Recognizing Where the Needle Is

At a weekly (virtual) meditation group I attend, the guide said today, “It feels like the world has changed since last week. But it’s not that it’s changed, it’s that we have become enlightened to it.”

I think that’s right. Yes, the world changes, but not overnight in either direction. I think if we’re doing it right, we’re constantly awakening. Awakening and expanding our perception to include more and more realities of others in this world. That might be through getting to know the stories of people around us. It could be through reading. It could be through research. It could be through podcasts. It always means having an open mind.

This week, like many in the United States, I was searching. Dejected, I signed on to the vast e-book collection of my region’s library network. In searching for a number of titles on race, I was heartened to see that all of them had a waitlist. Other people were looking to educate themselves.

The internet is now flooded with reading recommendations, but for those who might want a glimpse into what I’ve read in my corner over the past few years, here is a selection. They range from humorous, irreverent memoirs by Black comedians, to fiction that takes the reader through real neighborhoods, to thought-provoking nonfiction.

Memoirs
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Essays
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now by Maya Angelou
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Humor
Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay by Phoebe Robinson
The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell
The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

Fiction
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Queen of Harlem by Brian Keith Jackson
American Street by Ibi Zoboi
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Nonfiction
Tell Me Who You Are by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi
Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time by James Kilgore

A couple of quotes from these books that struck a chord with me:

“It does not matter that the “intentions” of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, “intend” for you is secondary. Our world is physical.”
– Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

“But no matter how it panned out, I knew I’d at least done something good for myself in speaking up about my needs. There was power, I felt, in just saying it out loud.”
– Michelle Obama, Becoming

In Tonight and Every Night

It’s week 6 of working from home for me. When I talk to people in my circles, we ask each other how we’re doing, and my answer is, “Every week is different.” I’ve also found that the things that made me happy before this semi-quarantine still bring me joy, and the problems that existed before it still worry me. Of course, daily life and stresses are different, and they bring with them new joys and worries as well.

Week 1: Feeling the confusion and excitement that comes with a blank slate. Trying new activities to create a new routine. Tried yoga for the first time. Worked out at home for the first time. Wasn’t sure when to eat snacks or what to eat when, as I am used to bringing all my snacks to work and eating them throughout the day at my desk. Every conversation with anyone was about coronavirus. Spent the workday tapping into the dialogue being had all over the country in my field. Felt part of a larger community and invigorated by the possibilities for new initiatives and ability to create positive impact through work. Talked to my mom on the phone almost every day, which was not in my previous normal. Stayed home every night, also definitely not in my previous normal. Took a walk in the middle of the day and enjoyed the beautiful weather. Every day made a little progress on organizing my work space. Talked to my beau frequently.

Week 2: Slid down. Discouraged at work and stressed by the news. Worried about people in my life who are struggling in different ways.

Week 3: Climbing back up. Not reading a lot of coronavirus news because I receive it from family and friends. Need to know the essential points, such as local restrictions. Routine is stabilizing. What I find most worrying is hearing my doctor friend’s accounts of the worsening situation in the hospital she works in. There’s no escaping the reality of the pandemic there.

Week 4: Emotional highs and lows. Being in a temporarily long distance relationship with someone in the same state is… not hard, exactly, when you’re with someone who communicates well… but not ideal. Remind myself to not let the nighttime thoughts run wild too often. Work is fun again. Phone and video conversations with friends do me good. We talk about the challenges and also laugh. Good conversations with family make it into my gratitude journal.

Week 5: Going to sleep later and getting up later. Productive during the time I am working. Walks are now in the afternoon, after work. A couple of quality nighttime conversations with the beau. Still with the highs and lows in life happenings, but that is life. I notice that green is replacing the cherry blossoms that I have witnessed over the past five weeks. On Saturday I had probably the most screen time I’ve ever had, hosting a language group for an hour and a half and playing an online board game with a friend and his friends for three and a half hours (!). On Sunday I broke my undesired streak of getting up late for the past two Sundays. Biked for the first time this season.

It has been interesting to see how people in my life have reacted to being under quarantine (I say quarantine for brevity, but in my region we are still allowed to go out for exercise, unlike in some other countries). Introverts seem to do better, but not always. Some are glad to be living with people, and some are glad to be living alone.

What I noticed in the first week is that we will always find a way to stay connected. Right away people found alternative ways to communicate with each other. Technology makes it possible, but human nature drives it.

