Of Race and Relationships: Bread Isn’t Just For Sandwiches

2011 October 16 § 3 Comments

In an effort to save money, my SO and I were thinking about what foods we could get that would be versatile options during the food-making processes of cooking breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. One particular exchange during our meandering journey through Safeway really brought home to me an important aspect of growing up in any culture: food.

“Celery?” He suggested. “We can put it in soup or eat it as a snack.”

I shook my head, wondering if I should suggest garlic even though I knew we wouldn’t be able to use it all. “I don’t like celery. How about broccoli?”

We passed by the green onions (which went in almost every dish my mom cooked) and selected some fruit in the produce section, then selected his favorite cereal (Raisin Nut Bran) and my favorite cereal (Honey Bunches of Oats, but only the Honey Roasted variety) before heading for the refrigerated dairy section in the back.

“We can get bread,” he commented as we walked past shelves of bread in all its wheat, white, honey oat, potato, rye, and sourdough glory, all packaged in neat loaves along the aisle.

“Why?” A lot of surprise; a little distaste. Nothing against bread; I just didn’t much like sandwiches.

He sounded confused. “Well, it’s something we can eat for every meal. Toast, and sandwiches, and dinner-“

“But I don’t like sandwiches…” My experience working in the dining hall at my university had raised my standard for sandwiches – I wouldn’t be satisfied with just lettuce, a couple of slices of tomato, and one or two other vegetables. Plus, sandwiches were a pain to prepare… and who ate sandwiches for dinner, anyway?”

There was a pause, a moment of silence while we stopped in the aisle. And then he started laughing.

Dinner in my thoroughly Chinese household varied in the details, but had certain mainstays that were reliably constant:

1. Soup before and after dinner.
2. Rice was served more than nine times out of ten.
3. We almost always had at least one plate of vegetables, one plate with seafood or fish, and one plate of some other kind of meat.
4. Fruit for a late dessert.

For me, rice is comfort food, happy food, filling food, and the staple I always cooked when I needed a pick-me up or something that was familiar and reminded me of home. My mom always cooked porridge with chicken, ginger, and green onion when my brother or I were sick; it got so that whenever I was sick at school, that was the only thing I wanted or had much of an appetite for. This was something I’d taken for granted as “normal,” as something that I would cook when I was living on my own.

Even if my significant other had a Chinese or Chinese American background, I’m sure there would still be differences in the foods we would be used to eating (for example, even the foods that my younger cousins on my dad’s side eat are slightly different than what my family usually eats at home). Even allowing for small differences, though, my boyfriend’s food and my food are completely different in type, variety, and staples. His grocery store is Safeway, his parents’ first choice the produce market, and mine is Zion and Ranch 99. We become so used to the food we grow up with that seeing how other families eat can take some adjustment, especially when that other family is the boyfriend’s (or girlfriend’s) family, and their ethnic background is very different from our own.

I can only imagine the kind of culture shock I’m going to get when I experience a “real” Thanksgiving with his family, complete with the turkey and stuffing and who knows what else. (Back home, we never really acknowledged the Western holidays, aside from the fact that my parents didn’t have work on those days. If we “celebrated” Thanksgiving at all, it was with a gathering of family friends, grilling chicken or beef ribs in the backyard, and eating chow mei fun. The only turkey I ate growing up was the kind you bought sliced in plastic packaging in the deli section.)

Being in a long-distance relationship also means that it took me well over a year to really understand what it meant to date someone from a vastly different ethnic background than my own. Because we ate out more often during those rare visits to see each other, I didn’t realize just how different our day-to-day eating habits really were.

So what did I learn during my August visit?

My rice is his salad.

Hamburgers, steak, and hot dogs grilled in the backyard are high on the list for family gatherings.

There actually exists an invention called the “salad spinner.”

Rice eaten plain and white is basically nonexistent as a dish or even as a side.

There are more specific names for different pasta dishes, because they actually eat more than one kind of pasta.

