Monday, September 10, 2018

Hope for the Hopeless

I've been thinking about the idea of Hope over the past several months, never landing on the most structured of realizations or insights about it, but recognizing with a sort of grey discouragement that I do not feel any, nor do I recognize others exhibiting hope.

Gerhard Richter

Instead, the zeitgeist is of defeat, disengagement, and a muted despair.
The realization that no matter how much we care or work toward good, it won't be enough.

The only time I'm an optimist is when someone else is telling me something terrible and I'm trying to reflect something, anything, back that softens the blow. I've noticed this is not generally effective, as if my bullshit is leaking through a little.

Hope is not happiness. I've accepted that we can't be perpetually happy. I think hope is a prize at the end of a race that keeps us focused on the goal. Hope as I've been taught is not simply a wish, but a flame that guides us. I do think that is more substantial than a wish, but then I feel lost when I'm unconvinced of the allure of my goal, or I sense that the guiding flame has been extinguished.

I want to be honest that I don't always have hope. My "meh" understanding of theology is that hope is always there, but I certainly don't always see it. And what's the use of hope if you don't possess it?

I can't point to a moment where I misplaced my hope, exactly. But the precursor to misplaced hope was probably anger that had nowhere to mature. I recognize so many things in my country, my church, and myself that are wrong. That are right to be angry about. And I was angry. I wanted my recognition of failures and laziness and corruption to be met with repentance, healing, and justice. But I think it's quite rare that time moves quickly enough for us to be able to see the full arc of crime, rightful anger, denunciation, justice, repentance, and redemption. For myself, when I can't witness that full arc, I become disillusioned by the recognition that most of the pain I witness and experience will not be resolved the way I want it to, in the time frame that I hope for. I may never witness redemption in situations where hearts and minds and lives are broken.

This pattern repeated sucked me dry of hope. How am I supposed to find my way to a goal, let alone believe in a goal, if justice does not materialize? If I recognize something wicked, call it out, and nothing comes of it? It feels like this happens over and over again, until I'm tired out of calling things out as wicked, because it doesn't make a difference whether I exert the energy or not.

I've been rightly angry at stinging, spitting words of others, on any number of topics.
I've been rightly angry at the lazy, inward-coiled church.
I've been rightly angry at the disgusting, degrading, dishonest speech of my president.
I've been rightly angry that the gospel has been twisted into a burning rod that prods my loved ones away.
I've been rightly angry at the dismissal of the sanctity of women.

I sit and write this list of grievances, and I cry for them. They hurt, and they should, because they are full of nettles to the heart. They should not have happened. And I'm stung that I know they are wrong, but am powerless to right them. I would say I have hope in Christ to right them in his own timing, but I don't always, because the need is now, and I can't see the manifestation of his grace and power right now. If it's happening, I don't recognize it.

And that's where I got some hope back. Recognition that hope was just standing in a different direction than I've been facing. I may never get the satisfaction of knowing that those who've gotten it wrong understand their wrongness and then fix it. If my hope is for that, I am without hope. My hope is not in retribution, but in grace.

My hope is in the fact that as much as I hate the grotesque words and the spiteful actions of my intellectual enemies, I don't have to withhold my heart from them. I know that sounds....funny. Most (maybe all) of the time, I want people who are wrong to know that they are wrong. I don't think that that desire is always wrong. BUT, I have been wrong in thinking that until they admit that they are wrong, I am the better woman. This has crushed my hope, because most people don't think they are wrong. I can never seem to make it past the phase of righteous anger. I can't even right their wrongs for them, and that has tortured me. It's felt so dark, lost, and lonely. Restless and listless.

What IS in my power is to love people who are wrong. To put aside how much I detest their wrong ideas and how much I revile the way they have treated me or others, and say, "I still welcome you." You are still made by a God who is never wrong. To respond to people in a way that diffuses rage instead of feeding the wound they may have just inflicted.

To defend my pride less. Even if they're wrong.
To ignore inflammatory comments and be a better listener.
To serve children, even if its an interruption. Even if they don't deserve it. 
To give freely, for objects can be replaced.
To show up when I'd rather stay home.
To look past inconveniences and see opportunities to offer help.
To complain less, air my grievances less.

I am lighter for these realizations. I found some hope again. Hope - a goal - that is in my power, instead of my powerlessness. I don't have to hang my sense of accomplishment on whether poor decisions are punished adequately. My sense of accomplishment is a poor mini-me of Jesus' accomplishment, which is to say, "I love you anyway."

I didn't directly quote these writers, but in the past two weeks, Rachel Held Evans on the Church Unity episode of the Liturgists podcast and Rosaria Butterfield in her book "The Gospel Comes with a Housekey" have been instrumental in helping me reframe my place in a troubled church and a troubled world. I highly recommend both, for many reasons. 

Friday, August 17, 2018

Coffee and 3rd Wave Motherhood

My not-so-little brothers have a friend who works in a coffee shop in Munich. He's not spending a year there to find himself, he's from there, so feel free to believe what I say next. He described the history of coffee in 3 waves. The first wave is like post-partum cave women eating raw beans. Second wave is Starbucks. Third wave is "a movement to produce high-quality coffee, and consider coffee as an artisanal foodstuff, like wine, rather than a commodity." The "rather than a commodity" part is my favorite, it makes me laugh. 

I have been thinking a little bit about motherhood and a little bit about coffee, and it really crystallized for me when I realized that I'm no longer in the mom-phase of loving Starbucks. Not because I'm better than Starbucks, I just don't need it like I used it, and now I recognize love-of-Starbucks as its own phase of motherhood, especially as I see others loving it. Far be it from me to begrudge them this love. The Starbucks phase isn't about how Starbucks tastes, although they really rope me in with that caramel drizzle. It's not about discovering that "artisanal" coffee tastes better, or even that you can just make decent coffee at home and bring it with you in a thermos in the morning and ice the leftovers in the afternoon for the same amount as one single grande caramel macchiato (with coconut milk, if you're nursing a sensitive baby). The Starbucks phase is about sanity. Not in a jokesy mom-meme kind of way, but like actually staying alive as an adult human being. Starbucks is about having something between your paws that children aren't allowed to share. It's about spending $5 on something you shouldn't, and that making you feel like a real American. It's about identifying with a club of women who are suffering under impossible social pressures and who just can't seem to make their children's lives as magical as they should be. 

A grim narrator surveys the line of minivans in the drive-thru and says, after a pregnant pause, "but coffee was very much still a commodity." 
If you're in the Starbucks phase, hang on, Mother. It gets better. 

This week my boys, now 4 and 5, were both in school at the same time for the first time in human history. Incidentally, I was awarded my bachelor's degree yesterday. I've already been turned down for 2.5 jobs, like a real member of society. We are officially in a new phase of life. I guess it melted away slowly, but I realized recently that it's been a minute since I was really drowning in parenthood. I still break up approximately 17 street (er, young children) fights a day, but DARE I SAY we might be hitting our stride here. I am not miserable all the time. I am not depleted beyond my brain's tiny capacity for hope. I like spending time with my kids, and I don't worry about the time I don't spend with them as much. My kindergartner loves riding the school bus by himself and enthusiastically waves goodbye to me. Everything is so bearable in the parenting department that I've moved on to stressing about other family members. Third wave, I'm telling you. 