New Yawk

Overheard this month:

“A $600 pair of shoes. Hah!”
– An older woman walking through the bus station, exclaiming to herself. Amen, sistah! I’ve never spent anything close to that amount on an item of clothing.

“Don’t be ashamed to cry. Crying is good.”
– A man to a man who sits on the floor of the subway staircase landing every morning. Casual conversation (no one was crying).

“An elevator full of women of color at [company I work at]. I dig it.”
– Young black woman. There were seven of us in the elevator, six young black women and me (Asian American).

Sure, sometimes I witness negative or disturbing interactions, like the other night when I saw a woman sitting on the sidewalk screaming and crying while a man stood next to her and two police officers tried to handle the situation. We’re constantly bumping into people’s pain and skirting around it. It’s nice to encounter positive interactions too. In the span of one week I saw a woman laughing aloud, a man encouraging the expression of vulnerability and emotion, and a woman who infused positivity in an elevator of strangers. There are reasons to hope.

Year of the Pig

The Lunar New Year began earlier this month, on February 5. I sometimes mention it in conversation leading up to the day, which leads people to ask how I celebrate. In recent years, I don’t have a particular “big” tradition. Instead it’s the “little” practices that I observe—wear red, eat three meals, have long noodles, don’t cut your hair, don’t clean (that should be done the day before), and other dos and don’ts. This is all to attract good luck and avoid bad luck in the coming year.

My paternal relatives in China get together for a large, multigenerational gathering at their regular restaurant to celebrate the Spring Festival, as they call it. It’s quite a different experience here; my immediate family doesn’t have relatives nearby, and my parents separated some years ago. So every year is different.

A couple of years ago, a friend who is from the same region my family is from (the Fujian province in southeastern China) organized a weekend meal in Chinatown with some of her French friends and me. It was nice being with her because she knew what to order.

Last year, my colleague and I had dinner in Chinatown and then dessert at a new place with piled-high Instagram-able desserts. Bright streamers littered the streets.

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The weekend after, two friends and I attempted to see the parade in Chinatown, which was extremely crowded (I wouldn’t seek it out again unless I knew of a good spot where there was breathing room), then had lunch before they went off to watch “Black Panther” and I took the subway to the Flatiron District to meet two French friends who were visiting New York City.

This year, I had dinner with my dad the day of and lunch with my mom the Sunday after. In between, I suggested to a date that we visit the Museum of Chinese in America in Chinatown and have dim sum afterward.

Every year, at least one person in my family (nowadays half the time it is me) seeks out tikoy, a sticky dessert that is called many different names depending on what Chinese dialect you speak. And tikoy isn’t a Chinese word, actually, though it comes from one—it’s what people in the Philippines call it. We only know of one bakery in Chinatown New York that makes it the way we like it. To prepare it, we take it out of the round aluminum pan, slice it, dip each piece in egg, and fry them. When heated, they become gooey with a slightly crispy outside.

I guess I—no, we—celebrate Chinese New Year more than I thought.

Can I Get a Connection

If at some point I thought that my years in France and my years in the U.S. were separate, compartmentalized chapters of my life, I certainly don’t think that now. Last night it hit me that those years “away” expanded my circle and that the lines crisscross all the time.

That evening, I attended a friend’s dinner party to celebrate her birthday. She and I first met in Paris. She now studies in the northeast U.S., and she was back in her hometown of Long Island, New York, for winter break. It not my first time to Long Island, but it was my first time on the LIRR (Long Island Railroad), a fact I announced to everyone I met. I had heard about this train line from colleagues and friends for years but never had to take it. It wasn’t that different from traveling on the Metro-North, which I have now ridden to Connecticut a number of times over the past few years, but in my mind it had a mythical quality. It was practically empty on that Sunday night.

I thought I wouldn’t know anyone at her party, but her brother said we had met when he visited Paris, and she said I had met her mom at that time too. I have a good memory, and it is unusual for people to remember meeting me and not vice versa.

On top of that, her younger brother had invited one friend to the party, and it was someone that I interviewed in Paris six years ago. I am a volunteer interviewer for my American alma mater, which involves meeting high school seniors who are applying to the school I graduated from. Six winters ago, I evaluated five candidates, most of whom were studying at international high schools in Paris. Well, that “kid” I met with for coffee happened to be my friend’s brother’s childhood friend, and he was now working in New York! Apparently we had both been warned ahead of time that the other would be at the party, as my friend’s dad said to this guy as I approached them, “Here’s your interviewer!” Way to establish the dynamic off the bat.

Also, did I mention that my friend’s mom is on the mailing list of the organization I work for?

