning at least some things. So yes, perhaps I finally am coming to terms.

But then, I’m also adding words to say Computational Sciences on that final piece of paper…so maybe not.

A Dinner Party

Winter is the season of dinner parties. Excuses to get together with people, but stay indoors, dress up in sweaters and sweater dresses and celebrate when the sun sets early and the ever present fog leaves beads on your scarf and colors your nose.

Early evening: Accepting the invitation

It’ll be great to get out of the house. It’s an excuse to dress up, because, why not?

It’ll be fun. I’ll see people and have lively discussion. It’s my chance to be social and energetic and show that I’m a fun person.

I do things. Yes, I do things with people.

Getting ready

What kind of get-together is this? Are we talking full makeup? Or would that be trying too hard?

And what to wear. Is this too much party? Or should I be safe and go with black? Maybe it’s too sad and dark. But black is safe.

I’ll just add some color with my shoes for some fun. Heels aren’t too much. People wear heels to dinner.

Purse. No purse? Purse. Which purse? The everyday one, not too much. And coat. Definitely coat, scarf, gloves.

Okay, ready.

Wait, lipstick. Always lipstick. Yes, done.

Oh, and the champagne. Your one job. The champagne. How could you forget?

And late, of course.

The (late) entrance

Okay, hi. This is a lot of people. I’ll say hi to as many people as possible, and then just happily ignore the others that are difficult to reach. I’ll be introduced eventually. I don’t want to make a whole disturbance now. It’s pretty unlikely that I’ll ever see them again in my life anyway.

This is a nice spot in the room. Just nod and smile. Don’t forget to ask questions. You can talk less that way.

Yeah, I don’t understand half of what’s going on…but that’s fine. You’re the foreign one. You’re not supposed to understand. It’s a nice excuse anyhow, a nice excuse to not talk. I just feel bad that they’re trying so hard to include me. But I can also see them getting tired of that responsibility. Sorry! It’s okay. It’s okay. I can’t fix that right now.

À table

Ah finally, we’re sitting down to dinner. I can just eat. Eating is a valid excuse. It takes ALL of my attention. It does. Taking the right amount of salad from the bowl. Not looking ridiculous that I can’t get lettuce onto my fork and on a successful journey to the mouth. How to make the lettuce not overly large? Yes, that’s right. Be sure to fit the entire piece in or else you’ll look like a dumb rabbit. Dumb in all senses of the word, considering that you can’t engage in conversation like normal person right now. ALL THE ATTENTION. Okay, that’s normal.

Hm, that wasn’t enough food. I’m definitely still hungry. I thought the “I’m American” disclaimer was well-distributed at this point. There’s not really anything much left though. I can’t be the one to take all of the final drippings.

The bread! Thank God for bread. The bread will do it. Eat the bread.

I hope they don’t expect me to have followed the conversation. My brain is tired. It can only translate so much in a prolonged period of time. I also have the jetlag excuse in my pocket. I must have zoned out for the past five minutes at least. Okay, fine. Try again.

This conversation isn’t particularly exciting. Maybe I’m not actually understanding. But I think I am. Would I be having fun if I was with my own friends? Or is this really just a language thing? Or do people just get boring when they get older? Or am I just more disinterested? I think I’d still be bored if it were my own friends. Maybe I’ve been here too long. Maybe that’s all it is. This is probably what it’s like for outsiders to hear my friends and I hanging out. I’m suddenly so sorry for all of those people that have to sit through us…

Bored. Maybe this is why I don’t come to these things. Just smile. More smiling.

Woo! Dessert! This is cause for celebration.

Post hoc

Dinner, check. We have to be leaving soon. There seems to be lots of talk left in them yet. *sigh* I’m exhausted. But I still look nice.

Okay, yes? Yes?! Coats. I can do that. I have all the things. Coats, gloves, purse.

Bisous! Love you all! We should do this again? Yes, of course! Let’s do this again soon!

*door shuts*

SWEET FREEDOM.

