On My Feet: Rededicated to Social Justice & Responsibility

Two or three weeks ago I told my significant other that if he wanted things to continue as they were (with me jobless, running the apartment, and always there to supply him with ironed shirts and warm food and so on), he would have make significantly more money. The truth is that he has been nudging me towards reapplying to graduate school and finding a job. As if taking care of a fully capable adult is not a job.

I told him that I could not find a job or apply to graduate school or do anything other than organize, clean, maintain, and furnish both the apartment and his life the way things were. He said he saw his own complacency and resolved to step up. I stopped waiting today. I have long suspected that because some people think I am stronger than most women, they allow themselves to demand more of me. This short life of total domesticity has proved to me that I am not stronger than most women. I think that I am simply more entitled.

The apartment is done and then is undone everyday until I drop my partner off at the train station so that we can go to work. The difference is that he leaves while I stay. I return home so that I can continue to straighten and wash and clean and make food. I allow myself dinner and one sub-section of Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Woman, Native, Other (which amounts to about one page, front and back). Most often, by the time I sit down to read I’m too fatigued to understand. I read and reread until it finally makes sense, and by then it is time to return to the train station in order to pick my partner up. It’s not a bad life but it’s not one that we can afford, financially. It’s not a bad life but it’s not one that I can afford, as the work I do passes invisibly, unremarked upon, and taken for granted. I cannot afford to be taken for granted.

 

When my partner goes off to work, he goes to a “fine dining” restaurant where he charmingly takes orders from and delivers food to a wealthy subsection of the population here. He comes home completely spent, and it has become my job to bolster his defenses so that his managers can continue to use him like a rented workhorse. But, he comes home with stories of how great his night was and how friendly the staff is and how much money he made. And now that the initial moving-in phase of our apartment is nearly a thing of the past, I feel a strong responsibility to find a job. I asked him, out of sheer laziness, if his job had any openings for some kind of part-time menial labor. I have been searching for a sign for what to do next: reapply to graduate school or…? He spoke to a manager who sounded enthusiastically encouraging even after he was told that I have no “fine dining” work experience. I showed up in a fitted pink blouse, sensible but attractive black pumps, pearl earrings, and a modest, pleated navy skirt to one of the worst interviews of my life thus far.

The manager (I think it is salient to mention here that he is younger than I am) did not seem to want me there. I got the distinct feeling that he was not listening to anything I said. In less than half an hour, he lectured me on the importance of not seating “couples on dates” at “tables for four,” told me that he needed a host, and then said that he was more than happy with the hosts they already had. He asked me what my favorite restaurants were and then told me that my answers were indicators of the “level of service” I would be likely to provide (even though I had told him that while I cannot afford fine dining, I exclusively frequent restaurants in which servers show an outstanding level of care for their guests). He unflatteringly remarked on the length of my résumé, ignored all of the customer service jobs I’ve had, told me that I would be better as a food runner (“It’s not rocket science”), and then questioned whether I had the right “qualifications” to work there no less than three times. If this had not been my partner’s place of work, I would have stopped the interview halfway through, apologized, and left. Instead, I sat straight-backed, head slightly cocked, and attempted to control my face into an understanding smile.

 

Intersectionality (especially gender, race, age, and perceived class) is the crux of this disparity, this issue. I have long told my partner that people treat him differently than they treat me, not only because he is handsome and charming, but because people read him as a man, and I am read as a small, young, Asian woman. This manager who felt it necessary to question my ability to bring people the food they have ordered is attempting to incorporate himself into my partner’s personal life. This young man dreams of being an artist, although he does not have enough respect for the trade to learn about it, and in his dreams, he has given himself a last name made up to sound Asian. I know him: the fetishizing, the double-talking, the greedy, the co-opting, the misogynistic. It did not escape me that upon meeting him for the first time, he turned his back on me in conversation, and later attempted to win me over by serving me a dessert wine so saccharine that I gulped it down while he wasn’t looking so as not to offend this young man whose understanding of his self is so sadly, achingly bizarre.