A similar discovery happened recently when I was having dinner with this same friend and our other friend. The other friend was talking about how our mutual acquaintance works at an exercise studio in the area, and I said, Oh, you mean the studio that my colleague goes to almost every day and is having her birthday party at tomorrow that I’m going to!? I had met that mutual acquaintance in Paris when she was visiting our friend, and I’d interacted with her at a couple of parties in New York since then. I messaged my colleague after dinner, and she confirmed that she does know that girl.

If you didn’t follow all the connections, I don’t blame you. My point is, it is a small world, and we probably all walk past people every day who are connected with other people in our lives. No matter where we travel, we’re all living on this planet. I find that quite fun and somewhat comforting.

This is Normal Life as a Woman

I’ve been thinking about:

– that time I was walking with two friends down the street and a man walking by poked me in the breast. I was wearing a zippered hoodie and jeans.

– that time a stranger grabbed my butt in a club and by the time I turned around, he was gone. I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and jeans.

– that time the guy I was dating tried to pressure me into doing things I didn’t want to and then made me feel bad that he couldn’t sleep because I hadn’t given in. This is after I said I didn’t want to go over to his place and he insisted we would just sleep.

– that time a male classmate in grammar school made a thrusting gesture behind me with a broom.

– that time a stranger told me to smile.

– all those times I repeatedly dismissed advances from the same guy in a light-hearted manner so as not to hurt his feelings.

– that time I said I wanted to take it slow and he said that was fine and then didn’t respect it.

– that time he kept putting his hand on my knee even though I moved my leg away. And chose a table that literally put me in a corner. And played with my earring even though I leaned away from him. And then was confused about why I didn’t want a second date. And how I said I didn’t feel a connection because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

These are all things I’ve told my female friends. Scratch that—most of them are things I’ve told my friends. Others I haven’t, because they happened so long ago or they’re embarrassing or I didn’t think to—they things happen to us too often over the years to make a “big deal” about it every time.

When we tell each other these stories, we know they’re true. We have no reason to make them up. They’re part of our everyday lives.

And have any of the people committing the acts suffered any consequences? No.

These experiences, I’ve only recently realized, seem unbelievable to some people.

Why didn’t she just say no, some people ask.

My response is, I did. And, there are many times I wasn’t given the chance to say no. And, no isn’t taken seriously by some men.

She was drunk, some people say. She was wearing revealing clothing, some people say. My response is, I have been sober and worn modest clothing, and these things still happened to me.

I am thankful, of course, for friends and family who have heard and believed and shared these stories. More recently, as these conversations have come up more often with men I know, I am thankful for those who are equally horrified that other men do these things that they would not think of doing.

I recently had a conversation with an acquaintance who, without even a word from me defending Dr. Ford, launched into a defense of Kavanaugh and how many people have testified to what a great guy he is. He touched my shoulder and asked if I would report him thirty-eight years from now, as if I didn’t know the difference between an acquaintance tapping my shoulder and someone trying to rip my clothes off. Later, after my heart stopped pounding and my anger died down, I realized that this acquaintance was defending himself. Neither of us knows Ford or Kavanaugh. Neither of us was there. Why do we get so riled up about it?

Because we know ourselves. We know our values. We know how we perceive our experiences. This guy has offered to take me home. Has had the potential to make me feel uncomfortable with suggestive remarks if I weren’t so self-possessed around him and therefore comfortable brushing him off. I always laugh it off with him and chalk it up to him being an incorrigible flirt, which is true. But the truth? I can laugh and joke and talk with him, but I would never take him up on an offer to go out or be given a ride, whereas I wouldn’t hesitate with other men I know. This is based on instinct, not on anything he has done wrong—surely he and many other people would say he has done nothing wrong. And he hasn’t with me. But I sensed a long time ago to set boundaries with him because he wouldn’t respect them otherwise. And now, after this conversation, I know why I felt that way. The way he kept urging me to make my arguments about Ford vs. Kavanaugh after we had already discussed it a bit and I repeatedly said I didn’t want to talk about it anymore showed that a clear and direct “no” is not enough for him. He wanted to keep talking about it and he wanted to prove his point.

Before I go channel my anger in a productive manner, I am reminding myself of:

– that male friend who told me about how at a bar a male acquaintance of his wouldn’t leave a female acquaintance of theirs alone, and how he took that guy aside and told him not to go near her again.

– the man I once dated who, at his place, asked me if I wanted it to go any further.

– the male friends whom I have slept in the same room with and made me feel comfortable and safe.

