slow death and bootstraps

Special Guest Post by Sam

Like the editors of this blog, I too am not that kind of Asian doctor. You know, the medical kind – the kind that all good Asian American kids are supposed to become. At least, that’s what my Chinese American friend told me. Instead, I chose to be that other kind of Asian doctor: the academic in the humanities. My college friends – many now themselves that medical kind of Asian doctor – love the idea of having that kind of choice. To be the token Asian American, who spins words with the best of them and looks the part – in the words of postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha, “white, but not quite.” All this talk in academia about unrecognized labor and unsustainable job markets and toxic lifestyles: I knew all about it when I first entered, but, damn it all, I was just going to outsmart the system.

But five years, two schools, and forty pounds of weight fluctuations have passed and I am consistently annoyed and anxious and distressed and just plain tired. I have watched my glasses get thicker and thicker. I cannot imagine myself growing old. But I can imagine myself dead. I have made lists of all the things I want to do before dying. I realize that I cannot do any right now. Cultural critic Lauren Berlant defines slow death as “the physical wearing out of a population and the deterioration of people in that population that is very nearly a defining condition of their experience and historical existence.” Perhaps this life in the academy is a slow death. A life that is not living at all; a dying that comes to define this very life itself; a dying more imaginable than life.

But enough with the whining. Academics and whining. Maybe it’s time to think of an alternative. Finding myself already one semester behind time-to-degree due to institutional bureaucracy and petty politics and power plays, I spent October coming up with a plan. I made a November deadline by which I either advanced to PhD candidacy or silently and gracelessly withdrew from school. No one asked me to – my department would have been horrified at losing their token. But, damn it all, I was just going to work smarter and find my own alternative. I stared at job postings and found myself too petrified to apply. I remember my time in the work force: the “real world” is its own form of slow death. But I thought about a life in academia and could not but stare these postings to try and imagine something else.

Throughout this period, I was fascinated by an image that circulated around Facebook of a person holding a sign. The sign invites your sympathy: its writer has sacrificed prestige for monetary value in education; has sacrificed daily material comfort; has calculated success as “working my @$$ off.” How can one not feel for the loss this entails? The sign ends with a warning: “I am NOT the 99%, and whether or not you are is YOUR decision.”

I hated it. I still do.

I hate it for its blind support of racialized and gendered capitalism. Because within a system of unevenly distributed resources, gain can only come out of loss. Slavery shows us this.

I hate it for perpetuating this neoliberal discourse of “responsibility.” Because within a system of unevenly distributed resources, “working my @$$ off” assumes that everyone else is not similarly working their @$$es off. It assumes that “work” does not immediately hold racialized, classed, gendered, and sexualized biases in a historical caste system – a fluid one, but a caste nonetheless.

I hate it for its uncritical vilification of the Occupy movement. Because even the sign-writer’s self-assessment reveals that she is not part of the 1%. Without the social, cultural, and economic capital that keeps capitalist castes solid, the writer probably will never be part of the 1%. There are so many criticisms one can make; many can be read here. Like the rest of us, the writer is subjected to a slow death. And no amount of smart work can outwit that.

But I hate it most for writing me into it. I got my B.A. from a school that was neither challenging nor prestigious because it paid my tuition. I worked multiple jobs throughout college. I have been estranged from my parents who do not know and do not care to know the life I lead. I stopped speaking to my spoiled older brother, who has disowned me. I watched my boss “promote” me to academia with a graduate application and a date of termination. I struggle to remember the ennui and uselessness that drove me to graduate school and realize that I still feel it now.

Two years ago, I shared in uncertain terms my growing discontent with academic life with my Korean American adviser. She expressed in similarly veiled words that Asian American academics get chosen for critiquing model minority discourse and then are systematically forced to become model minorities to survive the system – the goal being to survive. I recall rolling my eyes. How prescient her words turned out to be.