Let’s take a walk.

A walk sounds marvelous.

On the Brink.

I’m on the brink. I can feel it coming soon, the barrage of events that happen that make you realize that time is passing and life is happening.

“He’s sick, just old age illness,” she says. “He looks pale and slow and sad. I go to see him more often now to cheer him up. He seems happy when I’m there. I washed my car at his house, and he sat on the stairs to watch me. He’s a lot quieter. I asked him to go for a walk, but he doesn’t want to anymore.”

In a span of just a few months, I find myself making mental estimates as to how much time I might have left – how much time I might have left for them to meet my own children. The too real possibility is that there’s not enough. But I’ll make sure to go as soon as I can. Is Thanksgiving too late? Or maybe he will play with my hypothetical little ones.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt the urgency to get to a certain life stage. It started a little over a year ago, when my mom started making more regular trips to the emergency room than I’d like. I was suddenly acutely aware of what I was not doing. I wasn’t moving forward, progressing toward something worth building. And while I wasn’t doing that, I also wasn’t there, near her, as life is happening.

Just a few years ago, I wanted to travel – travel for work, travel for fun, and by travel, I meant live. Because how do you really learn a place unless you spend some real time there, with real people? Now I find that I’m struggling to find a way back, to somehow compromise the two. For someone who wouldn’t call herself a world traveler, my life is decidedly across borders, across several. My closest friends are scattered about in such a way that I think I’ll never find one place to be fully home. And now, so is my family.

So how do I find my way back? I’m convinced that it’s a matter of priorities. Yes, I may be in the middle of a doctoral program. But life is happening and it’s not waiting for me to be ready. For essentially my entire life, school has been at the center. (This is clearly where the Asian mother shoulder angel presents herself in all her glory.) Education is the key. Education is what will bring you far in life. Education is what no one can take from you. While all of that may be true, school alone is not life. It’s one facet. (This holds for work and career too, or just in general. I know, I’m late.) Still, in a household where education stood high above all else, it took quite a bit of time to re-work that perspective when I was out there on my own. While school happens, and will happen, life is happening.

So I’m on the brink of change – realizing the change in perspective, putting thoughts and words into actions. I’m moving forward. I’m building something. And for the first time, I’m consciously putting life first. Not because it fits into my school schedule, but because it’s important, central to connecting with people, building my world and theirs into something worthwhile.

3ds_super-mario-3ds_shot5

Sprouts

Something occurred to me as I was standing on the bus this morning, staring out the window, cramped between my fellow commuters.

I’ve never had to work at a relationship.

In my mid-twenties, I have never had to actively work and plan and strategize to keep a relationship alive and breathing and growing. Maybe this is normal, both the phenomenon and realization. But I’ve never had to – until now.

I have friends. But really, friends are selected and optional. There are people I get along with, who see the world as I do, have similar values and life goals. But friends and acquaintances can be and often are ultimately phased out if they’re not working for your life.

On the other hand, there’s family. Within this realm, there are a few kinds. Those who are way off in the distance, where it doesn’t matter whether your answer to their “how are you” is the reflexive “good” or the real answer.

Then, there are the ones in places of authority – namely your parents – and everyone’s supposed to have good relationships with your parents or else you’re deemed the kid with problems. So you maintain an amicable relationship with the parent, well, because it just makes life easier. Perhaps it’s simply an issue of acceptance.

And then, there are the ones where you’re needed. Whether as a friend, confidante, or supporter, as family, as the only one who can be there, you’re needed and yet the only connecting factor between the two of you is that you share some of the patterns in your respective genomes or were in the same four walls of each other as one or both of you was potty training. Apart from these characteristics, if you ran into each other in the world (already unlikely given your vastly divergent trajectories), it’s probable that you wouldn’t say more than a few words to each other. And would probably, in that interaction, judge each other a little bit. Or a lot.