I'll just be here enjoying my cheap home made coffee until the Lord blasts me back to Starbucks for being so cocky. 

Saturday, July 7, 2018


July 6, 2018. Likely the hottest day this year. My car, the one without AC, says it’s 111F outside. We race down the highway, trying to take off from the blazing planet like a bird. We’re up to illegal speeds, all the windows down (except the broken one), hoping the rush will create a breeze. Instead, it’s a motionless heat blanket, hotter than hot. So hot you can smell the wild fennel bulbs baking in the dirt on the side of the road. So hot that a deer carcass we pass looks blacked, like an honest to god barbeque. I’ve never seen that before.

I half expect the grasslands to spontaneously combust before our eyes. Every truck we pass smells like melting tires. Everywhere that skin touches skin feels like swampland, but every time I resettle a sweat-slick limb and create something like a stirring of the air, it feels like glory hallelujah. I expect to see the tiny metal lotus of my necklace searing a brand into my flesh, but reality denies me all the comforts of drama. I can feel the acid in my stomach beginning to simmer, making me sick. I want to get out and run in a panic circle, shouting the adult version of “fuuuuuuuuudge” like a wild animal that’s suddenly realized that its habitat is not conducive to life.

Instead, I drive on, afraid that if I stop the heat will be worse, an oppressive punch to the jaw that won’t let me up again. But I have two kids in the back seat. I pull off the freeway and park. I feel dizzy as the car slows. I step out, sway to the left, sway to the right. Yell at them to put their shoes back on. Why is it always the shoes? We make it inside where all I can say in answer to “how are you today?” is a demure, “toasty”, as the gal might be startled if I told her the truth.

For the first time in my life, I feel like I might be paying less than Starbucks is worth. Yelling is forgotten as I regain my humanity and we pretend we’re explorers in the Sahara. We make it the last 20 minutes home, where it’s a tepid 86 degrees. But the grande cup of ice we just got is pure liquid.

[artwork by Bjoern Ewers]

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Style Icon: Emilie Flöge and Wiener Werkstätte

The most I ever spent on a piece of clothing was $130 (including shipping from China) for my wedding dress. My second most expensive clothing is a vintage kaftan by a vintage designer I like called B. Cohen Originals. It's actually a giant square that looks like it was painted by a 4 year old, but it really struck me. I am too cheap to collect canvas artwork yet, but some of my clothes feel like artwork to me. 

That kaftan reminds me a bit of Emilie Floge and Gustav Klimt's work, of which I am a huge fan. Klimt is of course famous for his painting "The Kiss" and others, but Emilie is less known today. She was his lifelong friend, lover, muse, and colleague to Klimt, and a well known fashion designer in Vienna at the time (early 1900s). The 1910s is my favorite era in fashion apart from the late 60s. Oddly enough, 2018 is 100 years since Gustav Klimt's death and 50 years since my favorite year in fashion, 1968. Anyway, despite my love for classic 1910s styles, Emilie and Gustav's designs were not typical for the time and were called "reform dress". They're incredible to look at because they still have appeal today, but they don't really seem to belong to any specific time. 

Many of the clothes in Klimt's paintings were real garments that she designed, and likewise, some of the most striking clothing she made was designed by him. There are limited photos of her work and even fewer surviving garments due to a fire, but the modern high fashion brand Valentino (founded 1960) made their Fall 2015 collection a homage to Emilie Floge and her work. Gustav took most of the photos that we have of Emilie and she almost always looks so happy and mischievous.

I just finished reading a novel called the Painted Kiss (by Elizabeth Hickey) that was a fictionalized account of their relationship. It was such an interesting period for art, producing Egon Schiele (another favorite of mine) and other strange visionaries surrounding the Art Nouveau movement and its offshoots, namely the Wiener Werkstätte group. There seems to have been a bit of a free love philosophy going on in that group and their patrons, which is always something that sort of fascinates me. It is suspected that the famous "Kiss" painting is modeled after Emilie and Gustav. He was a troubling character in the book and probably in real life, having fathered at least 14 children by a variety of women and not really taking responsibility for any of them. 

This robe (above) reminds me of the B. Cohen one I just bought! I like Gustav's robes too.

The whole idea of an artist's collective (especially one that was so avante-garde and eventually hugely successful) is alluring to me because it seems like we don't have that kind of thing anymore where there's specific places and times where like-minded artists or writers create a movement that changes....everything. Maybe those movements only appear in hindsight? Anyway, according to the novel, Emilie and Gustav's personal lives were a bit tortured, but/and there work remains some some of the most inspiring to me in my own work. 

I am unsure which details in the novel are real and which are not, but most of the Wiener Werkstatte group died or left Austria right around the beginning of the first World War, and their work was confiscated or destroyed during the second World War. It makes me so sad to think of what was lost and how surviving members, such as Emilie (who died in 1952) must have felt like that exciting, fruitful time of their artist's movement was dead and gone in so many ways, locked in her past. That sort of thing resonates with me so much, when a chapter in your life is closed and you can never revisit it. 

One of the most influential members of the Wiener Werkstatte group was Joseph Hoffman, an architect. It's fascinating to look at the work of all the members and see how they overlap and inspired one another. Hoffman's jewelry (although not this particular piece - it just happens to be my favorite) looks like Klimt's paintings which look like Emilie's clothing, etc. Hoffman designed a fantastically beautiful mansion for a banker, called the Palais Stoclet. Klimt helped design it and many of his paintings decorate the inside. (The interior shown below is not from the palace, but gives you an idea of the style and shows how Klimt's artwork hung in the spaces his friends designed. I'm crazy about it!)

Emilie was known for hand-painted silk. At the time, whale bone corsets were still worn regularly, but Emilie pioneered "the house dress", which still looks pretty fancy to us today! One of the blog posts about her I was looking through called her an "anarchist of style", and it makes me fall in love.

I really wish I could see this last one in color.

Once you start poking around in the Wiener Werkstatte movement, you start seeing its influence on designers like John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Tim Walker, and others. I love learning about these things and letting them affect me. It makes me feel a part of something old, new, and secret all at the same time. I have never been a minimalist, and I love the complexity and meaning in that turn-of-the-century style. In some ways I don't "believe" in minimalism because reality is not simple to me. I guess minimalism would be escapism for me, but I have no desire to escape there most of the time. Order yes, simplicity never. Now I just need to save up my pennies to fill my art gallery (er...closet) with Emilie inspired pieces

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Diary of a Sad Lady

Despite my hopes for instant and wild fame as a result of blogging, it's always been something of a personal journal. A journal is a place where you don't have to have all the answers, you won't be graded on how well you argued your point, and it's okay to not have a point at all. I don't have bullet points today, and if I don't feel hopeful at the end of writing it, then I just won't end on a hopeful note.