And lastly, bread is not just something you eat in a sandwich.

 

More thoughts on my identity as an Asian-American can be found at An Asian-American Diary.

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a story from my life, part i.

2011 October 9 § Leave a comment

Taken at Ballard Locks, Seattle, WA

Ballard Locks, Seattle, WA

My name is Yvonne, and I’m 23 years old.

Out of cultural context, some things that my mom said could be considered downright mean. “Oh, she’s not as beautiful as your daughter, she’s a little

chubby.” That’s what she would say to her friend, a friend that had a daughter my age. I looked at my childhood friend, and saw someone who was my opposite – she was the perfect image of what I thought was the “ideal Chinese girl.” Slim. Petite. Small-boned. Pretty. Fashionable and popular. I looked at myself and saw none of those things, even though I had my own qualities that made me amazing.

I understand now that it was not malicious in intent – culturally, it was a way to be humble and to show pride in your children to say such things. Ten years ago, I didn’t understand that, and each time I heard those words, it cut me like a physical whip. I was already quiet, and shy; I became quieter and more withdrawn, desperate to win my parents’ approval and to become perfect.

It’s not that those were the only things important to me. But from parents who wanted perfection, I always felt like it wasn’t good enough. Somewhere along the way, I started to believe that nothing that I did was good enough, that perfection was the only way to acceptance. Magazines that I read told me that I needed makeup and a thin body to be beautiful, that I needed silky blond hair and blue eyes to be pretty and desirable to guys. Mainstream television didn’t offer any Chinese or even Asian role models that I could look up to – all it told me was that “beautiful people” were white and American, and implied that minorities were not. I took in all of these external messages and they haunted me, made me doubt myself, made me hate myself and what I looked like. I looked at my body and saw fat, even though I was just your average teenager. I let the voices of others overpower that of my own.

My judgment and perception of myself became warped because of what I felt was constant pressure from my parents to be better. Home became a place I wanted to avoid, and I threw myself into school activities, into sports, into volunteering at the library and reading like crazy. Things began to change because I found joy and power in my body and my mind. I was new to tennis, but I made the varsity team during my first tryout. With a racquet in my hand, I felt powerful and strong and amazing. When I stood on the green court with its white lines and red boundaries, I wasn’t a non-ideal Chinese girl who wasn’t smart enough or pretty enough – I was a winner. When I started playing badminton, the same thing happened – I was new to the sport, but agile and hard-working. I was a valuable member of the team. And when I stood in a school gym, it didn’t matter that I wasn’t skinny and didn’t have blond hair or blue eyes – I was just me, a formidable opponent and badminton player, a good partner.

I also had the good fortune to get involved in Marine Corps Junior ROTC. Even though I was already athletic and fit, I became more so. I learned to take care of my appearance in uniform and do all sorts of things I didn’t learn in AP Calculus or Honors English or Biology. In JROTC, it didn’t matter what any of us cadets looked like – we were judged on our work ethic and our skill, and promoted accordingly. For the first time in my life, I felt like people were seeing me as an individual. I felt like people saw me as Yvonne, not just my mother’s imperfect daughter or a so-so student.

In middle school, I had also begun writing fanfiction, out of a distant dream to become published one day. Online, as just another author, I was anonymous. Only my writing mattered, not my beauty. When people praised my writing, I was happy – and when I found a plethora of friends within the fanfiction community, I felt like I had finally found a place where I belonged. As a writer, and as a reader, I could close my eyes and travel to many different places, to many different worlds. At a time when “online” was synonymous with “dangerous” and “online predator”, I found people who saw me for me, and nothing else. When I was feeling down, and when I cried, these friends were here to listen and support me. I think that, most of all, was what helped me to really look beyond that external noise, and find value in myself beyond what television, magazines, and other people told me.