I suppose that I am relieved that I advanced to candidacy. I guess I couldn’t imagine anything else. But sometimes I imagine a different timeline. I think of the looks I would have gotten when I announced at Christmas dinner that I would not be returning to graduate school. I can stand the sight of my mother’s eyes. I don’t think I can stand my grandfather’s. My grandfather, who survived fighting for a country that did not recognize his place in it, who did not have the opportunities that I take for granted. My grandfather, who counts down to his own death in a convalescent home because neither of his children could imagine an alternative.

His children, like my mother. My mother, so impatient to escape the weight of her military father and immigrant mother that she accepted my father’s engagement without thought. My mother, so petrified of repeating her parents’ parenting that she learned how to mom but never learned to mother and blames her parents for it. My mother, who has three maladjusted farm boys, each bearing a different version of the weight she felt. Our mom was not a Tiger Mom. She never asked us to die this way – at least, not out loud.

Though I am not that medical kind of Asian doctor, my kid brother is trying to be. This past year, he nearly died trying to be that kind of Asian doctor. I dreamed nightmares that he had lost the war of “you and me against the world,” arriving at the only seeming act of agency in slow death: not to stall death – not to survive, just to die – but to speed it up. I shudder just thinking about it. But he persists. I breathe deeply and try not to worry. Medical school, graduate school, or even a steady job, it’s all the same: a life of working for dying in the unsustainable world of capital structured by whiteness. No amount of smart work can outwit that. As the mythical image proclaims, “that’s how it’s supposed to work.” Because we know no other way.

Dear Baby

First, apologies for being MIA for months, especially so soon after just starting our blog. Soon after our first posts at the beginning of the year, I found out that I was pregnant, and since then, my life has been a whirlwind of frantic dissertation writing and endless baby prep. And, of course, much reflection on the relationship between the two. In the future, I hope to share thoughts on motherhood and academic life as I travel a journey that is not uncommon but uncommonly spoken about and that deserves the deepest of reflection and feeling.

For now, I share some thoughts sparked by my journey thus far, at the earliest stages of motherhood as I anxiously and excitedly await my daughter’s arrival in the next month. Though she hasn’t arrived yet, I think I and my partner and our relationship have already been forever changed, in ways I had not expected or even imagined possible before. So it is to these breathtaking transformations that I devote my reflections today, in the form of a letter to our daughter.

Dear Baby,

I feared for you so much, before you were even conceived, feared what the horrors of this life would do to you, what the scars they left on me would do to you, what my own demons would take from you – and from me. I feared so much for you, and for me, and for your father, that we decided you were not to be. I would not let these dark possibilities come to pass. There is more than enough darkness.

But a hope grew in me over time. Hope that life can be born of life. You were conceived not only from love – for ourselves, for each other, for possibility – and commitment – to each other, to creating and nourishing a life for the rest of ours – but also from this deepest of hope. You are hope given life, incarnated, taking the form of body, mind, heart, and spirit, with all their vulnerabilities and possibilities. The embodiment of what a dear friend calls “a mother’s hope.”

On my most hopeful days, I hope that you will change the world. I hope you find answers that I haven’t, ask questions that I didn’t. I hope you learn to love and be loved, and even teach me to love in unexpected ways. I hope you take my breath away, and the world’s breath, with everything that you are and will be and will do.

On less ambitious days, I have simpler hopes, though they may still ask much of you, and for you. I hope you are like your father, with his quiet strength, always-open heart, and deep humility, and I hope you are like me, with my passion for life, ready laugh, and thirst for meaning. I hope you are like the two of us together, finding and creating courage not only to survive – though that will be hard enough – but also to thrive, to live a life of discovery, of depth, of thought, of all-encompassing love.

But even as I hope with the greatest of anticipation, fear, and joy, I know the burden of my hope is a lot to put on you. This burden is not something I should ask you to bear, because I sense how heavily my hope will weigh, heavier perhaps than the duty and debt transferred in other families not unlike our own. The depth and boundlessness of my hope may seem overwhelming, my little one. But I will ask you to carry this burden anyway, because I see no other way for myself, and for you, and for the future.