I do love it when people give glowing reviews of whatever I have to say or I get praise for being "so honest". But it's not an achievement for me. There's always another layer I haven't reached or shared yet, not because it's too dark or too personal, but just because I'm a work in progress. In my mind - most days - I Have Arrived. The way I am is the culmination of everything I've said and felt and been and done up until now and I can't be any more than that. But I forget that tomorrow will add to that and I never really Arrive at the final version of myself. I've had everything worked out since I was 5, and it's a continuous irritation that I'm just not developing according to my master plan.

Rather than having arrived at Butterflyness, I think I'm more like something freaky emerging from a chrysalis. And my hips are stuck. I went in fuzzy and I'm coming out... still fuzzy. I'm beginning to realize that my butt just might not look at all like what I'd imagined. Figuratively speaking.

I'm sad. And I know it. And I don't know how to go through it instead of around it. Even if I knew how, I don't want to. Most of the time I'm not sad, but sometimes things happen that I can't prevent and that makes me recognize that little by little, I've made choices to insulate myself from feeling sadness. When that insulation gets chipped or threatened, I get a little twitchy. A lot twitchy. So twitchy that I've started to recognize that even though I don't know what it is that I'm suppressing or why it's there, it's something that I'm afraid of letting it out because I certainly recognize its magnitude.

In my waning ability to control this thing, I've noticed that I'm manifesting some neurosis, and that startled me. The most notable thing is that it's become increasingly difficult for me to drive. I've never been in a real accident, but my inability to control other drivers while I'm driving or the idea that anything unexpected could happen at any moment makes me extremely jumpy when driving, and I get sweaty and feel tingly. When I reach my destination I feel an inflated sense of relief. I've even begun to avoid some travel because I'm too stressed by the journey to get there. I think I will actually just get a little too sad right now if I explore how my must-control-my-environment coping mechanisms affects how I relate to my children. Sometimes I don't let them talk in the car.

Unresolved sadness upon unresolved sadness has built up into something that feels insurmountable. My family often asks me why I "bottle up my feelings" and I always deny that I do, because I certainly don't do it consciously. I have a lot of feelings and I express plenty of them. I recognize that "bottling" is not a good thing to do, and therefore I would never willfully ignore something that needed to be dealt with. But I guess that's the whole point - somehow I fake myself out of thinking the hardest things are worth dealing with, and that is by nature burying it.

If you're wondering why I'm sad or how I got to be cripplingly sad, I couldn't really tell you. I loved my childhood, but it was a never ending cycle of ended relationships and I was not in control of when I got to say goodbye. Or if I wanted to say goodbye. It's no ones fault, but it was sad then and it's sad now. There wasn't any use in fighting it and no one who deserved my wrath, so I never fought it and I didn't take it out on anyone. But fighting is part of grief, and since I never grieved, I guess I just skipped all the emotional work that's necessary when you experience something sad. Now, when I experience something sad, I don't know how to accept the sadness and it leaks out of me in other ways, like my control issues. And there's so much pent up sadness that is pushing against the back of my eyeballs whenever something even a little bit sad happens that it would be a disaster to let it all out over something that isn't worth a tsunami of feelings over. Sometimes, I've wished someone (no one in particular, calm yourself) would die so that I had an appropriate occasion to really lose my shit all at once.

I never really understand that whole "Instagram looks so perfect, but don't believe that perfect life" refrain. I'm not covering up a dark secret with images of my beautiful life. My life is actually beautiful a lot of the time and I'm not trying to pretend that I don't have problems. But then when I get to a place where I can even consider that I might be detached from part of my own being... well, how does one casually bring that up on Instagram or otherwise. Flower photo, vintage outfit photo, cooking tip, my kids looking cute, more flowers, oh by the way my mind and body are conspiring against my commands as a result of Unresolved Grief. Do you like my dress? I do.

In acknowledging that I have some emotional trauma buried that I need to process, I've had several people recommend that I develop a compassionate inner voice. I'm trying not to blow that off as the bougiest thing I've ever heard because the whole point is to acknowledge that maybe I am repressing something and I'm aware that I'm not currently equipped to handle the exorcism. Therefore, logic would dictate that I might need some new tools to help me. I have a few, but I'm not ready to use them yet. 

Am I mean to myself? I mean, not that I know of... but on the other hand, would a she-devil that's always been a she-devil know that there was any option out there but attack with fangs? As ironic as this is, I don't really want to bad-mouth my inner voice because she is... me. My inner voice chamber is where I don't have to filter the way I encounter the world in order to be polite. Yeah, inner voice can be sassy and ruthless, but so is reality.

I want to tell Inner Voice not to tell me to be nicer, because when I'm in pain, I don't want to be nice. And I don't want to feel guilty about having that space where I get to lash out without verbalizing my most wretched desires and dreads. I like a place to contemplate crimes without having to commit any. I also don't want Inner Voice to give me any bullshit about how the blackness of my heart will eventually come out of my mouth because that's what the Bible says will happen. Inner Voice right now to hypothetical Inner Voice telling me stuff I don't want to hear: "I know, dumbass, I can read." She's rude and mean. So am I. But she's also as honest as she knows how to be and recognizes when things suck and it sucks to feel them. And I don't want to nicen that up. I rely on cynical, angry voice to help me process things that I don't like. I guess I just don't know how to tone it down when I get past the angry phase.

I also don't want the internet to think that I don't have "real friends" with whom I can discuss these more troubling things with. I do have wonderful in-person friends. But sometimes I don't talk too good out loud and I have to wait for someone else to respond and Inner Voice has to be tamed for the sake of human relationships.

When I think about the idea that internal stress that I don't acknowledge affects me physically and in some really strange ways, I just want to watch myself as a bystander. I mean, how WEIRD is that driving thing?! If it was someone else telling me that, I'd think they were making it up or making a rather far-fetched connection, though it must be said I'm notoriously bad at connecting causes and affects related to my body. I just don't have the time to figure out if cheese makes my stomach uncomfortable. Even if it did, I'd still eat it. Things that don't fit in to my personal logic structure just get relegated to "must not be real".

I only experience one reality, personally, but I'm much more open to the idea that there is no such thing as one static "reality" than I used to be. I have my own reality, but the more I think about it, the less it worries me if someone else who is "crazy" believes they're communing with aliens and stuff. I mean, who am I to say they aren't? It's real to them. And I really can't prove that it's not real. Imagine how frustrating it would be if you really were an alien and no one believed you. Anyway, that's tangential, but being that this is my journal and all, I can acknowledge any number of realities that I want to. Who knows what other weird stuff I might do in the future as a result of... I don't know...anything?! The more I recognize my own illogical, inexplicable self, the fewer assumptions I make about other people's "crazy" behavior. I'm not sure why I even value "having it together".