I had friends, and parents who loved me, and many people besides who were supporting me in my life. But because I had this litany of negativity in my head and in my heart, I couldn’t see any of that. Being a part of sports and JROTC, finding a dream and holding onto it, and having friends who taught me how to find value in myself – these were all only steps to the individual that I am today. Ultimately, I had to make the choice to either listen to “everyone else” and become bogged down by never being good enough, or being proud of who I was and believing in myself. Only after I began believing in myself did I begin to correct my negative body image; only after I saw my value in my individuality, did I begin to embrace myself for my differences and see the beauty and strength in my body, that could play tennis and run and shoot at targets and was a powerful, beautiful creation.

There is a lot more to this story, and to my journey to self-love, and self-confidence, and to understanding my identity. But the start of it, and the heart of it, was telling myself to listen to and believe in my own voice. I looked at myself in the mirror everyday and told myself that I was beautiful and amazing and strong, and even if I didn’t believe it at first, there was a day that I believed it a little, and then later there was a day when I began to truly believe it in my heart. The beginning of the process took months, even years, and even today, I continue to struggle.

Don’t let others tell you what beauty is – only you can decide for yourself what it means.

Do you have a story to tell?

A letter to 4days&3nights of an amazing experience.

2011 July 25 § Leave a comment

Dear Summer Summit 2011,

I never knew that I could change so much in so little time. The last time I felt this floored, I was choking up during staff transition as I stepped down from MASA presidency and passing the torch to a bright, outstanding staff that I’d watched grow for one and two years and that I knew would continue to grow, and take MASA with them in a new direction.

I learned from you. Not just about the concepts that you calmly taught to me, through personal experiences and charts and words on a chalkboard, but also about myself. The meaning of beauty and how it is a social construction that’s a bunch of bullshit. (Growing up is hard enough without magazines, television, and commercials telling us that we’re not good enough or beautiful enough as we are. Like hell we aren’t perfect the way we are.) Identity and identities, and how they intersect and intertwine. Social justice, and what it means to understand our world and seek to change the challenges that we all face as human beings.

I learned from the young friends whom you brought to meet me. Bright, uplifting students who I never expected to learn from: who taught me more compassion, that care does not have to be from helping someone by giving advice and counsel. Strength is not a man’s prerogative, but it is also not an adult’s or college student’s prerogative. I saw so much strength in my students (fishies!) and in all of the other students participating in the program. The diversity and creativity was so beautiful to watch; the trust entrusted to me, so absolutely humbling that I was brought to my knees by its power.

There is so much respect in my heart for the staff and coordinators who were there, creating and shaping you into something beautiful and welcoming and stimulating and challenging. They asked me how I was doing in passing. When my heart was troubled and I tried to wrap it up in gauze bandages and an inadequate band-aid of keeping busy, they reached out and embraced me like they had known me for years, rather than just days. I have always had such a difficult time getting to know people because I don’t want to open myself, exposed and vulnerable for others to see. And yet I cried and heard myself describing my past, and the challenges I had overcome, because I could feel that warmth extended to me unconditionally despite my newness. They taught me, too, about womyn-with-a-y and social justice, and you listened to my frustrations about inadequacy between ancient literature and books about genocide after the midnight hour. I wish now that I had expressed to them in words how grateful I felt for their support and their inspiring words and their attentiveness, for every hug and encouraging smile.

And I could hardly forget my fellow RAs, who went through this experience with me. Sometimes I felt so lost and so confused about what I was doing, but their support (and sometimes, mutual confusion) comforted me a lot more than they could know. They were inspiring in their conviction and their dedication to the cause of education… and in turn, have inspired me to reflect more on myself, on my passions, and on my ideals. As individuals, each person was incredible, talented, beautiful, and uplifting. As a group, they were incredible. I feel so incredibly blessed to number as one of them, even though many times before, during, and now (even after) I felt and feel so grossly inadequate and underdeveloped. All of the jokes and running around for scissorsmarkersbluetape; the floor sweeps up and down stairs and calling up to balconies from outside; the nightly debriefs where we shared of ourselves; the private, intimate talks between meetings and workshops and here and there, about relationships and concerns and fears; singing together and eating together, and randomly calling out “WIND ME UP!”. Those wonderful moments as we bade farewell to all of the students, and chilling and rocking it out together to music and song.