And so I reflect on what I can offer to you to help you grow and fulfill not only my hope but also your own.

I’ve thought about what kind of mother I want to be, what kind of model and guide to be for you, a girl who will face some of the scariest and toughest difficulties, challenges, and vulnerabilities that have been created in this world. Thinking about these terrors, I already want to hold you and shield you from it all.  But I know that I won’t be able to protect you from much of it, and I think the best that I can offer is love, guidance, and support.

I can show and model love in ways that open your imagination to its possibilities. Love in forms unrecognized and unrecognizable to those who wish to limit its expression, its feeling, its embodiment. Love connected to all aspects of your life, to life all around you. Most of all, I hope I can model love that allows you to find your own forms of love, forms that stretch the boundaries of my own imagination, beyond anything I’ve come to know and tried to create or even thought possible.

I can offer guidance, teach you what I know about this world, how to navigate it, how to not only survive it but also thrive in it. How to see with different eyes, think in different paths, feel with a different heart, and know in different ways. How to protect oneself but also to risk, because there are things worth risking for. I hope I can teach you how to learn, because there is always more to learn, more to grow, more to be.

And I can offer you unconditional support, modeling that kind of unconditional love that people yearn for but rarely experience. Support for who you want to and can be, support to give you strength and power that comes only from a community, support when you fall, support when you make your own mistakes, learn your own lessons, and perhaps even teach these lessons to me.

I humbly offer these to you, my dearest, to the best of my ability.

Waiting for you with your father, with all the love and hope in our hearts.

To 28 and living and dying

April 6, 2011

Dear Mom,

It has been nearly 15 years since you passed away. I do not talk about you, think about you, dream about you often because it is still painful to.

Birthdays are hard. Mostly because they remind me of you. I usually do not remember your birthday or the day you passed away or even mother’s day – these pass like any other day without you. But my birthdays are hard because I came from you. No other day holds your labor of love/ for 24 hours/ after 9 months/ breathing your breaths/ sharing your nutrients/ making my place in your womb. Your labor of love/ for 24 hours/pushed into this world/ my wrinkly hands already aged/ you gave me life and I am still learning how to breathe on my own. This is the day we should be celebrating you. You were amazing.

I am turning 28 today. I cannot say that I miss you, because I have learned to live without you. And my independence was what I yearned for the most after (and before) you passed, and it is still what I care for and need now more than anything. To be out from underneath the roof you built and left me with. To do things without surveillance, to not be held in constant judgement. To be away from that which your passing seemed to seal my fate to, my future success as “a doctor” needing to reconcile your past economic failures, through the hopes of making you proud. And I am still learning how to breathe on my own. And most days, every day in fact, I wonder what is it all for?

I have been thinking about death a lot lately. I do not think I ever stop thinking about death because how can I when I have seen it so early on? It has been 15 years and I’m still trying to reconcile everything that happened those many years ago. And it haunts me, unknowingly, creeping up in my sleeping dreams crying me awake and filling me in my loneliest of waking moments. I only remember certain things: when you would get dizzy and lie in bed all day, the whispers of my aunties asking why the doctors did not find this sooner, how they spoke in chinese so that I would not understand – no one telling me what the hell was going on – but how do you tell an eleven year old that her mother is dying?

I escaped death a couple of times this year – in february with my car accident, in october with my bike accident. But even as I experience bodily injury that I may luckily come back from, there are other forms of death in these life systems that I cannot come back from – that I have to consent to – and that I think killed you too. That even as my bodily injuries mend, my healing is capitalized upon by the health industry, creating a huge debt to be repaid through a lifetime of work. Even as my soul finds work and meaning in making a difference amongst our youth, I know that my difference will be destroyed slowly until they have made a destroyer out of me. Even as I love and labor for justice, my imagination fails me because I am so very tired from simply surviving. So lately, the question I have been asking myself is how do I want to die? Because sometimes all I can see are all the deaths around me. All I can see is my death.