 

Two of the full-length mirrors in our apartment are warped—when you look in them, you see yourself wider than you are. Standing back from them, you can see ripples in yourself. I think that I am like these mirrors. In me, people see themselves reflected through my perception. All of the good friends I have, all of the good friends I’ve ever had, know that I see them. I am a difficult, demanding person, all the more so for being born a woman. I afford respect to everyone, but once lost, it is unlikely to be earned. I have no patience or time for men who cannot meet my eye because I have disappointed their fetishized impositions on my thoughts, feelings, and behavior. I wish that I didn’t bump up against these unpleasant truths. I wish it so desperately that I spent last night and this morning going over and over the interview looking for some clue of my own misunderstanding or culpability. This is what hegemony has done. This is what the last few years and the place I spent them in has done.

Having gone over and over this interview in my head, I use myself as mirror. I know now that I no longer have to fear becoming complacent. Even here in this supposedly socially liberal mecca, hegemony will always keep me on my toes. The fight now is staying on my feet.

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Now & Then

Who was I before?

 

I have memories of myself sliding across a polished hardwood floor in wooden flats. This was a discovery, because before then I had thought that flat shoes did not slide on floors. How long ago was that? Less than a decade?

I was working at a salon as a receptionist, and I was awful at it. I understood the mechanics of what I was to do and executed them accurately, but I could not find the heart. Between customers I would open a shallow drawer and sneak bits of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Cat’s Cradle. Reading helped close the gap of my confusion surrounding the salon staff and those they labored over, but ultimately left me feeling disoriented and alien. There were many other things going on. I was in a bizarre and ordinary tumultuous relationship with a boy I met in an algebra refresher course at community college. When I thought about him, I thought about all of the people I could be, not because he was extraordinary, but because I was so young. I was unsure of who I wanted to be, but felt the light brush of possibility surrounding me throughout the day when I would least expect it.

He was in a band, and I had never dated a musician. My best friend at the time and I had been going to small venue shows here and there as a way to get out and kill time without spending much money. I had dreams of being an insider and sometimes this boy was heartbreakingly vulnerable. More often (i.e., the vast majority of the time), he was self-absorbed, self-congratulatory, and so unabashedly self-conscious as to be grating. Also, he lied to and about me. Constantly. I let this boy be embarrassed of me until I was embarrassed of me.

This is one of the people I could be, and so this is part of who I was before. But only a very small part.

 

Each time I move, I look into the same boxes before resealing them and wedging them somewhere out of sight. These boxes hold the memories my head can’t. Photos. Stickers. Notes. Figurines. Kindergarten pottery. Journals. It goes on and on. I can’t bring myself to throw them out. It comforts me to know that they’re there. Just thinking about them brings pain.

The first time I packed the boxes was the first time I moved out. There was more space in them then, and they were less. I newspaper-wrapped and bubble-wrapped and bound note cards in plastic bags. Each time I moved, I gained boxes until I had to consolidate them and then consolidate again. I stopped wrapping anything, stopped fearing mold or water damage or cracks and breaks. Most recently I willed high school/middle school/grammar school papers into the boxes until they looked close to bursting. Before I pushed them into the box and away I looked at some poetry I’d written sophomore year for A.P. English, and I felt so sad. They howled with the confusion of a transracial adoptee. They collapsed under the anger at the powerlessness of a child. They reminded me that:

this aloneness is something I have carried inside of me so long that it finally feels like me and doubles back until it has built up into a companion surprising me with its substantial satisfaction when no one is around. The smiles I smile when there is no one to see are part of me, and I revel in the knowledge that as I get older they will only multiply, becoming a greater part of what makes up me.

 

This summer, I am: always cooking; always baking; always cleaning; always storing; always folding all of things we have to fold into rectangles so that they are discernable only by the type of fabric from which they are made. I am fraying at the edges. If I were a napkin or a towel I would hold myself up and make a face while I decided if I were still a towel or a napkin or if I had changed into a rag. I transform our things and our apartment with my mind and my hands.

Now that this process is narrowing, now that things in our home have homes, I sense that there is another move waiting to be made. Organizing the apartment, cooking the food, watering the plants has tuned me to some strange frequency that, I think, is my life. I lean in to whatever it is I’m doing throughout the day and I can sense beyond what is going on. I get the feeling more frequently now that there will be an opportunity folded rectangularly into a leap of faith.