I know that I didn’t expect to gain so much from getting to know you in such a short time, that’s for sure. I went in thinking it might be a good way to figure out my future and a fun way to spend my weekend. I felt alone and out of place during post-planning meetings and workparties, and I wondered many times if I had made a mistake in thinking that I was qualified at all.

My fears have not been assuaged, and my insecurities have not disappeared. I can’t regain the lost hours of sleep, and it will be some time before I fully recuperate from the stress of needing to stretch my attention for both my students (and the program) as well as my ever-important academics. (In all honesty, I probably slept less than 10-12 hours between all three nights. I don’t even know how my mind and body functioned.) But I know it in my heart that I don’t regret having done this. I feel like I have made a change in my students, and have helped them to find questions and answers through this experience. I feel like I have found answers for my questions about my future. I feel so humbled by all of the brilliant individuals I had the opportunity to meet in four days and three nights.

There is still so much that I need to process from our time together, Summer Summit. But I just wanted to let you know that you gave me something invaluable and precious and beautiful. I hope that someday I can tell you in person how I feel, but for now, these are the words in my heart that I still can’t fully articulate.

Please stay in touch. I hope that one day I will have the courage to look you in the eyes and say these words in my heart, and hold your hands and show you how much you have changed me and my perspective on this world.

With all my love and gratitude,
Yvonne

identity: disadvantaged, privileged… at the same time?

2011 July 12 § 1 Comment

Today was the second day of R.A. training for the Summer Summit. I can’t say I was glad that I’d only managed two-and-some hours of sleep in the wee hours of dawn, but I’ve been truly excited to become a part of this program, especially after I resolved to make steps to pursue my current career goal: a job in education or education administration, working in an advisory or counseling capacity.

The first day was a lot of basic information, ground rules, and going over things we needed to know about do’s, don’t’s, and the gray areas in between; communication, and its importance; nonverbal and verbal signals during conversation, where you have to read between the lines to understand the whole of the conversation. During the triad session today, I was mentee, observer, then mentor – and it really made me appreciate the help I got from CAPS, and how great Autumn was helping me to work through my issues and problems.

Being the mentor also helped me realize how important it is to listen: to focus on what is being said, NOT trying to think of a response, question, or reply while the other person is talking to you.

(I’ve been able to apply my lessons in customer service to so many things!)

The activity that really impacted me the most today was a group activity about identity: sex, gender, sexuality, race, class, or another identity that could be anything or anything.

Four sticky dots in four different colors, representing four different feelings. We were supposed to identify which category the feeling applied to, and place the sticker in the appropriate box.

  1. RED: The identity I felt most disadvantaged in.
  2. BLUE: The identity I feel most privileged in.
  3. GREEN: The identity I feel most comfortable with.
  4. YELLOW: The identity I feel most understood.

The boxes were at once restrictive and teaching. I try hard to focus on myself, rather than on how others see me. I have long believed in the strength of my own conviction – that if I believe in myself, love myself, and have confidence in myself, others will sense that and see not a girl who stands 5’2″, but someone who can get the job done, and done well. In our discussion afterwards, I voiced a conflict I had felt when I confronted my gender, my race, and my class through this activity.

In trying to find a box for my red spot, I realized that I couldn’t pinpoint my disadvantage to only one category. Pride in my ethnicity and my background do not exclude that I can be disadvantaged by them; and by the same token, disadvantage from being Asian, from being female, do not mean that I can’t also be privileged as an Asian-American woman.