It’s the last one I’m talking about here. For a long time, I took it for granted that the relationship would just happen. The world would happen naturally and work out perfectly because that’s what the world does in my world. But it hasn’t. And so I’ve recently realized that I have to work at it. Consciously making decisions to cultivate its little sprouts. I’ve never had much of a green thumb. This is hard work.

And it got me thinking then about the relationships that we’re “stuck” in. We don’t have choices in these. Even if at one time, the getting stuck was voluntary – like marriage. The thought of divorce is depressing. Even if the rates are looking optimistic, it still seems all too common. So we say, “they should have worked harder at the relationship.”

But then, we only get good at doing things that we practice. And how many people in their mid-twenties have had real practice at consciously working at relationships? At understanding another person? At being truly awake to their views and differences, no matter how seemingly well you know them? I’m talking about the necessary relationships, the ones that need to flourish, or you and everyone around you will suffer very real, long-term consequences. I’d venture to say few. We’re programmed to take the path of least resistance alongside being entrapped in this ideal that our own pursuits of happiness justify our choices at single points in time, even those at the expense of others.

As I got off the bus this morning, despite the anxious days and tear-filled nights, this is something to be thankful for. It’s life practice. Practice to build beautiful, rewarding relationships that only pressure me to grow. All the pressure and care will be worth it. We will only reap benefits and smell the sweet blooms when it’s all over. And maybe it will never be over. I’m ready for that too.

Happy New Year.

I have a confession to make. While I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, I know what I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be my parents. My parents are wonderful in their own ways. There is no question about it. But every time I come home, the semblance of tranquility, and the feeling that everything is okay, is frayed at the edges. Home is tinged with a despondency that can be overwhelming. Perhaps this is accentuated by the holidays with its tendency to force appearances of levity and leisure.

My life has been dominated by money and its value – what you can afford to do and to have. Its not what my parents intended, I’m sure. But when every decision is made with the underlying crux being money, it becomes hard to ignore. With each choice, you can see the balances gathering weight. Of course, this is for good reason and done with the best intentions. After all, we want to be able to eat next month. It just has a number of consequences. Chronic financial stress can be some of the worst kind.

The value of money in my life was reaffirmed this holiday, when my mom, to ensure that I understood the “value” of our gifts, told us their cost. It made me sad. Why should value be understood based on its price? The worst part is that it worked. I did consider the gift in a different light. I couldn’t decide whether to be disgusted with myself or with the entire societal construct of arbitrary values assigned to things. I have to find solace in the idea that society’s value is placed on the creativity and innovation of the designer who created the product. It makes the situation a little better.

Knowing that that money could have been spent in different ways didn’t do much to help the matter. But this is something that is important to her. She forgets that not everyone is as excited about Dior and Chanel and Gucci and St. Laurent at the expense of other things. This is not to say that I’m not appreciative in the slightest. I am. That it simply makes her so happy to be able to give us these things is enough. I just wish it wasn’t bookended by worries about the mortgage, about school loans, about from where the next paycheck is coming, or about how retirement will even be possible.

For my mom, presentation was and is everything. My dad has his own brand.

Self-comparison is a plague that this generation finds difficult to escape, according to all of the criticisms of generation Y and millennials and our obsession with social media. But I’d say that we only have more public opportunities for it. Past generations, without the Internet, only have the privilege of keeping it contained and concealed. Except from their kids.

For my dad, when something is wrong, it has nothing to do with him. It is the fault of something else. Always. Someone has done something wrong, made something of poor quality, is deficit in their way of thinking about the world. There is a comment to be made, some criticism that places oneself among the highest order because this type of criticism inherently self-aggrandizes. It’s a distinctive kind. And one that often discredits the person doing the criticizing.

Of course, it’s an issue of self-esteem, confidence, and happiness. Everyone believes that she’d be happier if something were in some way different. It makes me sad to see this in my parents and passed off to my siblings. There’s an acceptance that it’s normal to point out the “deficiencies” of other people. Yet, above all, it’s the constant negativity that hacks away at my own happiness. Why should we dwell on the faults of others when there are plenty of our own to attend to? There is no need. I’m convinced that it can only be damaging.