Until then I am practicing having faith. Until then I am working to see the strength it takes to transform things as strength. Until then I am realizing that power is also the power necessary to change and manufacture ideas that become real things under enough care and consideration.

 

Who was I before? contained within who it is I will be

Living In the Desert: Hell Lite

We had been together for three years when we moved out of state. My significant other left his job bartending and the management track he was on at that restaurant. We moved so that I could finish school and be closer to my family. The next five years were chaos, which was slowly funneled into a benign sort of hell. Hell Lite.

This is the story of those years.

 

We moved into a rented house my (white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed) mother found for us. Neither he nor I had experience keeping a house and all that entailed, to say nothing of living in an old house situated in such a place that the summers reached to and maintained scorching temperatures, and winters were equally snowy and blustery. My partner and I quickly came to suspect that the owner, who was so nice to my mom, did not favor us. The longer we lived there, the more demands she heaped upon us, until we were bartering for work around the house to be done. She would only fix the ceiling fan if we gardened (which my mother was assured was not part of the lease, but was snuck in to one of the lease revisions once we showed up), and so on. It was unfair, but I tried to stay away when I knew she would be around because she hovered, poked about, and always found things we should be doing. She made uncomfortable comments, and by this time things between my partner and I had been on very shaky ground.

Without his job to give meaning, without a routine he’d carefully established, my partner began to fall apart. There were things I had forgotten or hadn’t known about this part of his life. I went off for school, and he searched endlessly for a job. For two months, he looked for a job everyday. In his previous life, it had served him well to ask for a manager when turning in an application, and this is what he did now. Considering the volume of applications he turned in, he received almost no callbacks. Those he did get were all instances in which he applied unseen to whomever did the hiring. When he got interviews, he was told that, as a bartender, he was “overqualified” to be a server or work in retail. A manager at a café told him that she didn’t hire people from out of state. A restaurant manager asked him how he liked growing up “on the rez.” And, my brown-skinned, black-haired significant other, who, months ago was making a living from his work ethic and charm began to fold under the weight of the confusion of what was happening to him. He could not find a job.

My partner applied for unemployment, but could not get it. He lost heart. It was then that a fine dining restaurant so tiny that it could have been a coffee shop finally hired him. This turned out to be devastating. There are factors too sensitive for me to write about, and so I won’t. But I cannot impress enough the harms done here. He had already lost faith in himself. His early life hadn’t been easy, but it taught him the skills he had needed to become popular and liked, and I must stop here to say that in his own way, he had gotten used to being handsome. Strangers stopped him in department stores to ask if he modeled. People he knew years ago would see us on the street and slowly turn their backs on me during extended conversations about the good old days. His looks were striking and exotic here. In the place we moved to, his looks were a liability that allied him with those thought to be indigent and trouble making—in other words, not white.

And, so he took this job gratefully and folded even further under the forbidding and temperamental owner because he thought that this was what he deserved.

 

During this time, I was filling my head with new ideas and trying to figure out how I felt as a young Korean-U.S. American woman, as a feminist, as a transracial adoptee. I was also trying to move past the series of damaging relationships I’d had before I had met my partner. I am certain that these relationships were not any worse than a typical woman’s, but doesn’t that speak volumes? And so, I was burdened by the transformation of my partner, which came at the exact moment when I began to finally feel alive. I studied and read and painted my nails and microwaved dinners for one, and when my partner and I were home at the same time, we sat in silence, numbed by the television, or, we fought. His deep depression had not gone unnoticed. It was the beginning of a deep rift, which he studiously attempted to ignore, and which I inflamed. He wanted to be left alone. I think that he thought that this request meant he wanted nothing, but in reality, it meant that he wanted everything, but done for him invisibly. I was to become invisible—dishes done, bathroom cleaned, refrigerator stocked, without any hint of doing these things. I rebelled for two or three years, but two or three years is a long time, especially when trying to run a household for the first time while eager professors asked what I thought about the latest news item.

