Saturday, November 05, 2016

still unpacking

1. baby, it’s cold outside

The first neighbor we met after moving to our new house was an old Chinese woman; at least, she looked old, but maybe she just spent a lot of time outdoors. She had leathery brown skin, hair that looked as if it had been chopped by hand and only a couple of teeth left. She always wore the same brown tracksuit jacket with yellow stripes down the sleeves.

When she first showed interest in our broken-down moving boxes, I thought she was collecting recyclables. I kept them out of the blue bin and put them directly in front of the house for her. But then she put them in the blue bin herself. And moved them from one bin to another. And disappeared with the bins themselves for days at a time.

This is how moving feels.
She liked to knock on our door and let us know when we had mail. Once she showed me where her shirt was missing a button and tried to hand me a needle. Another time she showed up in our front yard as a pizza was being delivered and begged for a piece. She had a habit of hovering too close when we were getting Dash in or out of the car, and once she put her face right next to the window of our babysitter’s car, making her jump out of her skin.

Sometimes she seemed like a toddler, and I tried to treat her as such: Be friendly, firm and boundaried. Other times she seemed like a creature from a horror movie, the kind of scorned, forgotten woman folklorists might write about. I was naturally lazy and tried to practice an ethos of Meeting People Where They’re At. When she moved our trash cans to weird places, I just moved them back.

Not what she looks like. But how she kind of seems when she is suddenly outside your car window.
AK was more annoyed by such things, and I tried to back up her annoyance as a show of solidarity. She bought padlocks and lengths of plastic chain to anchor our trash cans to the fence.

On Tuesday morning I was putting on eyeliner in the bathroom when I heard AK talking to someone outside. The voice had a Chinese accent. I knew right away that she was the matriarch of the home two doors down from us, the sister or niece of the free-range tracksuit-jacketed neighbor. When AK came in, carrying Dash, she recounted their exchange.

Isn’t your baby cold? the woman had demanded.

It was in the upper sixties and Dash was in a diaper. He probably was a little cold, which put AK on the defensive. We’re only going to be out here a minute. Hey…is she yours? AK gestured across the street, to where the woman in the brown jacket was squatting. She goes through our trash and moves the cans all the time.

She don’t listen to me, said the matriarch. You don’t like it, you can call the police. Where are you from?

AK suspected that the woman wasn’t looking for a story of migration from Avenue 49. She got to the point: Mexico.

We’ve lived here 28 years, the woman said. Your baby, is he cold?

Carrying a kicking Dash, AK stormed through the French doors in our bedroom and told me the story. We agreed: Oh the irony of this woman telling us what to do with our toddler when she had completely washed her hands of hers!

In general I am slower to boil than AK, more prone to self-blame and tears. But today I was mad with her. Any empathy I’d had for this family—whose kooky aunt stalked the streets like La Llorona or some kind of hantu—evaporated when they turned their judgment on us. You know who might be cold? I thought. Your sister, when she was taking off her shirt on the street yesterday!

2. in which a bunch of women try to solve racism on the internet while simultaneously caring for small children IRL

The interaction replayed in my head at work and when I picked up pizza for the Halloween festival at Dash’s daycare. In the parking lot of Pizza Hut, I shared a quick rant on the subject with my favorite online parenting group, Parenting for Social Justice. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe because I was fascinated by all the layers of culture and experience that culminated in this driveway exchange. This family had come all the way from…Taiwan? Hong Kong? The mainland? They’d made their own lattices out of twigs in their front yard, planted vegetables, flown little flags made of crumpled Chinese newspapers to keep birds away. They’d set up camp and stayed here for 28 years, watching the neighborhood blow in the economic breeze and become populated by more and more Latinos, only to be overtaken by unkempt white people obsessed with Craftsman architecture.

As I explained to my group, I had empathy for a family trying to manage an unmanageable person. I did! I’d seen a teenage girl—dressed all in black with a long ponytail and low-slung backpack—leave the house one day, and I immediately wanted to hug her. It couldn’t be easy to be 16 and the niece of the neighborhood Crazy Lady. But how dare the girl’s mother tell my family what to do, especially when her opinions had racial undertones!

Every 16-year-old ever.
Does anyone here have experience with dealing with xenophobia from people who are themselves immigrants? I asked after I’d shared my story.

The responses varied in tone, but they all agreed: I was the xenophobe here. Village input on what a baby should be wearing was an Asian thing (also a Chilean thing, according to one responder), and the woman meant well. In the past, I’d shared thoughtful posts about gentrification in my neighborhood, freely admitting I was part of the problem—and now this? I was being a shitty neighbor at best, they said and/or implied, and a racist gentrifier at worst.

The responses came as a gut-punch. It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling. It was the same burning shame I’d felt during writing-class critiques that had hit especially close to home. It was a small version of what I felt the whole eight weeks AK and I had been separated in 2012, when I’d gouged crescent moons into my forearms with my fingernails as I finally realized how much I’d hurt her during my long, confused post-miscarriage depression.

There’s a phrase that has made its way from psychoanalysis to the world of Instagram quotes in pretty fonts: Don’t just do something. Stand there. It’s a hard fucking thing to do when what you want to do is jump up and explain how you’re not racist, or how you can only know in retrospect that it might have been useful to go to a miscarriage support group. But I did my best to apologize (but not grovel or angle for forgiveness) and promise to the group that I would Sit With My Hypocrisy.