– the man who told me he can’t believe some of the creeps his female colleagues have to deal with when online dating. How speaking with them has opened up his eyes to the differences in men and women’s experiences.

– the male bosses I’ve had who have always treated me with respect.

– the males in my family who have set a good example.

– the man who took my ‘no’ graciously and maturely.

– the man who, months after reacting poorly to my ‘no,’ apologized to me for treating me unfairly.

I don’t know any woman who wants to take out her anger on good men. Good men don’t have to worry. Good men are what give me a bit of faith.

What I want is for my word to be respected and taken seriously. For my body to not be viewed as something to be poked at or taken lightly.

I’m not going to speak for Ford or my female friends or family. They have their own stories, and I’ve heard and witnessed many of them. But I guarantee that in speaking for myself, my experiences resonate with them. This is our reality.

In the Zone

Before moving to Paris, and right after coming back to the States, I used to seek out opportunities to speak French and attend French-related events. Now I’m at the point where I’ve lived, worked, and traveled in France; have done things in French from making friends to dating to taking Spanish classes; and know French events in New York and New Jersey to the extent that Francophiles ask me for recommendations. When I attend one of these gatherings, it’s likely I’ll know someone there.

I’ve made a little place in the French world for about ten years. I realized that I’ve accomplished what I pursued. Perhaps because I entered my third decade last year, I’ve been ruminating on what my next (metaphorical) move will be.

That’s not to say I’ve fallen out of love with French, nor was it my only passion as a young adult. As people do, I’ve always had varied interests. But French has been a big part of my life and touched all aspects of it. Just ask my close group of American college friends here how many Frenchies and Francophones I’ve tacked on to our get-togethers in the past couple of years… at this point they’re probably as used to hearing the French accent as often as I am. They’ve met my friends visiting from France and people I know from French language activities, and they’ve joined me to an outdoor Vianney concert, having no idea who he was.

Speaking French with strangers (or anybody) and doing everyday activities in French used to be outside of my comfort zone, and each push was a victory. I remember the first time I convinced a shopkeeper in Paris to give me a refund for a battery charger that I had opened but that didn’t work. The first time I had a job interview in French. The first time I gave condolences to a French friend whose father had died—I realized I didn’t have the preset vocabulary and so really thought and formulated my own phrases.

While I speak French regularly, I’m certainly not at a native-speaker’s level—just last week, I had a work meeting in French for the first time in a long time, and I felt a little self-conscious—it was almost a surprise to feel that way again. And improving my ease and fluidity in the language will be a lifelong journey. But somehow, with my consistent efforts, French has become part of my comfort zone, and I feel a yen to push myself again. I’m still exploring and figuring out in what direction that will be.

Dealing

Inevitably, life is not always peachy. I think the key is finding coping strategies that work for us. I’m not sure it’s something I ever learned in school.

I have a few go-tos, in no particular order:
– volunteering
– friends
– my gratitude journal
– nature

A story about volunteering: When I was in Paris, there was period where I hated my job. I wasn’t the only one—the company had such high turnover that after a year you could be the senior person in your department. We were understaffed and overworked with no overtime pay and underappreciated by management At the time, I volunteered at an outdoor soup kitchen one evening a week. At the end of the workday, I felt tired and just felt like going home, but one thing I am is consistent, so I would eat my packed dinner at my desk and take the metro to the soup kitchen without fail. Once there, I moved into fast-paced prepping and serving mode—there were a lot of people and they were hungry. Then, clean-up and shooting the breeze with some bénéficiares. I always felt energized from volunteering, plucked out of my own world of problems and placed in a totally different world, where a fight might break out (not that we wanted that) and where I honed an ability to scoop cooked fish out of a tray without splashing the sauce. Now, in the States, I still volunteer, and each time reminds me that there are tons of people around me living different realities from my own. It’s different knowing and seeing.

A story about friends: Often, I’ll talk with friends when I’m going through a tough time, but I remember one particular weekend almost a year ago that I simply lay on two friends’ couch for an afternoon while they went about doing their things in their apartment. Before that, we had sat around their kitchen table for what must have been a few hours chatting. I think I didn’t say that much, but they’re the types of friends that I feel comfortable not talking a lot if I don’t feel like it. I was so grateful to be in the company of people with whom I could just be.