Then, I wonder what there will be to say about me. What memories do I want to be inscribed in? Who would I hope to think of me from time to time? How do I want to live?

To 28 and living and dying.

Your only daughter

“Callin You Out On Your Bullshit!”: A Critical Reflection of the Wallace Fiasco

As the Alexandra Wallace video has exploded across facebook, we have been watching from a distance, waiting, and wary of the responses to the Wallace video.  But we would like to give props to this amazingly critical commentary that calls out the bullshit around the Wallace video, especially keeping the API community accountable. Thank you miswritten for saying these necessary things!

“i don’t really give a fuck about reactionary ~*aZn pRiDe*~, i got over that shit in the seventh grade.

what i do care about is building a sustainable movement centered around social justice, anti-racism, anti-hetero/sexism, anti-capitalism, and anti-militarism with other asian(ams) who are critical of their own complicities and positionalities.  who connect their lives and struggles to those of other people of color locally and transnationally.  who recognize the radical power within them to envision and enact change.  who are committed to doing it.

—a critically angry second-generation korean/american queer female student of the UC.”

To love in this way

We are not that kind of Asian Daughter. And though we are trying to figure out how to be daughters on our own terms, we struggle daily under the weight of our prescribed daughterly duties. Our families haunt us. In every decision, every choice, every feeling. We wrestle with whether to tell them anything (good or bad) about our lives because they’ll find some way to criticize, some way to tell us we are not enough. Sometimes, when we think we can handle it, we agree to spend time with them. We have weekly meals with them. We may even give them the gigantic wedding of their dreams for all their friends to admire. At times, we may even allow them to parent us. But at the most unbearable times, the times when they demand too much, expect too much, and give too little, we have been – and have to be – ready to say no, to threaten back, even to abandon them. Because we refuse to give up our selves under the threat of disapproval or disownment. Their parenting, their ways of loving, we find unsustainable.

Asian American parenting has become uncomfortably hyper-visible this past week. Amy Chua’s provocative piece on her parenting practices actually has very little to say that is worth very much though. Her facts are wrong. Her assumptions pretty ignorant. Her “philosophy” and suggestions thoughtless, with remarkably little reflection on the deeper reasons why she does what she does and the very disturbing implications of what she does. But what she says matters, not because she is right or her ideas have any merit, but because her actions and beliefs reveal a dimension of the startling horror that can be Asian American life.

In the quickly proliferating responses on the internet, many have criticized Chua’s sweeping generalizations, citing their own differing childhoods. But what is scary isn’t that Chua makes culturally essentialist and dehistoricized assertions about what it means to be “Chinese” (or “Asian”) and “Western.” What is scary is that those of us who are Asian American recognize something of ourselves and our childhoods in this strictly regimented life of studying and music practice: the rules, the tunnel-vision, the shaming, the threats of disownment, the never-ending indebtedness, and the definitively laid-out future. Become what we want, what you owe to us, or you are nothing. We give you a past, you give us your future.

What is scary is that this is a reflection of Asian American parental love. Love wrought out of conditions of institutional racism, war and empire, colonialism and capitalism – a world that steals dignity, displaces entire populations across the world, necessitates desperate strategies of survival, and demands too much sacrifice from those who already have so little. Living under such conditions, we are left with this translation of love – the meticulous management of our personhoods, through regimented time, through endless criticism, through power and domination. All to prepare us to live and “succeed” in a world laden with these deathly conditions.

But Ask a Model Minority Suicide is right: the stakes for this kind of game, this kind of investment, this kind of love, are really high. Sometimes people jump off bridges. Sometimes things die.