Relying on an environment I can completely control is I think partly why I've stopped writing very much. It's too draining for me to process other people's responses or to second guess my own thoughts and feelings about things. I don't want to explain myself any better than I already have. I don't know if it makes sense, and if it doesn't make sense to someone I don't want to work harder to explain myself. I am releasing myself from explaining why I have the urge to share everything on the internet too (thanks, Sweet, Sadistic, Inner Voice). It's because I'm a really gifted, brilliant, funny, mostly always genius and right writer, okay. And the world deserves to have my sparkle rub off on all its peasants.

It seems to me that most men have a sense of self assurance. The other day, I heard a man praised as "someone who never second guesses himself". I was starting to envy that belief that one is always right, until I remembered that it takes a lot more courage and work to consider that you might be wrong. Someone who never second guesses themselves can never listen to criticism. But I listen to all criticism because I believe other people's words (usually) have value. I think that's mostly a good trait, but it becomes deafening sometimes.

I've been reading Pearl S. Buck's autobiography (My Several Worlds) for a long time now, and this passage really stuck out to me:

"[I was sent several pages of blistering rebuke over The Good Earth because] I had been so frank about human life... The worlds in which I have lived and grown have made me what must be called a controversial figure, as I have been told often enough, and this is because inescapably, by experience and nature, I see the other side of every human being. If he be good, then there is that other side, and if he be evil, there is again another side, and if the ability to comprehend the reasonableness of both seems confounding to those who are content with one dimension, to others as to me, it is an endless source of interest and amusement and opportunity for love and life. We have no enemies, we for whom the globe is home, for we hate no one, and where there is no hate, it is not possible to escape love."

This perhaps proves that my Inner Voice needs a makeover, but the only person I can't argue both sides for is myself, to myself. My own dualities can be so destabilizing that I end up feeling confused and even angry with my inability to figure myself out. I can't help but encompass everything all at the same time. I don't view myself as controversial, I'm just a giant umbrella that is inexplicably compelled to present you with every option you haven't thought of every time you open your mouth. I'm not mentally unstable (well, not very), I'm just too small a vessel to carry all the things that I've absorbed and if you don't understand that innately, it makes me overheat in an effort to HELP YOU SEE BEHIND THE CURTAIN. I'm a sad, confused droid that wants to help people but only knows how to communicate in droid-speak. So kind of like a not-very-helpful thing that wants to be helpful.

I don't like this. I am a strong, grown-ass woman who is usually proud of herself and is good at things and I'm not happy that part of my own team is sabotaging me with it's crazy psycho drama that is part of me but also not listening to me and YOU WICKED DEMON SADNESS MONSTER JUST STAY IN YOUR BOX. I've been doing quite well telling my feelings when and where to feel, and I have no intention of letting them run the show. This is not a democracy, it's a dictatorship. My subjects are getting cocky with their insubordination and their feeling coup d'états

Are there rehab facilities for sad people? Where you can go and kill stuff, followed by a quiet soak in a scalding bath in a pitch black room? With dessert afterward? Maybe a Japanese mafia spa.

Inner Voice says I am not brave enough to get my weird fuzzy butt out of this chrysalis.

{images: Picasso, Priscila Furtado, unknown}

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Navigating Cultural Appreciation and Appropriation as a Global Citizen

As I was scrolling through Instagram stories today, a designer I follow had a reminder to "please be respectful of Mexican culture instead of mocking it in light of Cinco de Mayo coming up." I immediately panicked, wondering if I unwittingly show disrespect, since I couldn't imagine how one might celebrate Cinco de Mayo in a mocking way. I wrote the designer and asked what she considered disrespectful and she mentioned drunkenly imitating Mexican accents while wearing sombreros, and thankfully I've never done that or even considered it.

That experience of worrying whether I'm inadvertently appropriating someone else's culture is common to me. I think about the topic of cultural appropriation often because I know it's real but I also know that the rules of what is or is not appropriate shift and are nuanced depending on many factors. I wanted to offer my take, particularly as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) or a "global citizen".

I am ethnically/racially white from every angle of my family. My skin is very, very white. I spent the first 16 years of my life in various areas of China (which has a much larger degree of cultural diversity than is generally portrayed) and occasionally Thailand. Now I live back in the US where more than half of my city is Hispanic/Latino. That leaves me with cultural influences, appreciations, and background that do not match my ethnic background. This is common to all people with transient childhoods (or extended periods of adulthood) and to immigrants. More and more, the experiences that shape our personal and familial cultures are a blend of more than one ethnicity or tradition. Yet in cases such as mine, you'd never know if you didn't ask. If I wear Pakistani clothing while living in California and speaking English with no accent, for example, your first guess about why I might be doing that might not be that I grew up among Pakistanis. It might look suspect, but I still engage in cultural practices or decorate or dress up in clothing from other cultures because many of those cultures have become part of my identity.

Playing dress-up at home in Xinjiang, China, c.1995. Definitely not culturally accurate of any one thing, which seems like a great metaphor for the rest of my life, haha. 

I don't think there's a rule book that works all the time for what is or is not cultural appropriation, but here are some of my suggestions.

Appropriation vs. Appreciation
  1. 1.

    take (something) for one's own use, typically without the owner's permission.
    "his images have been appropriated by advertisers"

    synonyms:seizecommandeerexpropriateannexarrogatesequestratesequester, take over, hijack
  1. 1.

    recognize the full worth of.
    "she feels that he does not appreciate her"

    synonyms:valuetreasureadmirerespect, hold in high regard, think highly of, think much of

Even though I understood the concepts of both appreciating and appropriating, I found these definitions to be insightful. Appropriating has this aspect of power-plays (addressed later on) and even violence. The image of a hijacking is an especially vivid association as we can imagine how jarring it would be to be going in one direction and have someone suddenly wrestle that choice away from us and take us in a new, unwanted direction. Similarly, appreciating means something more profound than the way in which I often use it - it carries this deep sense of worth, synonymous with treasure. I was especially struck by the definition of "recognizing the full worth". That's a true litmus test for whether we are appropriating or appreciating something.

I treasure many things. It's called being a maximalist, aka a trash rat. I literally find other people's trash and nail it to my walls, and it brings me great satisfaction! I've found that because of my messy cultural background, I like a lot of different things that have meaning or hold memories for me. Even if I don't have a specific memory tied to an object, I might see an object that reminds me of something or somewhere or even someone I love, and then I want to add that object into my living space. I am also interested in a lot of things that I don't yet "recognize the full value of" but exploring things that intrigue me is a way that I learn. A lot of items that I'm drawn to have an ethnic feel because I like color and pattern and faintly macabre stuff (carvings and masks) and that happens to overlap with many tribal, Eastern, or South American cultures. I find that I also search for things to attach meaning to as a way to compensate for not having strong cultural and spiritual markers within my ethnic heritage. That tendancy can easily become appropriation, but it has everything to do with your motivation, attitude, and experience.