I love my heritage and my culture, but I’ve known for a while now that others might seek to box me in as I strive for my goals. Typically, writer + Asian American + female = the perfect formula for a story about identity, about reconciling differences in my culture and my parents’ culture, struggling with cultural and parental expectations, stepping outside of the stereotyped career choices of “my people.” That’s the story publishers will think of when they see a Chinese name. These identities that I am so proud of, that I have grown up in and have lived, might later be the losing cards in my hand.

It’s not the first time I’ve realized this, but I think today was the first time I voiced those fears in a circle of my own peers.

I applied to be an RA hoping to continue my explorations into my chosen career field, but I have a feeling that this program is going to give me a lot more than the summer job experience I expected originally.

And you know, I’m not sure what all it is that I’m feeling right now – the muddle of thoughts and emotions concerning identity, privilege, and me – but I hope I can challenge myself to discover more of who I am.

50 books and reading: what are books to me?

2011 July 12 § 1 Comment

A little over one year ago, I struck out in a challenge to defy Steve Jobs’ comments that people don’t read anymore. In the last hours before June became July, I turned the last pages of my 50th book, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and found myself facing a mixture of emotions.

Pride: Because for the first time in several years, I read in my “free time,” I visited libraries, and I sought out books by authors I had never read before. I made forays into non-fiction literature – for my classes, of course, but also because I wanted to learn more about this world and the people around me.

Accomplishment. Fifty books! Need I say more?

Defiance. Take that, Steve Jobs. (Plus, if people didn’t read any more, would the Kindle and his brethren be so phenomenally popular?)

But a little bit of disappointment, too: I didn’t challenge myself in my reading material as much as I would have liked. I did a lot of nonfiction, yes, and a bit of adult fiction that was new and challenging to me. But during my most stressful times, I fell back on childhood comforts provided by Tamora Pierce and Mercedes Lackey, relaxed my eyes on the wild expressions and star illustrations of manga.

I’m not ashamed of my love for these mediums, but part of me wishes I had challenged myself to read more, read new things, read people I’ve never spoken to before. I can only speculate on whether it was laziness, reticence, or a bit of both that prevented me from branching out and becoming one of those girls who always had a book tucked under her arm everywhere she walked.

I’ve decided to make some new goals for my second journey.

  • I want to challenge myself. I want to dare to try more nonfiction outside of my class texts.
  • I want to experience more fantasy. As an aspiring fantasy fiction author, this can be considered research as much as leisure. But I have read so few of the “classic” fantasy authors and titles – something I wish to remedy.
  • I will dive into my greatest love, history. There are dozens of historical fiction titles that I’ve been itching to read, and I want to experience more cultures, time periods, and diversity through these titles.
  • I will read popular fiction – but only to a point. I think popular fiction is wonderful, but there are a vast number of under-appreciated authors and titles that I want to seek out, find, enjoy, and share.

A friend told me that I was the only person she knew who owned books and read books for fun. To me, that is the saddest thing I can think of for friends and acquaintances of my generation. Because I have experienced, learned, and challenged my creativity so much through this hobby and passion of mine, and I think it’s unfortunate that others don’t find the same pleasure and joy that I do in it. Books and libraries have always been a safe place for me – a refuge and shelter, as much as a ship sailing to new adventures, and a timeless map that has taken me all over the world through time and space.

These past two weeks, I’ve finished roughly five more books. I’ve become that girl who always has her nose stuck in a book, who can make her way to class without tripping over the curb or walking into any doors and poles. Someone asked me if that – bookish, introverted, nerdy – was the kind of image I wanted to project.

You’re damn right, I do.

I’m proud of my love and my books. I hope I can continue to have this passionate relationship with them for years and years, and grow old with them together.

How many people are so blessed to find their love so early, so fully?

perfection… ?

2011 March 20 § Leave a comment

Whenever I am going through a hard time in my life, I block out the sounds of the world and fill my mind and my heart with music.

