Archive for December, 2005

Becoming O-lan Part 1

pic by sume

I first read The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck for a reading assignment during my freshman year in high school. This was shortly before I moved to Nebraska to live with my father in 1984. I was 14 years old. My well-meaning English teacher thought it would be a good idea for me to read something “Asian” and suggested I read this book for my report. Already struggling to put my roots into my origins, I devoured the book. I later read many more of her books, but The Good Earth was the one that planted a seed in the soil of my empty garden. One that I now wish I’d cut out and thrown away.

In order to understand my perspective, you have to get a full grasp of my surroundings at the time. When I say small town, I mean a population of roughly 2000 (correction: 1000), one car wash, one cafe, one grocery store, two gas stations, one bank and one set of railroad tracks that divided the black and white sides of town. The first non-white families didn’t move to the “white side” of the tracks until some time in the 80’s.

My home town was so small that we all went to a neighboring larger town about 15 miles away to do all our shopping. That’s also where everyone went to have fun; go to the movies, eat out and if you were a teenager with a car, that’s where you went to cruise and hang out. Going to Dallas to eat or shop was a BIG deal reserved for special occasions and school or church field trips. To drive through from one end of town to the other took about five minutes. It truly was a town that you’d miss if you blinked.

The main road through town consisted of a two lane road, only one of two in town that actually had yellow stripes. It took an average of 2 minutes to drive from one end to the other if you were going the speed limit of 10 mph. On one side was a strip of shops including a grocery store and furniture store owned by the same family. The other side had a bank, barber shop, and gas station. Intersecting the main road was highway 66, the other road with stripes.  This is how I remember it from my childhood. I haven’t been back there in years. My mother, who still lives there tells me it’s growing and changing as all towns do, just very slowly.

Imagine trying to find something “Asian” in a town that didn’t even have a public library (that also was in the neighboring town) and where the only other Asian in town was struggling to “whitewash” himself. So what did I have? You guessed it. Other than the few books I could dig up in the school library, I had the television. Ohh boy, Kung Fu Theatre on Saturdays and Kung Fu The Series with the white dude. That and Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth was all I had from which to draw my image of what “Asian” meant. It’s quite alright to start laughing at this point. I laugh, too….and then I cry.

Note: I use the term “Asian” rather than my nationality of Vietnamese to emphasize my situation. If finding anything related to Asia was difficult, you can see how impossible it would be to find things related to my home country. Given my absence of association with anything specifically Vietnamese and because of my lack of resources, I was forced to broaden my margins. I have no idea where this is going so the end will be as much of a surprise for me as anyone else.

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Becoming O-lan Part 2

pic by sume

I don't want this to be a bitter story. I have many wonderful memories from my childhood. From an outsider's view, I grew up in a healthy and happy environment and indeed I did for the most part. Most of what I talk about is something that occurred inside and wouldn't have been apparent to anyone else. The teasing and harrassment could be viewed as "just kids being kids". I never talked about the feelings of rootlessness or isolation then because I don't think I understood them myself. Much of what I recall is in retrospect from an adult and hopefully much wiser viewpoint.

I think at the time I felt conflicted between wanting to be like everyone else and wanting to become more familiar with my heritage. I had plenty of examples of how to be "like everyone else" but nothing except the heavily stereotyped Asians in movies, books and television shows from which to model my concepts of "Asian-ness". Now begins the embarrassing part.

I was in sixth grade when my teacher announced we would be putting on an international bizarre for the entire junior high, faculty and of course, parents. Each student was assigned a country. Guess which one she gave me. I was to research facts on China, come up with some semblance of native dress and make a traditional Chinese dish to serve at the bizarre. Noooooo problem!