When I started at the university from which I received my bachelor’s degree, the economy hadn’t fully tanked. There was still hope. My professors weren’t so tired. I felt that at least one of them legitimately cared for me—for all of us. After she was gone, it was as if all the air had been sucked out of the professors I had admired the most. After she was gone, there was no office I sought out, no validation that my experiences of other students’ racial hostility was real. After she was gone, I realized how little the university cared about what I had dedicated myself to doing, and I would come home to a moody silence I later learned to skittishly fear.

 

When our lease was up we moved into university housing, which was cheaper and showed a diversity of renters that was less visible in a walk around campus (although this doesn’t say much). I thought that leaving the house and its ugly implications might do us both good, and it did for a while. However, when the renters of the university apartment complex changed, I began to feel unsafe—various strangers were constantly hanging around, smoking and playing loud music. They rarely met my eye, and were almost exclusively young, white men exerting a bravado I had long ago learned to be wary of.

Further, I had major doubts about a future with my partner, but began to suspect that his behavior was a kind of penance. If I could just stick it out, he would return to his former self eventually. Besides, the restaurant he had been working at closed, and after a short period in retail, he began working in the same office I worked at on campus. Soon things would right themselves.

Some amount of time passed like this, until I proposed to him. We got our marriage license and were both surprised to hear that the court that would marry us was closed until several hours later. So, we were married in a drive-through-style chapel. I sat on a sunken velour sofa, feeling a faded blue carpet under my too-tight shoes, and stared at glass cases filled with dusty dolls of brides and grooms while a refrigerated case holding flowers that one could purchase hummed in a corner. I swallowed the urge to run. Still, I was happy after we were married. My hands shook. In pictures of that day, I look plump, and his hair is too long. My parents were there, and afterward we went out to lunch where we ordered and were served Bloody Marys that were too gimmicky to be any good.

 

Eventually, things got much worse. I write this now, still feeling as if at any minute we will both regress, and I will once again feel as if I have given up my life for nothing.

As time went on, he seemed to sink deeper into depression. By now, he was going to school as well, and could function immaculately so long as he was being praised and did not have to participate in the boring minutia of daily life. He excelled in the classroom, and quickly distinguished himself. Meanwhile, I had begun withering. I cooked, cleaned minimally, ran all errands, planned all of our days, and then studied, read, wrote, and avidly kept up on current events. I began to fall apart, and I believe that it was this falling apart that made me susceptible to the biases that surrounded me. I had teachers unduly question me, while leaving white, male students to check Facebook. When I would bring up racial issues in class that diverged from the hegemonic groupthink of many of my peers (often some combination of “they [non-whites] should be more like us [whites],” “I don’t think slavery/pre-Civil Rights/etc. was that bad,” “Well, the Irish pulled themselves up by their bootstraps,” “I’ve never experienced discrimination,” and so on), I was often ignored. At times when I used personal examples of what I felt was unjust treatment based on my perceived race, the most common response from fellow students was that I did not understand my experience. I got the distinct feeling that my point of view wasn’t welcome amongst liberal arts students who felt like they were doing their duty by showing up. And so, I fought at home, I fought at school, and at work the lines between my boss and I began to blur until I felt like I was being paid to listen to her woes under increasing demands. If there was any acknowledgement for the work I was doing, I cannot recall it. Having grown up in lush humidity, I found myself living in the desert. I was to blame.

 

My partner quit his job to concentrate on school, and I quit my job some months after. The already troubling work atmosphere became acutely difficult as staff members began to undercut each other to the extent that I, a peon, could no longer do my job. I thought that quitting would make things better between us. I thought that I was causing all of this trouble myself because I was unhappy with my job. I had forgotten (and, truthfully, never knew the full extent) that my partner’s unhappiness was caused by other things. I believed that the blame was mine.