I'm not sure I do appreciate the full worth of every thing I bring into my home or put on my body, but I do believe things have worth and that I add worth with my care for them. When reusing and recycling (thrifting), it's almost impossible to know the history of an item and what it meant to the previous owner. In that sense, we might never appreciate something in the way that it was first appreciated or designed to be appreciated, but at the same time, we have the opportunity to actually add value through a new appreciation of that item. I never want to seize something - an idea, an object, a look - that belongs to someone else, but instead to treasure things that I'm drawn to, even if the reasons I treasure them are different than what they were originally made for.

Create vs. Imitate
One way in which to avoid appropriating is to focus on fusion or mixing and matching. As someone with ambiguous or mixed up or layered cultural makeup, I'm typically drawing from and creating things - food, outfits, spaces, thoughts - that aren't purely of any one culture. Honestly, is anything culturally "pure" in our world? I don't think very many people would argue that being inspired isn't a great thing or that cultures don't borrow from each other in order to improve or adapt all the time!

However, to avoid making an imperfect homage to a culture or custom that I don't fully belong to, I create something distinct. For example, I found a long, red piece of cotton at the thrift store that has silver trim on each end and mirrors sewn on to it in several places. This is likely part of an Indian or Pakistani outfit. Instead of trying to wear it like a Pakistani women would (I did not find matching pieces when I bought it, anyway), I might use it as a bed canopy or a headwrap or a shawl with an evening dress (probably not an evening dress that is distinctly Central or South Asian). Being too "on the nose" with cultural imitation or appreciation can easily look like mockery to others, even if you have the best intentions. Trying to create an exact copy usually only highlights that the effort is a poor imitation. In my opinion, you can't get it "wrong" if you make something that is new, because you're the only person who's done that before, so there is no blue-print to misinterpret.

Adding something with cultural significance into a mix of other things isn't meant to veil that item's cultural significance by taking it out of context, but instead to weave it into my own identity without being costumey or running the risk of looking like I'm mocking someone else's heritage. I'm creating something new with pieces of many different things rather than imitating something that I can never fully identify with. This happens quite naturally with food because food is so tied to location by its very necessity. To truly recreate a Turkish dish, for example, I would need access to lamb in some form other than ground meat and a variety of spices in raw form. Neither of those things are easy to come by in my area of California, so I substitute and tweak. Sometimes it's sad that I can't perfectly recreate something, but at the same time, I end up making something new that has a piece of California in it, and that new fusion is distinctly mine. I don't pretend that it's perfectly Turkish and it certainly isn't native to California, but rather than degrading either of those labels, I hope that it elevates a new, third category.

Photo: My friend Karissa M. grew up in Cameroon and now carries her daughter in traditional baby sling (photo used with permission). 

Thoughtfulness vs. Consumerism
I've already stressed the necessity of being thoughtful about how we incorporate culturally significant objects or practices into our lives, but I wanted to talk about consumerism for a minute too.

There's nothing wrong with buying things that originated in other countries or cultures. We often want souvenirs of our travels, and sometimes we buy items to support the artisans that make them. In many places, selling craftwork to tourists or international markets is a main source of income for people. But I do get uncomfortable when craftwork is treated as a souvenir, in the sense that now we think that object belongs us to (because we paid for it) with no strings attached and we can be flippant about it or toss it aside when we clean out the house in a year or two. If you buy something when you travel, be willing to pay good money for something that's truly a work of art, and then treasure it for what it's worth. Don't buy junk (or treat your souvenir as junk) just for the sake of having visual representation of where you've been.

It's also makes me a bit uncomfortable when we see ourselves as benevolently lifting up "poor artisans." I'm not saying that there is no place for supporting ethnic craftsmanship, but please do so with dignity instead of out of guilt or a belief that someone else's livelihood depends on your kindness. I heard a story recently in which people who had had Western missionaries move to their area were asked about their feelings toward missionaries. The missionaries who were respected were those who treated others as equals, not as students or people who were in need of something that the missionary had. One missionary mentioned in the story had a family emergency come up in his home country. Unable to pay for a ticket home, he asked for help from the people he lived among, and that really made an impression on them, because that's how real friends treat one another - not that one party is always the giver and the other always the recipient, but that we help each other in times of need. Being humble enough to be the recipient of service is a way to show honor to others. In the same vein, don't devalue ethnic craftsman and women by underpaying or overpaying, because neither acknowledges that regardless of our circumstances, we are of equal worth in terms of our humanity.

I am still struggling with how to show dignity to people who make clothing for "fast fashion" companies like HandM, Forever 21, Topshop, Old Navy and probably Asos and Zara, to name a few. Even though clothing from these companies is generally culturally neutral, it comes at a relatively low cost to the consumer, which means that it's likely that whoever made it was not paid very well. Unfortunately, even those of us who don't work in sweat shops can't usually afford clothing that is for-sure ethically made. Buying clothes second-hand definitely alleviates some of that guilt for me because I'm not perpetuating the demand for items that can't possibly be worth as little as they sell for, but it's something I'm trying to be aware of in general as a consumer.

Historical Context and Power Dynamics
I mentioned earlier how I am drawn to things with a strong cultural feeling because I feel that I lack that in my own ancestry. I want to clarify that that general attitude can be what perpetuates appropriation. It's not that I have literally no heritage, but more that I don't identify with my ethnic heritage of French-German-British-Scottish-etc. I'm not sure if my parents do either, but even if they did, my parent's cultural identity is not my cultural identity by nature of my global upbringing, even though we share an ethnicity. On top of that, my religious background is from a church denomination that does not have ancient history or any dramatic rituals or markers such as traditional clothing, artwork, decor, rites of passage, or festivals.

I think that lack of cultural richness is common for Americans, especially because any cultural markers that we do have are so much the norm in our country that we don't even recognize them as cultural markers. Many of us then go looking for something to casually spice up our whiteness, but approach that process as if other cultures are cheap jewelry for us to take on and off as we please. It's a struggle, because I really do understand that it's strange to feel that you have no cultural meaning of your own. For those of us with more recent European ancestry ties or who are aware of a strong European cultural background, it can be a little bit tricky to lean into that, because a lot of European history and culture in the past several hundred years is very tied in with oppressing non-European cultures.

Even though we would never borrow culture from others out of spite or to degrade other people, we have to be aware that in general (speaking for white/European peoples) our ancestors and some of our contemporaries control much of the money and influence in the world. Similarly, as an American, my passport countries' military is involved in many places throughout the globe, and not always in the best way. That is a deeply emotional issue to many people, and even if my own beliefs differ from the actions of the US military or government, I still carry that association in the eyes of many others. Positions of economic or military dominance leave us with a responsibility to be aware of power dynamics and the fact that less prominent or affluent regions might be in a position of vulnerability in order to survive economically. That reality is not a free pass to export or incorporate culture at will. Imperialism is alive and well, but we don't always recognize it because we assume that what we have to offer is better than what someone else has. It's okay to believe that we have a good thing going, but it's not our job to decide whether someone else believes that too. I think it's good when cultures mix, but that mixing and sharing should be led by the person who owns that culture, not the tourist, the expat, the short term missionary, the foreign teacher, the occupying military, or even the researcher. 