As a kid, I found one household the escape of the other. Today, I find my own house is my escape from that whole world, hundreds of miles away. I love coming home, especially for the holidays, but it has become a particular type of draining. The stress can be debilitating. I’m tired of hearing about unhappiness and feeling helpless to fill its absence. I unexpectedly often find myself looking forward to walking the hallways of my house alone with only my work on my mind.

I don’t want to be my parents when I grow up. I don’t want to be overwhelmed by stress or dwell on negativity. I want to be happy and spread happiness. I want to make my own choices that aren’t dictated by money and status, but for the joy of it. Well, that’s the dream, isn’t it? I like to think that I’ve learned a bit about the world in my short 25 years. The understanding that I don’t know everything makes it all the more intriguing and exciting. But I truly believe that much of all this ideal of achieving happiness has to do with attitude. And I’m resolved to realize this existence.

Happy Holidays. Happy New Year.

The Best of Both Worlds

“What are you talking about? You can’t say anything. You’re hapa, you have the best of both worlds.”

Translation: How could you possibly relate with me with respect to race and the racism I experience? You’re part them.

ST_2015-06-11_multiracial-americans_03-04And I am proud. But no one on the street would pick me out as white. That is fact. So much of how people treat you is based on appearance – an age-old phenomenon of human nature. Never considered white and never considered Asian. Is it really the best of both worlds? Or is it simply a constant reminder that you don’t truly fit anywhere?

I grew up in a close-knit family, always perceiving that I was different in a way over which I had little to no control. I didn’t know the language as well as my cousins of the same age. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable Som Pas-ing every time I saw grandparents. And sometimes, I didn’t know how to properly react to things, but knew that as my mother’s adorable offspring, both she and I would be unreservedly judged on my responses. Instead, without being fully white American, I spoke impeccable English, my dad being a stickler for that sort of thing and my mom fearing that being fully bilingual contaminated my brain with a ‘foreign-ness’ that would hamper my chances in a decidedly Western world.

ST_2015-06-11_multiracial-americans_00-05Even among other hapas or multiracials, even if you matched two people’s distinct cultural composition, each will have his or her own melding of cultures to different degrees of acceptance and understanding to form his or her identity. Applied to real life, this translates to distinct differences in experiences with regards to race and minority issues.

In my case, my parents divorced when I was young. The separation between Asian and white cultures was distinct – lines drawn with the disdain that often comes with such life events. There was an Asian house and a white house with no communication between. Living primarily with my first-generation Asian mother, it wasn’t until my dad reminded me, “You’re white too, you know,” that I realized how much I related with one culture over another at that point in my life. Simple words captured how I had shaped my identity based on one perspective, but neglected to account for how much the other also pervades. I knew how to properly pray at a Buddhist temple, but could also recount to you my lines in that year’s Christmas pageant. Rice is a staple of my diet, but I could also make a mean lemon meringue pie. I bridge the influences of a strict Asian tiger mom and a hippie, openly affectionate father. On top of all of this, I am, in many ways, quintessentially American.

Friends have had markedly different experiences. Third- and fourth-generation hapas have expressed regret and loss at their own tangible separation from cultures that are inevitably represented on their faces. Not knowing languages or how to cook cultural foods, inability to communicate with family elders, failing to fully grasp the meaning behind traditions, and still being regarded as part of this group in society can make you feel like an imposter – even if an imposter by circumstance – where you can’t live up to implicit expectations coming from all sides.

Still, this duality also gives an unprecedented freedom to choose what you believe and what you value. Young first-generation immigrants may also experience this kind of freedom as a result of being thrust into a new culture and society. While some cultural ideals complement each other, others compete. If they do compete, you or someone else (usually parents) must choose which to live by. Your parents and influences, assuming that your parents are active in your life, build so much of who you are. But in some cases, being two or more requires conscious choice, rationale, and justification. It also fosters greater openness to entirely new ideas and ideals, where it seems true innovation and uniqueness can flourish.