This quote is attributed to at least five different people online.
I’ve been sitting with it for a few days now. I messaged with one of the group’s admins about a vibe I find troubling: A bunch of white women in the group (not excluding myself) seem to try to out-perform each other in showing how anti-racist they are. This morning one shared a sort of poorly written blog post by a gay Black man titled “Why I Find White Women Terrifying.” It was an opinion piece about the legit problem of white-centered feminism, but I found the title sensationalistic and the thinking not terribly critical. And what about the possible intersectional issue of gay men sometimes being dismissive of women while assuming they can’t be misogynistic because they’re queer? The white poster announced that she was going to Sit With It.

Lately I have felt the women of color in the group giving some side-eye to white self-flagellation, and I do to. What they couldn’t say was a sarcastic Oh look at you, you amazing white person questioning yourself. Do you want a cookie? I’m not going to give you my “likes” so you can feel good about yourself and I can go back out in the world and deal with the same shit I deal with every day.

What they could do was go a level deeper and point out why the white women in question were actually still racist. Wasn’t the woman who said she wanted to limit her dependence on fossil fuels because of the shit going down at Standing Rock kind of centering herself when really Standing Rock was about indigenous rights? It’s a pretty educated group, and if the internet and academics and women are good at one thing, it’s picking each other apart. I’m not sure what to do with that, because the responses themselves aren’t wrong. The white environmentalist was missing a major point about Standing Rock. And anything I might post would sound defensive and white. And it would be.

So I’m doing what I probably should have done a while ago. I’m imposing a read-only break on myself for at least a week. I still cringe when I think about how often I raised my hand in my undergrad Chicano Lit class. I don’t want to be that undergrad, but I still am. Even by writing this blog post, I’m centering myself, but I figure my blog is supposed to be about me.

3. some of my best friends

And I’ve continued to Sit With the complicated racial dynamics between myself and the neighbors I barely know. Here’s something I’ve realized—bear with me if you can, because I’m about to perpetuate some cultural stereotypes. I can’t vouch for their certainty, but I can tell you how they intersect with my own family culture, and that’s my real point.

So, I have three fairly close Chinese-American friends (yes, I did just say “some of my best friends are…”) whose parents are immigrants. I’ll change their names here.

Andrea’s mom is relentlessly pessimistic and difficult to please. Andrea dreads going home for visits, and tries to stay with her in-laws when she can. Andrea has stuck it out in a job with a difficult boss for longer than most people would. At first she was eager to please this insatiable boss; then she gave in to a strategy of low-grade rebellion and defeat. So she basically works for her mom.

Alex’s mom was a textbook tiger mom with an added streak of physical abusiveness. Alex wrote a semi-autobiographical YA novel about her teen years. Her protagonist, trying to get her mom to ease up on academic pressure, tells her mother that affirmative action will make it hard for Asian-American kids to get into Berkeley. Her mom sees that as a reason her daughter should work triply hard. Alex is a mom herself now—a loving and hardworking one. But I see the ghosts of her own childhood when she tries to get her son to “overcome his fears” and “live up to his potential” where other parents might just shrug and let their kid do what he wants.

Jennifer and her brother once discussed whether or not their mother was psychologically abusive. They decided she wasn’t. But she used to make them kneel for hours on uncomfortable beaded mats as punishment. She encouraged Jennifer to make friends who could help her get ahead socially. I never met Jennifer’s mother in person, but I always assumed she’d be profoundly unimpressed by me.

In Andrea, Alex and Jennifer’s mothers, I see a familiar message: The world is a harsh place. It will judge you. It will spit on you. But this is no excuse to fail. This is why you must work harder than anyone else. You are better than the rest of them, but you can only unlock the fruits of your special-ness through pain. And if I tell you these mean truths, it’s because I love you. 

I’m sure my parents never meant to send me that message. But my mom had martyr tendencies and never let herself indulge in so much as a dry-clean-only blouse, and my dad still rants against entitlement(s), both as an attitude and government programs. Some part of me believes that being queer put me behind the starting line, and so any ways I fail in life are my own fault and inexcusable.

I mean, I’m fine. I’ve had plenty of therapy.

But these are the voices in my head. And these were the voices that bubbled up when I saw the responses to my Parenting for Social Justice post. It struck a nerve for precisely the same reason the Chinese-American neighbor herself had struck a nerve. The neighbor reminded me of a worldview in which there was no room for me—especially me—to fail or complain. A worldview in which I was both awful and special. The responses read the same way to me: Other people can come here and talk about how someone was a jerk to them, but if you do that, you’re racist. YOU’RE the jerk. Suck it up, Cheryl.

That wasn’t what they were saying, of course. As I reread my post, it did sound pretty knee-jerk and not very empathetic, especially without the infinitely large context in which all human interactions take place. Family culture on top of neighborhood history on top of immigration on top of dynasties and dinosaur bones.

Orange you glad I'm about to wrap up this post?
In social justice and academic circles, people are always talking about unpacking things. And now I’ve unpacked the unpacking process, and could go on for another thousand words easily. But I already feel like an unpacked bag, which is to say empty, flat and ready to stay home for a while.

A couple of days ago, the woman who moves our trash cans gave me an orange and a bottle of water. It felt like a peace offering I didn’t deserve, from a fight she didn’t know about. I took them, saying thank-you too many times, grateful for a moment of simplicity.

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