Not everything needs to be branded or exported, whether physically or idealistically. Being able to travel and explore other places is a privileged, not a right, and when we use other cultures as a backdrop to our lives or as a way to get more "likes", we're being exploitative. Ethnicity is not a commodity.

Similarly, we must be wary of exoticism and voyeurism. Geishas aren't there for us to photography and Bedouins don't exist to belly dance for tourists. I don't know if modern (or ancient, for that matter) nomadic tribes belly dance at all, frankly. If you do see something that seems exotic when traveling, I think it's okay to be excited or in awe, but people aren't zoo animals. Just because it's fascinating to us doesn't mean that person or custom we're admiring is from another point in time or isn't as advanced as our home cultures or doesn't have modern worries like we do. I know all of that probably sounds obvious, but I believe it's really important to understand the habits that land us in unhealthy situations. We are all insensitive at times, but we ususally don't recognize that we've crossed a line. Even the purest of intentions can be founded in ignorance and result in damage. To avoid that, we have to open to learning and not assume that we haven't caused harm just because we didn't know or didn't mean to.

As I said before, what is and isn't appropriate is on a bit of a sliding scale, too. Even 10 years ago, there were things that almost everyone would consider fine that are now looked upon in horror. I'm sure all of my peers will remember how the word "gay" was used to mean "lame" about 15 years ago. I was never aware of that being tied to any gender-identity in the context in which I heard it and used it, and it certainly wasn't used as a slur in my circles. But today, I cringe when I hear it because it is a word that people use to describe their sexuality and if you use that word as in adjective and only ever in negative situations, it suggests that you think very little of gay people.

If we feed into a system where there is some profit in the exposition of others (performing their own cultural rituals for the sake of entertaining a crowd), those people will continue to be exploited, either by their own economic needs or by modern slave masters, even if we don't realize it. The scenario of a human zoo exhibit is very real to me. I've been treated that way and I've seen others treated that way. We have to be very careful to make sure that our interest and appreciation is tempered by an understanding of the motivation and intentions of those we are observing.

Taboos and Sacred Symbols
There are some things that are always no-nos, at least at this point in time. Slurs, hate speech, or mocking (in word or in deed) are never appropriate, not even as a joke. There are other things that have become so politically charged that I would just avoid them unless you have a legitimate ethnic claim. Usually these items or subjects are explicitly stated as sacred or taboo by those who the culture belongs to.

For example, feather headdresses are part of religious ceremonies for many Native Americans and they consider it offensive for their religious objects to be used as decoration for those who don't share their beliefs. For those who aren't Native American, there is nothing inherently wrong about wearing a feather headdress, but there's really no situation in which that's necessary and since it's been stated as disrespectful by a group of people who that imagery is clearly associated with, it's disrespectful to use their symbols outside of their sacred context. I've heard some discussion that dream catchers might be something that was co-opted into popular culture when it shouldn't have been (not so much the use of an actual dream catcher, but using the motif on shirts, etc.), but I don't know if they carry similar cultural weight as headdresses.

One taboo that was kind of difficult for me to let go of was tattoos of Arabic calligraphy. As the Koran was revealed in Arabic, it is considered sacred to many Muslims. Tattoos are traditionally forbidden in Islam, so tattoos in Arabic are considered taboo. However, when I just went a-googlin', the internet seems to have changed its mind on this topic. I asked about in a forum years ago and the response was tentative to negative, but general opinion now seems to be that it's not offensive. You might have noticed the same progression of opinion surrounding tattoos in Christian circles over the last decade (as a Christian, I never considered tattoos to be un-Biblical in nature, though there are some that would still offend me in content). I guess the moral of that story is do a little research if you're unsure. As a rule, you should never get a tattoo in a language you can't read or write. It will only be ridiculous and possibly even offensive to people who know that language. Similarly, tattoos of Buddha are very much frowned upon in Thailand, for example. Thai Buddists consider it very offensive that their religion be used as a vacation souvenir (it says so on giant signs in most airports in Thailand, haha).

Four sisters who I know who grew up in Thailand got sister-tattoos of lotuses to symbolize their shared multiculturalism. My favorite part is that each sister has a slightly different interpretation of the lotus. (photo from Kara H., used with permission)

Bindis (red forehead mark or ornament in India) and some African-origin hairstyles like cornrows are so recognizable as being native to one group and/or explicitly stated as not appropriate as ornamentation for "the masses" that I avoid those things, even in appreciation. I did get my hair braided in cornrows as a touristy thing in Thailand growing up, and there was certainly no malice in that on anyone's part, but I wouldn't do that today as an adult. I think that if you spend a great deal of time in Africa or India or again, have some legitimate connection to those cultural heritages you could make a case for wearing those styles, but otherwise I think it's risky.

I wanted to touch on blackface, too. There have been two occasions on which white friends of mine have dressed in blackface, not knowing it was very offensive to most people. Just last week, there was an incident at a frat house in our area concerning blackface that shut down the entire greek system at that school. Most people have been told at one time or another that blackface is strictly off limits, but I'm not sure that very few people know why. Especially in the area in which I live, there are very few black people and our education system doesn't do the best job at teaching these things. It's not the act of coloring your skin that is offensive in itself (cultures all over the world do this, either tanning to get darker skin or applying creams to get fairer skin, etc.). It's the historical roots of blackface that make it so unsavory. Blackface originated with white performers in the late 1800s who would caricature black people as a form of entertainment for white people. These caricatures were almost exclusively slap-stick style and portrayed black people as idiotic and incapable of serious thought or art. Many white people at the time believed that to be true of black people. So, blackface was a marker that only ever went hand in hand with mocking black people as being objects to laugh at.

Nothing that is someone's heritage should be turned into entertainment or costume. That's why ethnicity-based costumes (Native Americans, geishas, Mexicans, belly dancers, gypsies etc.) are frowned upon. If you want to dress up as a specific historical character that fits into one of those categories, go the extra mile and add some distinguishing attributes to your costume and be ready to be a fount of knowledge on who you're representing. Last year I saw a discussion thread on birthday party themes (and I would add wedding themes too) that are simply "Mexican" or "Japanese", for example. Unless you are somehow connected with those countries, their culture shouldn't be thought of as a party theme. Imagine going to a birthday party in China that was "American" themed and included Bay Watch cut out posters, soggy french fries, guns as props, and everyone wearing curly blond wigs and making jokes about the most stereotypical aspects of American culture. It would be embarrassing! Even though all of those things exist in the US, it's not a flattering or accurate depiction of American life. (Tbh, that sounds like a funny party, but that's not my point...).