Looking to the future, my potential children will have a completely different identity, a mixture of cultures as well as parts of the collection that I’ve become. It leads to a number of questions into how multiracialism as an identity will affect dominant understandings of race, culture, and values into the future.

ST_2015-06-11_multiracial-americans_00-01It is human nature to want to fit in somewhere, to relate to other people on different levels and find where you “belong.” What happens when individuals can’t be categorized? Is that a category in itself? I’m not proposing that any of these ideas as wholly new concepts in society today. It floats around with questions of “finding one’s identity” and “heritage awareness” and “racial affiliation” – “The Hapa Movement” and “The Multiracial Identity Gap.”

Multiracial Americans as a demographic group is growing three time as fast as the population as a whole. It’s increasingly becoming a natural consideration for inclusion and a focus of research, policy, and politics. So how do we deal with a population group that doesn’t necessarily mesh within their own family units, let alone a larger subgroup, that is based on a self-constructed, often fluid identity? Can we get real answers to any of our questions about multiracials when the diversity of backgrounds and self-proclaimed identities that we are attempting to make fit are inherently disjointed?

Second Best, Always

“You’ll spend your whole life with your first choice just out of reach – what you really wanted, what would mean real fulfillment. You will always get second best.”

That’s what he said to me. It’s followed me around. It haunts. It haunts effectively. I question major decisions – is this only second best? My choice in schools, that exam that needed just one more point, this career, that first real job and the next, the last boyfriend – is that why it didn’t work? Is that why I didn’t make the grade?…I’m not taking first, or I’ve failed to achieve first. I’ve fought my own growing resentment attached to those words. He meant well. They don’t actually influence my life. But is that really the case? Perhaps I let them.

How did he suggest I fix it? I change my name, only slightly. Changing one letter of the spelling to match some sort of birth path, defined by the state of the universe at the second I was aware. With this change, I would be in alignment with what the universe has planned for only the best me. And through that best me, only then will I realize the highest possible levels of happiness and have the world work with me in mind. Events will fall at my feet and I will excel in all things because my place in the world is aligned. Based on a name. My name in this world.

How ridiculous. My hyper-rational mind scoffs.

I have always been a proponent for the idea that you create your own destiny and achieve your own achievements, earned, earned to the extent that that credit is possible to possess according to the cards dealt to you at birth. There is nothing in the stars that directs you along a singular, unchanging, fateful path. But another part, the part that accepts that this world is ultimately unknowable – that there are mystical instances that mean things to happen in some fashion as opposed to another – nags.

How can all of this destiny, path, and fate be wrapped up in a name? And even, it’s spelling? In some ways, it makes sense. Your identity becomes wrapped up in your name. Or it could be another way around – your identity is defined and created by your name, which is, in my opinion, the more frightening of the two. Maybe I’m too entrenched in the idea of freedom in my American upbringing, even if it is a qualified freedom. The idea that something is set in stone without a role for our own rationalization and choice is terrifying. I can’t imagine that I’m the only one who thinks so.

He told me this as a freshman in college. Perhaps it was a particularly impressionable time, but I’ve yet to fully let it go. I wouldn’t say that I’ve accepted it either. Second is hard to accept as an alternative to first. Such an idea forces acknowledgment of different potential levels of happiness across life stages, and that achieving one level over the other is out of your control. One can’t help but reject the idea.

In fact, it would only be healthy to reject such an idea. The alternative is a diminished perception of self-worth and acceptance of impossibility that would only stunt or kill creativity and achievement and happiness. Who is to judge whether you’ve taken first or second? It’s only yourself, your harshest critic. The one that will follow you incessantly, and without reprieve.

But I do resent his words. And I’ve resolved that I cannot accept them. However, I suspect that this decision made does little to mitigate any thoughts that arise around the idea when a choice comes to pass. Still, it’s been written here. Perhaps that makes it a little more real. Coming to this point has only taken seven years or so, with perhaps a few more to go.