A long time ago, I struggled to stay afloat in a world that was spinning out of my control, taking what was most precious to me out of my grasp. My family moved away from the only home I’d ever known, from my two best friends. I didn’t fit into a new school where everybody knew everybody else, and I was the outsider who didn’t belong. My parents had terrible fights downstairs when they thought my brother and I were asleep. I still remember the sound of shattering glass through the protection of my pillow, and how hard I tried to stifle my crying so my mom wouldn’t come check on me.

Then, and in the  not so recent past, I dealt with my pain by closing my eyes and surrounding myself with music. Sometimes, it is a piece of prose I’m writing that resonates with the music that’s drowning out everything else in my life; other times, a piece of music will inspire a piece of songfiction, one that drags me out of bed to write feverishly until I finish pouring my story into a notebook or into a word document.

When the music sings in my soul, it takes me on a journey of reflection – on the past, or on the future.

Today, my reflection is about the past.

It’s been hard for me to resign myself to the knowledge that much of the time, I’m not the daughter that my mom wants me to be: I was a tomboy; I was unladylike; I didn’t have an iota of fashion sense; I wasn’t financially responsible; I never shared my feelings or thoughts with her. I wasn’t this, I wasn’t that.

I remember constantly being compared to C and S, her visions of the ‘ideal daughter’. It was worse when the beacon of perfection was a female relative only two years older than me – it seemed that in my mom’s eyes, I could never be good enough.

And even though I tried not to let it bother me, I molded myself to those visions as much as I could bear.

Those emotional weaknesses added little cracks to the chinks in my metaphorical armor whenever I came up short. Every time I ‘failed’, every time I made a mistake, every time I ‘could have done better’, was a blow that was harder and harder to bear because I couldn’t be what I thought she wanted of me.

I was reaching for perfection, an illusion that didn’t exist except in my own mind.

When I look back during that time of my life, I wonder just what it was that I thought I was working towards. Perfection should not be the goal, because there is nothing after that. Even more telling, perfection is subjective – and when it comes to people, how can you possibly rank a person out of 100 points?

What can you do when your good isn’t good enough?
When all that you touch tumbles down?
‘Cause my best intentions keep making a mess of things
I just wanna fix it somehow

But how many it times will it take?
Oh, how many times will it take for me?
To get it right
To get it right

These words could have been from a page in my own life. When I reflect on my story and turn back to that chapter, I see how lost I was, floundering without a foundation to build character, strength, and confidence.

I know now that I’m perfect as I am, because of my flaws and imperfections. I almost want to say that I was foolish back then, and not so much now. But, if you ask if I regret all of that internalized pain… the muffled tears in the bathroom when I messed up yet again… the tight feeling in my chest and burning in my eyes when I pretended I didn’t care – I don’t.

I’ve stopped looking for perfection, but to this day I will still labor for hours over a project or task so that I’m happy with the results. Perfectionist? Maybe. Still, it’s not the end result itself that I care so much about, but the end result of all of my efforts.

Today, I’m strong enough to realize that I don’t need perfection to be proud of myself. It’s a message I wish I could have given to a younger me, and to everyone who thinks that being happy comes from being ‘better’ in comparison to someone else.

Thoughts inspired by the lyrics of Get It Right (Glee Cast).

Moments to Moments

2011 March 17 § 2 Comments

There are so many people who have responded to the “Asians in the library” rant posted by Alexandra Wallace with hate, racism, and anger. I think this video is an exemplary educational piece about our need to not simply react to moments of ignorance, but to respond to it and try to understand the issues that underly that ignorance.

beausia:

after watching “asians in the library,” and many subsequent postings in response, i wrote this. rather than attack alexandra wallace for her thoughts, i decided to write a persona piece in her voice, as a means to address some of the greater issues revealed in her rant. in the end, this poem isn’t really about her and what she said, but more the thoughts and beliefs people hold, without considering the entire history that may have led them to think and believe in the manner that they do. my hope is that we can all use this moment to recognize that we all need to improve our ability to understand and share this world with each other. this is just a small contribution to furthering that conversation. thank you for listening.