I'm sure there are more symbols and subjects that are obviously inappropriate to some people that I am not aware of yet! I hope that I don't come to find out what those things are "the hard way." I try and keep my ears and eyes open and instead of rolling my eyes when "yet another thing" is claimed as sacred by one group or another, simply do what is in my power not to inflict damage if I can easily avoid doing so. I am not offended when non-Christians wear crosses or otherwise use Christian symbols - it's a symbol, not an embodiment of my belief  or some higher power - but I definitely roll my eyes when I know someone is using it with no idea of its meaning (similarly, celebrating religious holidays without any of the religious significance or belief). It doesn't hurt or offend me personally, it just makes that person look ignorant.

Learning and Teaching
For someone like me who has legitimate cultural roots unrelated to my ethnicity, and for many other people too, there's absolutely a place for borrowing, appreciating, and incorporating multiple cultures into one lifestyle. I even think it's okay to dress up as a specific historical or fictional character that is not of your own race. The key is to be educated about what you're doing, though. I want to be in a position in which if someone was to accuse me of appropriating, I could confidently explain my place in the culture that I'm not obviously from. In the case of costumes, you should be prepared to give a mini history lesson on the person you're representing, not just throw your hands up and say "I'm a Mexican!" or something. I also want to be open to hearing from someone who might criticize me in the event that they actually know more than I do and feel that I am using something out of context. If I did something thoughtlessly, I should adjust my actions. If not, I should take that opportunity to explain that plenty of people are from mixed upbringings, whether or not their physical features reflect that.

I'm also doing my best to let others speak on topics of cultures that aren't fully mine (if I'm with a Muslim friend, that friend should be able to share his or her beliefs instead of me "whitesplaining" it, even though I do have experience). No one is an expert on everything. Take every opportunity to let a culture (and its adherent) to speak for itself on what is and isn't up for grabs to the rest of the world. Different people within one culture feel differently about things too. There is huge variety in what is or is not socially acceptable among Muslims. It varies by family in my experience, just like it does in Christianity.

Always be ready to apologize if you blunder, even if whatever you did wasn't offensive to someone else in a previous situation. Also, avoid talking about things you don't understand. Confusing Chinese and Japanese culture is one of the most ignorant things to me, as they are very different. Similarly, I'm irritated by labels of "Asian", given that Asia is about 1/3 of the size of the entire globe. Why not take the time to find out where in Asia something originated? In my own life, I'm trying to be better about learning countries and their characteristics in Africa instead of talking about it like it's one homogeneous place.

Asiyami Gold is an art director who I follow on Instagram. I'm not sure what her ethnic roots are, but I really like the way she uses more traditional fabrics from her homeland in modern ways. (She's mentioned her cultural heritage before, but it's not posted anywhere and I can't remember!)

What's your take on appreciation and appropriation? I'd love to hear any good (or bad - you know I love the juicy stuff) stories you have on the topic. I'm especially interested to hear from fellow TCKs on how you explain your style to people who might assume that you're being insensitive. Does having a mixed cultural background make you feel more free to incorporate cultural aspects from places you don't have a connection with, because your identity is "everything" or "nothing"? I want to hear it all!  

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Unmellow Yellow

My favorite color is not a concrete thing. In the last few years, it's hovered around gold, pink, and purple. But recently my eye is drawn to YELLOW. Not the mellow variety. It's bold, and I'm into that. 

I've noted that yellow items in my clothing shop(s) have been selling well. I think yellow is a loud announcement that winter is over, and we're all so ready for that! I even want to paint stuff yellow right now, but I do wonder whether it would just seem ludicrous in the winter months and winter light? 

Here are some images that have jumped out at me recently. 

Fashion by Emilio Pucci, 1960s 

From Martha Stewart Magazine, photographed by Johnny Miller

Charles Martin illustration for 1934 Harpers Bazaar

Delpozo Pre-Fall 2018 Fashion Show Collection

Book by Blair Imani

Guo Pei Spring 2016 Couture (same designer that made that 
hugeeee yellow cape for Rihanna at the Met Gala a few years ago)
WANT. Passionfruit drink. I really like the Chinese newspaper underneath. 

Vintage Pierre Cardin

Envelope decorated by Henri Matisse

Saturday, February 24, 2018

10 Years an American

Ten years ago, I moved to America.
I was born here, but not raised here. The most recent ten years of life here, plus the 3 first years of my life here now add up to half my lifetime. Very soon, the scale will tip and I will have spent more of my life in America than anywhere else. This makes me cry.

There are many things that I am grateful for in America and that I appreciate about being an American, but it is hard for me to find it in myself to say that I love America. Perhaps in the same way that I wrote about my struggle to feel emotional fondness for children at times, I do not have emotional fondness for America most of the time, though I love it in a sort of fierce, visceral way and because I can not escape it, even if I were to move away.

In many ways, I am an immigrant, having moved to America from somewhere else that was once home. I think I can say that I share the immigrant's experience of being grateful for the promises that America holds and that in many ways, life for me here is "better" than it could be elsewhere, but I also harbor the immigrant's wound of feeling that I don't fully belong and I see with immigrants eyes that much of what America promises is a half-truth at best.

I am resisting the urge to apologize for this cynicism, because while I recognize and appreciate the good things, I am ever more aware that my sometimes-perception of America being "the best place" isn't the America that most people live in. I suppose that if you get to know anywhere well enough, you'll discover that it's not quite the same as you expected.

When I didn't live in America, America was always the Shining Place, where everything was better than wherever else I was in the world. The water was clean enough to drink from the pipes, the streets were paved and without trash, there weren't amputee children lying in the middle of the sidewalks,
and everyone had money to spare. This is both true and untrue. It is true that in most regards America's norms are of a higher standard than in other places. It's good enough on the surface that we can claim that it's good enough. I experience a lot of "grey" America, where everything is middle-of-the-road enough that we can get by without ever doing good or doing evil. You can also get by here without resisting evil.

I haven't traveled very much within the United States, but the little bit that I have seen astonishes me with its variety. Some people here don't have clean water, or enough water at all. There are unpaved streets and plenty of trash. There are more and more people begging for a living, and for most people, the thought of "money to spare" makes them laugh and cry at once. It is true that if we compare to rural China, for example, most Americans don't have much to complain about.

But I don't live in rural China anymore, I live here. I'm not a woman in Saudi Arabia "where things are really bad for women", I live here, where things aren't good enough for women. I don't live in a country where I will very likely be killed for my faith or my politics, I live here now, in a country where religious freedom is confused about itself and the religious don't take their faith very seriously but it's also commonplace to act on the most heinous of beliefs. I don't live in Yemen, where children are literally dying of hunger, but I live here, where fresh food costs more than poison.

I said before how life in America feels like grey-area to me much of the time. I think that is often a result of the America that I can see, but the more I am curious and the more I peek around corners, the more I have a sense that for many people, life in America is actually dark. I read somewhere recently that, "the world isn't getting darker, we're just pulling back the veil."

I live in a country where at 26, and within the time that I've lived here, I have outlived at least seven of over 5400 people shot by police officers (as of May 1, 2013 when such a list was created. The list below is from I Am Not Your Negro).