And sometimes people become doctors. Who can play the piano or violin really well. Who have big houses and nice cars, and take luxury vacations. Here, Chua would say the gamble paid off. Push your children to the breaking point, to be the best, and you get the best. Right? Here, some daughters might even say they are grateful for such relentless “preparation,” relieved perhaps to have “made it,” to not be among the body count at the bottom of those bridges. But we are never unscathed. The preparation of our past turns into the desires of our future, and the scars find their way onto our bodies and in our quiet tears as we incessantly labor to pursue and thrive in the fast-paced life of Asian American capitalism.

There’s a reason why our namesake plays off of being the “wrong” kind of Asian doctor. We did not become the kind of doctor that our immigrant families wanted, hoped for, needed. We could not follow that path to the American dream. Because we could not really believe that Chua’s kind of gamble pays off, either way. Because we see this game for what it is: a game that requires tremendous loss.

We could not ask ourselves to die. We could not discipline ourselves into what is necessary to “succeed” in this world. And we could not ask others to die, their bodies – poor, migrant, brown, criminalized, othered – forming the ladder for our climb to perfection, to the upper-middle class, to capitalist wealth and success, to whiteness. Because we now know the kinds of death that are required in this process of creating perfect model minorities. So it has become an impossible path.

We refuse to be loved in this way and to love in this way. If this is our way of loving, then our lives and our children’s lives are deeply impoverished. We must hope our imaginations help us to find other ways of loving and living. Because all our lives depend on it.

Sometimes things die

A colleague taught me an important lesson recently. While on a panel discussing life in academia, she said, “Sometimes things die… through no fault of our own. Even a dissertation.”

I’ve watched a lot of things die over the last few years while in grad school: my dog of 7 years, my cat of 12 years, and, ever so slowly but much quicker than I expected or wanted, my own health, as my body began to fail me in new ways under the ever-growing stresses and labors of academia. But mostly, my naivete about racism within academia, about fighting the good fight, about “good guys” and “bad guys,” about allies and alliances, about who to trust and for what.

Indeed, so much had failed me.

Over the past few months, I’ve faced two of the most difficult failures, failures that threatened to break me.

I watched as academia failed. It failed dear grad school friends, institutional racism beating them mercilessly in the forms of continual denial of funding, continual demands for self-justification, and internalized “standards” of racialized labor and sacrifice. It failed a grad school mentor so publicly in an egregiously racist and sexist – but also not extraordinary – denial of tenure, a denial which not only dismisses you from that particular university but proclaims your inadequacy to be in the profession of academia, for all to see.

And I watched as I seemed to fail, struggling to write a dissertation that was seeming to fail me even as I wrote it. I watched what I would only now describe as the slow and painful dying of a project, of the faith and hope that could not be disentangled from the larger project of academia (and the field that is Asian American Studies) and the identity that is scholar and the work that is a calling.

Sometimes things die, through no fault of our own. Even a friend in grad school. Even a mentor. Even a dissertation.

Academia is a place of deep heartbreak and loss, a place that has broken my heart and my self so utterly at one point I did not know if I could pick up the pieces. But, it has also been a place where I found the tools, the knowledge, the community, the love to mend my heart and self, against the odds. And I say against the odds because the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that academia is not invested in providing me with those things. Those things are carved out of the labor and love of amazing people who choose to stay and do amazing work, against the odds.

Through these few years of seemingly perpetual grief have also been moments, spans, of joy and life, of birth and rebirth, sometimes easing the grief but often simultaneous with it and even more often coming directly from it. People are the ones that fail you, the faces of institutions and the stuff of relationships, but they are also those with whom you find new life, with whom you build and create and love and labor and dream. Sometimes dreams die, but there will always be those to dream with.

I watched as community was forged out of these losses, built in desperation and need, but with the strongest of spirit, love, and hope. I found sisters-in-arms whose hopes, dreams, and ways of loving matched my own, and whose strength and brilliance awe and teach me. And I saw the coming together of a community in shared grief and rage at the deep injury done to one of their own, one of their best, an injury that was mirrored in their faces and on their bodies. I was horrified at the magnitude of both the violence and the injury that had occurred, and simultaneously awed at what can be built from such devastation.