Our relationship continued to worsen, and the worse it got the harder I tried. I was nearly completely responsible for both of us, and began shaving more time off of what I did for myself. After I quit my job, I took easier classes. Finally, I dropped my enrollment to half-time, but the more time I made, the faster it was eaten up by new responsibilities. I began to go insane. When I tried to talk to my partner, fights materialized from nowhere, until eventually I stopped talking. I literally tiptoed around him. I took on more household responsibilities, and then he began to blame me for his unhappiness. This, I took on, too, but not without many fights. After months of this, I believed it. I reoriented myself until I was incapable of anything, but was still responsible for the running of our daily lives. My life was full of running, and it seemed as if a dull, gray film stretched over everything. I began to pray throughout the day God would take mercy and strike me dead. This praying went on for three months. I was so tired. I felt as if I was to blame—that everything bad had originated within me, that I was making this person I had loved miserable with my existence, and it was compounded by the fact that he sometimes said so but would not let me go. I alone was to blame if our relationship didn’t last. It was all on me.

 

Now that we’ve moved back to the place we started, my partner has revived, but I can’t strike the knowledge that I know this is in him. Moreover, I feel sick knowing that this has been in me, because I look at myself and see a doormat. I see the kind of person I never wanted to be. I feel a hollowness in me from a year of practicing blankness in the hopes that I will no longer be accused of ruining valuable things. This void fills with whatever awfulness visits me during the day—disgust, insecurity, the weight of what I imagine is my all-encompassing ignorance and incapability. It used to be something else. I think that it used to be the space that was filled with curiosity that nurtured creativity. All I see in myself now is a face full of questions: What am I worth? Am I enough?

I hope that writing this will be a salve. I hope that these words, that my rekindling love will help work the poison of these last few years out so that I can say that I have grown stronger. I think about this relationship, and it is so much better, but it’s too soon to feel permanent. Meanwhile, I can still feel the acute pain of succumbing to traditional femininity—the Herculean efforts required for the Sisyphean task of propping up a whole other person who has determined to give up.

 

And now what will this story be? And now…? And now…?

On Sabbatical

The new apartment has become my domain. I roam around its sensible floor plan looking for stray things to pick up and deposit in the places I’ve designated as their proper homes. I pile empty boxes in corners and trash and recycle by the door. I stand over the sink cutting fruit and veg into bite-sized pieces, which I then put into clear, plastic containers. These containers stare out at me when I peer into the refrigerator. The refrigerator has begun to feel like my friend.

I am damaged by the last four or five years. Instead of looking in a mirror, I imagine myself looking in a mirror. I imagine that I see a housewife looking back. And, I know that this is going to sound massively insulting, but I am horrified. It feels like I’m hiding from something. I stand until my back and feet ache from devotion to cheesecakes that don’t turn out and onions that I burn instead of caramelize. Then, I make everything again. Better. But is it good enough?

And, when I check the news, I see news of a country that doesn’t look like mine. I am baffled by these United States. Neither victories nor losses feel like such. They feel confusing.

I feel numb;

I feel stupid;

I feel cheated by polemic pundits who make a better living than anyone I know by delivering versions of the truth to people too tired from daily living to continuously pan through the silt in search of facts. I want to believe in our government, and I want to believe in our citizens, but I feel kind of hopeless.

Maybe I’m burnt out.

 

These last five years did a number on me. I’ve changed so much, but I don’t think I “grew” or “matured” nearly as much as I attempted to survive. Daily, a blankness spreads over my face pushing into my life. I want to say that it’s been a year of this mask of superficial placidity that is supposed to help hide that fact that I was so miserable to outsiders, in order to not offend. But, truthfully, I have no idea how long it’s been. It’s felt like eons, and I’ve tried to not keep track. It’s a testament to how willful I am that I haven’t been able to figure out how to stop fighting back, but it’s a true sign of internal decay that I’ve spent months trying.

 

How can I explain this? How can I explain it to you?

 

I can’t. Not yet.

Instead, I wash dishes while my hands sweat inside purple latex cleaning gloves, and when I’m done I pull out prune-y fingertips that smell like rubber and chemicals.

Instead, I stare at the wall and wonder if these United States have room anymore for a person like me. Are Wendy Davis and Trayvon Martin and North Carolina indicators that this country is standing room only? And, if so, what is all this cooking and cleaning and ironing and grocery shopping training me to stand for?