Speaking of gratitude: It must have been at least five or so years ago that my friend and mentor Donna told me that she kept a gratitude journal. I noted it somewhere in my mind but didn’t have an impulse to start the practice. Two and a half years ago, my good college friend gave me a beautiful Petit Prince Moleskine planner for Christmas. While a planner is essential for me, my requirements are rather specific. This planner, medium-sized and hardback, was good quality but too heavy for me to carry around. I thought about what I could do with it—it couldn’t be used as a regular notebook, and it was so nice, and obviously my friend chose it specifically for me given its lovely quote in French on the cover. And that’s how I started writing in a gratitude journal.

About nature: I remember reading in Anne Frank’s diary years ago that she looked to nature to feel better. If she, who lived in such a difficult time, found solace in nature, then I thought it must be a good idea. Ten years ago, my family was going through a hard time, and I remember walking to the park and just lying on a bench or a swing and looking up at the sky. It didn’t erase the problems, but it helped me get through them.

This isn’t comprehensive, but knocking out a few more: There’s family, if you want to count them as a separate category from friends. And music: a few months ago during a highly stressful week, I was sick but dragged myself to a Jessie Ware concert in Brooklyn, where I was indeed transported to a wonderful place and danced and sang in liberation And exercise: I once dated someone who when not at his full-time job, ran like a fiend. In the park multiple times a week, marathons on weekends, alone, with groups. He had experienced a family tragedy not long before and gone through a low period himself. Running lifted him.

And oh, reading: a longtime love that I’m glad my parents nurtured. Reading stories of human experiences makes me realize that my experiences are exactly that. It’s amazing how novels across cultures and times resonate with my own thoughts, emotions, and situations.

Dealing with the dips: it’s a life skill in constant development.

Pas de panique

In the past month:

– I was on the subway on the way to work, and when I got on, it smelled like smoke. I only had four stops to go, and at every stop I wondered if something was wrong. At the third station, with only one station to my destination, we finally stopped for longer than usual. I stepped out of the train, and upon standing further back, I saw that it was smoking out the top. None of the other cars were. Eventually, a subway employee announced that the train wouldn’t be running further and that all passengers should get off and take another train. There was no urgency to the announcement. I checked the local news and the subway web site later but didn’t find anything of note.

– I was walking outside after work, and I suddenly heard a ‘boom’ and halfway down the block, then saw a big burst of flames. I stopped where I was, unsure what had happened, if anyone was hurt, and if I should go around the other block in order to get to the subway. I observed the people who were across the street from the fire was in order to observe whether they were moving away or continuing on their way. At first, people had stopped, but then I saw that they were continuing on, which told me that they didn’t deem that there was danger. So I crossed over to that side, and as I passed where the flames had been, I saw a work truck. The small explosion must have happened on that truck, but what was odd is that the workers didn’t seem panicked. I don’t know whether they had quickly extinguished the fire or if something else had happened. Anyone walking by at that moment wouldn’t have known that there had been a tall fire five minutes earlier. A few minutes later, from down in the subway station, I heard a siren and wondered if it was coming to check on the situation, but it could have been heading elsewhere.

– During my morning commute, my bus broke down on the highway. The driver was able to slowly drive it over to a middle strip of grass. He radioed out to his fellow buses, and within ten minutes another bus pulled up to accept the passengers it could, i.e. the first nine in the front seats of the bus, which included me. I’m sure the rest were picked up by other express buses soon after. It was amazing how little the incident affected our commute.

It’s weird how much goes on around us and how quickly we can move on if we’re lucky.

A Waste of Time

Recently I heard a conversation that made me think, Aaggghhhh.

Man to woman as they both came out of the subway station: “Tests are set up for you to fail. That’s why studying for it is a waste of time.”

Woman: “Not if it’s something I want to do.”

She changed the subject and said she was tired, and he tried to get her to go to Starbucks with him.

I thought, at least she sounded resolute. But I hope she has other people around her who encourage her and motivate her. Who is this guy, and why is she spending time with him?

I had written down their conversation on a scrap of paper, as I sometimes do when I see or hear something that strikes me. I realized that while my parents would not have made all the choices I’ve made, they never told me I couldn’t do something. People around me didn’t actively discourage from pursuing my goals (or if they did, I didn’t hear them).

A few days later, I came across my note, which I happened to be using as a bookmark in the latest book I was reading, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Some people ask, ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.

How easy it is to believe certain false ideas if it’s all you hear. People who care about you should want you to succeed.

Maybe the guy I overheard puts down everyone around him, not only women. In any case, clearly he’s not someone who strives or works hard to go farther and thus belittled this woman’s efforts instead of being motivated by her ambition. I hope she finds better company.