The research facts were simple enough to dig up from the encyclopedia. Remember the internet didn't exist back then. Native dress? What do Chinese wear? Miracle-Mom found a Halloween costume pattern and my ever resourceful grandmother did the best she could. The result was a pair of pants, a blouse that buttoned up the side and a long sash to tie it at the waist. Hmmm, what about the shoes? I asked my teacher, telling her I have no idea what to do about the shoes. She suggested I wear a white pair of socks and a pair of thong slippers. "The Japanese wear their shoes like that," she said, "no one will know the difference." Hmmmmmkay.

Now the dish, what the heck do Chinese eat? This one really stumped me because I had only eaten at the Chinese restaurant twice. It was in the next town and their Mongolian beef rocked. It was the only dish I knew and had no other source for recipes. I needed something simple that could feed a lot of people. My aunt came up with the brilliant idea of fortune cookies. It seemed like the perfect solution but where to find a recipe? After digging through every source available, my ever-persistent mother called the Chinese restaurant and simply asked for the recipe. The poor guy on the other end was completely baffled. With less than a week left to go until showtime, my mother and I were becoming a little frantic. Luckily, my family was very close and by now this had truly become a family project including cousins. It was one of my cousins that found the recipe in a magazine. So the baking began with me writing out tons of fortunes by hand on tiny slips of paper. My mom would take out the cookies and I would stuff and fold them.

International bizarre dawned too soon. All dressed and ready to go, I looked in the mirror. There I stood, a hodgepodge of "Asian-ness"; a Viet-girl with Japanese feet in Chinese clothes with a tray of fortune cookies in my hand. I can't really say what was happening in my mind at that moment. I know that for the first time, I saw myself differently. I didn't see a "gook" or a "chink". I had been magically transformed into a "China doll". I liked what I saw reflecting back at me from the mirror. I think it was at that moment the soil of my little garden became fertile ground for the planting of "O-lan's seed".

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Becoming O-lan Part 3

pic by sume

At this point, I have to explain what O-lan represented at the time. I didn’t see her as the stereotypical submissive Asian female. I saw her as an example of quiet strength, enduring loyalty and unshakeable principles and traditions. She epitomized the right mixture of humility and pride, strength and wisdom, loyalty and honor. She quietly resigned herself to her station in life, her fate, and later on in the book, Wang Lung’s dismissal and neglect. Damn, I must have been desperate for a role model. Ermm, bad idea.

Keep in mind that what I recall is in retrospect and the experiences I’m describing are not necessarily sequencial. I don’t think I consciously set out to become a stereotype, but it was something that I slowly internalized. Given my desperate search for identity and the stereotypical examples surrounding me, perhaps it was inevitable. Another factor might have been that I grew up in southern-small-town, USA where the traditional role of women was somewhat similar. I was just becoming a slanty-eyed version of what already existed around me.

It is only now that I am beginning to see how this really affected my outlook on life even to this day. As I grew older, I felt more and more drawn to all things seemingly Asian and all that was available to me were these cookie cutter, Hollywood type stereotypes. When I finally moved to a city where there was a large Asian community for me to interact with, I absolutely could not relate. I was expecting Lady Toda Buntaro and errr.. Arnold or possibly Master Po but instead I found….real Asians. (I wish I could describe the particular shade of red my face has just turned.)

I think the experience so freaked me out that I went into a waking coma. I withdrew from any attempts to get in touch with my heritage. I don’t think I thought of it again until I was approached by a Vietnamese students organization in college. I described that wonderful experience in a previous article and how it caused me to again withdraw.

“I wouldn’t come into contact with a Vietnamese community until I was attending college. I was thrilled when I was approached by a member of a Vietnamese organization within the school. His first question was, “Are you Vietnamese?” to which I replied, “Yes.” His second was, “Do you speak Vietnamese?” to which I replied, “No.” “Thank you,” he said as he made a quick exit. For the second time in my life, I’d felt the rejection of “one of my own”. It would put a halt to all pursuits of my Vietnamese heritage for over a decade.”