Tamir Rice 2002-2014 (age 12)
Darius Simmons 1998-2012 (age 14)
Trayvon Martin 1995-12 (age 17)
Aiyana Stanley-Jones 2002-2010 (age 8)
Christopher McCray 1996-2014 (age 18)
Cameron Tillman 2000-2014 (age 14)
Amir Brooks 1997-2014 (age 17)

Not only have I outlived them, but I was born before all of them too. 
I don't bring this up to demonize the police. I understand that it is a difficult job, and sometimes officers shoot in self defense. I bring it up because it helps me to see that there is more than one America, and I'm trying to understand my place in all of them. 

I didn't expect it to be so hard to do good here. Sometimes it feels impossible to recruit people to see my America, and sometimes people are too busy to love or be loved.

In many ways, I believe that President Trump has cut me loose, as a white woman, from what I thought I knew or what felt familiar here in America, and forced me to forge new bonds and recognize old rifts. I'm extremely grateful to his presidency for that. It has made my heart feel raw and exposed to elements I did not know existed, but I am grateful.

Ten years in, I still don't feel a sense of "where I'm from", but I do have this sense that I have a unique opportunity to understand and define what it means to be an American. I get to choose my identity to a greater degree than someone who was born and raised here, and that does make me feel invested in what it means to be American. I am from here, so I must be a part of here, and learn how to manipulate the potential for good here. I think that coming from outside gives me both a fierce love for what is good, and a less calloused view of what is rotten. I know where my loyalties are not, when it comes to Americanism.

Being American encompasses a lot more than I'll ever know or see, and the more I understand that, the more I realize that as much as I get to define Americanism for myself, I can't do that for everyone in this country. There isn't one right answer to what it means to love this country or be a part of it, or even to dislike being a part of it. But I do get to offer a counter-narrative when America is held up as something that I revile, because I am also American which means my view of Americanism counts for something.

Lately, my struggle has been to separate my identity as an American from my experience as a white woman. As I keep saying, being American looks different depending on who and where you are in this country, but I'm beginning to see that for me, it isn't right to stay in my America when other versions of America suffer for it. What I mean by this is that by not breaking away from the narrative of America, land of the free and brave, where everything is cleaner and better than elsewhere, I am complicit in perpetuating the version of America that is oppressive and warped. The warped version, where racism, sexism, imperialism, and religious oppression are deeply rooted generally isn't my America, which means that I can pretty safely ignore it (consciously and unconsciously). But if someone else lives in that America and I deny the truth of that, am I not perpetuating it? And if I can not deny it, how can I rest without challenging it?

If you live in America and you don't often find yourself angry and heartbroken, I do not think you are paying attention. I'm not saying that as a political slogan. Honestly ask yourself, if you think that life in America is "pretty good", not only for yourself but for other Americans that you might never have met, then what have you removed or not let in to your circle of influence?  People are dying unnatural deaths here and suffering here, in America, and that shouldn't sit easily with any of us. Nor should we say we are upset by it, but then not change the very foundations of our lives and beliefs and understanding in order to prevent it from continuing.

I frequently become overwhelmed when I think of all the ways in which I am unsatisfied with America. But in the wise words of Mrs. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus, "if you have a problem that is too big to solve, solve a smaller problem first."

I have a fear that my life will be boring, lack meaning, or otherwise be average. I admit that sometimes I am motivated by my own search for glory, but I also think of who I admire in this world, and on a more relevant scale to this particular subject, which Americans do I admire?

I admire people who overcome great odds, I admire artists (who's job is often to unsettle the settled), and I admire the people who are willing to be called "crazy" or "fringe" and even not be taken seriously because they decided that being middle-of-the-road wasn't going to cut it. It's hard for me to rationalize "a quiet life" of domesticity (however necessary or worthy or even rightly enjoyable) and reading and vacationing as "good enough". For those of us that have the option of that life, we must recognize that leading that life requires ignorance of or disinterest in the fact that most people can't live that life. I don't mean that pursuing those things is wrong, I only mean that I think we're falling short of our potential as citizens if we stop there.

When I've challenged people who seem to have stopped short of realizing their social potential, sometimes I hear, "I care, I just don't talk about it". Please talk about it! Talking about it helps us to engage with what's going on around us and opens us up to being challenged either to tweak our behavior or to defend it. Talking about it lets those who are struggling know that we are not complacent about their suffering.

As I struggle with looking my America in the face and coming to terms with belonging here, for better or worse, I find that my passion for changing the things I can't live with here leading me to invest in the communities around me. That makes it feel like home. I belong here, and therefore I am allowed to be upset when it falls short. I don't believe it is wrong or should even be frowned upon to be unsatisfied or even angry with our surroundings, our government, and our nation sometimes. I makes me personally invested in seeing it get better.

In writing out these thoughts, I have been taken aback by the depth of sadness and darkness they conjure in me. To have come to America, imagining it to be the place where everything is made right (Heaven? Haha), and then find out that not only is everything not right, but we refuse to admit that it's
not right... well, it's disenchanting to say the least. It feels like betrayal, and it confuses the concept of home, if home is a place where you're supposed to feel safe and happy.

I am still recognizing and warming up to my right as an American to be unhappy with America and to challenge common narratives of the good we do, when it's not good for everyone at all. I have realized something terrifying and exhilarating at once: America is not the best country in the world.
There is no "best" country.
I am just from this country, and it's not "the best".
I believe that thinking of America as the best can actually keep us from even being "good". Logically, if one is from/in the "best" place, than everywhere is less-than-best. Even my children understand that there can only be ONE "best", despite my attempts to convince them of 1st winners and 2nd winners. Even though we rarely admit that we think America and Americans are not only "the best" but consequently "better than", that is the generally unspoken byproduct of believing and acting as if we're the best.

I don't have a super tidy way to wrap up these thoughts. This wasn't even really about the specific ways in which America is not what I thought her to be. I do, however, have a few small takeaways and hopes about what home means and what it means to be American, or even at home in America.

1. Naguib Mahfouz wrote, "Home is not where you are born, home is where all your attempts to escape cease." I've found that in a community - even a very imperfect one - if not a country. I am grateful for that sense of home and that it's somehow both bigger and smaller than the nation itself.

2. Home is where you are known, and that's worth holding on to. More and more, the space in which we are known can also be in a state of transience.

3. America is unique, to my knowledge, in that citizenship (or extended time spent) makes you American, not your ethnicity. Anyone can be American in time, whereas if I moved to Sweden or China, even if gained citizenship there, I would never be Swedish or Chinese. I cherish the fact that being American isn't based on ethnicity, and I will fight to make sure that that stays a defining characteristic of being American.

4. As ridiculous as this might sound, I've found solace and joy and in the cream cheese wonton. It's certainly not Chinese, but most people probably associate it with Chinese food if they don't give much thought to it (which they probably haven't). These hybrid bundles of delight have come to encompass my experience as an American-Chinese-American - maybe a bit confused about its identity, "but good. Yeah, still good."

Image credits:
1. Unknown, possibly an artist called Kim Kim
2. By Ron Wimberly
3. Match cover, found here
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