And for myself and my own work, there are good days and bad days. On a good day, I can see the possibilities in the work and can imagine a balanced life. On the bad days, which are much more prevalent lately, I see the limits of academic work, the impossibility of getting a job, and, if by some miracle I actually get a job, the rat-race that is the tenure track. It has taken me some time to decide that these are unacceptable (non)options. So lately I find myself increasingly disinvesting in the academy as some kind of inherently revolutionary or revelatory space, and finding revolution and revelation between the lines that crisscross our lives, in those in-between spaces in the communities we form and the knowledge we make anywhere and everywhere we labor and love. I find myself trying to imagine alternatives, how and where else I might find life, and give life. So that when the academic thing doesn’t pan out (or especially if it DOES), then it won’t mean death. For me, or for others.

This blog is about how we encounter death and life, in their dizzying and shifting – and unexpected – ways. I write here, even as I continue to write my dissertation, attempting to resuscitate what sometimes feels like a lifeless body, because I think we need multiple avenues of surviving, of finding life, of creating knowledge, of dreaming. There is just too much death not to.

Unsettling in Los Angeles

My friend, an Asian American female, asked me recently, “Do you feel that what you’ve learned in college about racism and white privilege doesn’t really help you practically in the real world?” Of course, as an Asian American daughter growing up in a family structured by a capitalist logic, I took this to mean that what I learned in school doesn’t help me to get a job or make money, the only real markers of “success” in a capitalist world. And to this, I think, but learning to recognize racism saved my life, a life that was drowning within those very standards of “capitalist success.” But I also think she meant something different, something that reminded me of what a professor, whom I respect greatly, once said. Speaking of all the hard work that academics have done in identifying and critically analyzing racism, he said and I paraphrase, “it can tell us where racism exists, but it doesn’t show us how to live.”

And so what and who can show us how to live with all the knowledge that we are continually building – and where can I find this?

This past September, I moved to Los Angeles after living in Santa Barbara for most of my adult life – nine years deep. A part of me was giving up on the world of academia – since I now knew there was little to zero chance that I will find a job – but mostly because I was dying in that world. Dying from the institutionalization of whiteness and corporate capital in so many facets – what we consider knowledge, the amount of productivity that goes into “rigorous scholarship,” power dynamics in the workplace, and the worst: fucked up people of color. I came in to graduate school very vocal, wide-eyed and ready to fight the good fight and I left beaten and broken, wanting only to hide in my pain.

I had also been dreading coming home to LA – to my Asian American family – who welcomed me with questions of how much longer will it take for me to finish, disappointments when they learn the salary of a professor, and yes always in the back of their mind not so much the front of their tongues the question of when I will find a nice Chinese doctor boy to marry. I can see the somewhat growing weariness in their financial and filial responsibilities to me – such as when they pay for my meals, without seeing a return investment – like giving a gift for their birthday or on Christmas. And so goes on their consumer days of trying out the next new Chinese restaurant, the frustration of managing their Latino maids and gardeners, and the planning of an MTV-show status sweet 16 birthday party for my popular cousin. After only a few months, I could already feel these narratives creep into my desires for creating a life for myself – death disguised as life – tempting me to chain myself to the glories of capitalism: husband, house, vacation.

I thought this ABD abyss might be some comfort, might buy me some time to rejuvenate and rethink what the hell I am doing with my life. So rejuvenate I did: moving into my beautiful red room, a promise of peace and solitude; finding some local coffee/tea shops where I can spend my days thinking and writing; interning at the Chinese American Museum (CAM) to find new ways of making and preserving history; and enjoying time with my funny yet curt grandmother before time fails us both. And rethink I will: writing my dissertation while conjuring my backup plan to academia, spending time with the family while building my community, unsettling into these death-disguised-as-life conditions while in the meantime finding other ways to live.


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