My life seems like a series of hit and run attempts to “find a place to fit my face” or vice versa. The events following my conversion to Islam and marriage to a Lebanese man only gave O-lan rich new soil in which to grow. I’ve already written about my conversion, my “self-arabizaton” and later disillusionment… somewhere. To save you the trouble of digging through my blog, I’ll try and summarize. After I converted to Islam and married, I found myself having to adjust(customize) myself to a new religion and a new culture. Since my husband was Lebanese, most of my acquaintances through him were from Arab countries. Again I found myself morphing into the culture of my surroundings.

O-lan was still there buried beneath the surface except she’d converted to Islam, wore a hijab and spoke broken Arabic. I had simply added a layer of cultural attitudes, and misogynistic, gender-biased interpretations of Islam to my already cringing persona. There was no internet and few books in English from which I could expand my knowledge of Islam. I was limited to what was told to me by the Islamic community. Ehem, see a pattern here?

I’m not sure exactly what snapped me out of it. As I look back, I think it was like a slow awakening similar to what I describe in Leaving the Box. The coming of the internet opened up endless doors and my eyes as well. I joined IRC chatrooms and made friends outside my usual circle, women (you know who you are)full of fire, spit and most importantly…knowledge. It was from these women and from my research on the net that I began to think critically. It was a slow, painful process that is ongoing to this day.

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Becoming O-lan Part 4

Painted memories
pic by sume

Let me stress that I, in no way blame my conversion to Islam for my lack of critical thinking. This was something within myself that carried over and re-emerged into my life after my conversion. If anything, Islam was the doorway to the realization of what I had been doing to myself all those years. As I began to think critically of what I'd learned about Islam, I also began to re-examine myself as a person.

I should also make it clear that I don't harbor any grudges against my parents. They did what they did out of love. Neither they nor my extended family ever made me feel any different from the rest of the family. They went so far as to treat me with extra care because they wanted to make sure I felt completely accepted and that I belonged. Perhaps that is why they never stressed my differences not realizing the consequences. We are a close family to this day.

I did not intend this as a complaint or excuse to whine about my life. I decided to put this most embarrassing experience out for all to see as a warning. However rare it might be, there's a possibility that my experience might be repeated in a similar situation. It is one of the reasons why I stress preserving an adoptee's identity. That means exposure to ethnicity (in cases of multi-racial adoption) and preserving familial identity. Though parents might mean well by completely absorbing a child into the family, it can leave a void in his/her life. Sometimes this never bothers an adoptee at all. They grow up and barely think of their life before their adoption. Then there are those like myself who feel there is a void and struggle to fill it.

While I have nothing but love for my parents, I admit that I still carry a little anger and resentment. I can't deny the sense of having been robbed of my heritage. However, I have chosen not to direct those feelings at the people who have given me nothing but love. I have chosen instead to direct my energies into fighting racism and the stereotypes that so plagued me as a child. I pour my anger, resentment, my sense of loss into my blogging and my poetry. You can see it in my photograghs and artwork but you'll also see something else. As I told a good friend of mine, I want to have that anger and use it in a positive way. However, I don't want it to be all that I feel so you'll see a few good things in my work as I come to terms with my life. You'll find reconciliation, love, acceptance and sometimes even peace.

"But what happened to O-lan?"

She is still there, buried deep within my personality. She is too deeply rooted for me to just tear out and throw away. Instead I have pruned away the clutter and the branches that grew in undesirable directions. I now nurture those that grow towards strength and dignity, compassion and love. My garden has been filled with many things over my lifetime, each experience planting a seed of humility, patience, anger, hate, rage and so on.

For a time everything grew wild and out of control. I had neglected to tend it, to keep it beautiful and productive. I understand now that it was because I failed to realize the value of the soil in which everything grew. Painful as it can be at times, I now enjoy watching my garden take shape in fertile ground that is valued simply for what it is. O-lan is no longer hidden in an isolated corner. She has been brought out into the sun. She is now an integral part of an ecosystem planted in what I've come to learn is all good earth.

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