Being Careful

The day after the election, my dad called. First he asked my plans for my birthday, then he confirmed that I’d seen the results.

“Be careful,” he warned in heavily accented English (a freelancer who works in near-isolation, he likes to conduct our conversations exclusively in his second tongue) — “Don’t walk home alone after dark.”

I grunted assent without telling him that my classes frequently ended around 9PM, and I usually got home after 10. I also didn’t tell him that two weeks earlier, a car had pulled up next to me during my walk home; the men inside had shouted “Don’t worry miss, we won’t run you over!” before throwing their heads back, laughing, and speeding off.

Because of my omission, I wouldn’t have had to reassure him that I knew how to walk home alone after dark. I wouldn’t have had to list my defensive measures: thumb on the pepper spray, keys spiked between my knuckles, safety app open on my phone.

I wouldn’t have had to wonder if the incident recalled to him another incident, a car that slowed near us one night when I was six and we had just immigrated to the United States. That time, the men had shouted repeatedly “Go back to China!” before throwing their heads back, laughing, and speeding off.

Then, I wouldn’t have had to speculate if that reminded him of the civic association in the same town, where he had taken ESL classes for a year. After we moved away, a gunman had stormed the building during citizenship classes, killing 13 and wounding 4.

(It later turned out that the gunman was a Vietnamese immigrant himself. The shooting was – for a while – the nation’s deadliest since Seung-Hui Cho’s spree at Virginia Tech.)

Perhaps my dad understood at a more visceral level than I did the precariousness of being an immigrant in America. As I was growing up, he frequently recounted interactions he’d had with strangers, prompting me to answer the desperate question, “Do you think they were racist?”

And – in fear and frustration, wanting to believe that this country belonged to us too, wanting to protect my dad with my adolescent levity, not knowing about microaggressions, not knowing about otherness, not wanting him to be provoked, not wanting him to be bodily harmed, not wanting him to be sad or mad, not wanting us to be Chinese or at least visibly Chinese – I’d always said, “no.”

~

Old habits die hard.

Last night, my dad called me with an “English question.”

He had driven to his storage unit, he said, in a gated area that requires a pin number for entry. As he pulled up, the gate had opened and another car had pulled out. When my dad drove through – without punching the number – the men in the other vehicle had cried, “Hey! You’re sneaking in.”

His first question was: “How do you spell ‘sneak’?”

His second question was: “Do you think they were bad men?”

My heart sank. I fumed that his English was so poor after all this time. I fumed at his crudely phrased question. I fumed that he hadn’t known how to respond. I fumed that I didn’t know how to respond.

So I told him they were joking. I insisted that it was harmless. I chided him for reading too much into a meaningless situation …

Then I texted him:

“S-N-E-A-K.

Be careful.”

Statue of Liberty in Gray

Photo credit: Z

The perfect is the enemy of the good. (But why can’t we all be friends?)

When I stepped into the elevator, the floors lit up, seemingly at random.

Ten. Three. Six.

The elevator rose, then fell. Rose, then fell.

Fourteen. Two. Five.

What was I supposed to do? Where was I supposed to get off?

~

I recently finished the first semester of a Masters program in Higher Education Administration. Although my grades were irreproachable, I was plagued by the stress dreams typical of all my years of schooling. Obvious metaphors of flailing and failing unfolded nightly in my mind’s eye. Why? I wondered. Why was I still so concerned about achieving impeccable grades when – as an adult and a professional – I should have been content with simply acquiring the knowledge and skills needed for my career?

My first instinct was to hold my upbringing responsible. A cursory search on Google Scholar revealed reams of articles connecting Asian cultures with perfectionist tendencies. I also thought back to Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a book which describes the author’s brutal tactics to mold her daughters into star students and master musicians.

When I compare what I have read with my own experiences, certain themes do ring true. For instance, the notion that parents should ensure their children’s excellence in academics and extracurriculars is simply a given for most Chinese-American families. Even my slightly unconventional parents could not escape this larger cultural imperative. Although they allowed me a positively slothful childhood compared to Amy Chua’s daughters, it did take me a while to realize most moms and dads did not grade their kindergartener’s drawings.

Yueyue Drawing 2-2

At least I got a 95 on this one.

But frankly, something about that narrative of the hawkish, Asian parents has always felt off to me. I rarely believed that my parents were truly cracking the whip. There was something perfunctory about the way they acknowledged my grades (celebrated or scolded my performance) which suggested that, deep down, they knew none of it mattered.

Still.

It mattered to me.

A-sians not B-sians

This fantastic meme describes my inner voice more than my actual parents. Source

Grades represented a tried and true avenue of approval. And approval was important for a morose child who recoiled in suspicion from the greetings of friendly classmates.

Grades were a comforting, top-down source of order. And I found order welcome after having moved homes every few years for as long as I could remember.

At my core, I must have craved the rigidity of neat categorizations. I must have clung to the idea that one’s identity could be defined through them. You could be a certain letter grade student, or you could be sorted into one of four houses at Hogwarts. Nowadays, I suppose you could also belong to one of five factions in the world of Divergent or one of thirteen districts in The Hunger Games.

~

The issue has always been that a part of me resents this rigidity of spirit.

That’s the part responsible for my ongoing appreciation of Young Adult fiction, in which authoritarian categorizers are consistently overthrown.

bow and arrow

I would definitely offer up my archery skills for the revolution. Now, how do you aim this thing?

These days, I’m convinced that perfectionism holds me back both professionally and as a student. The anxiety I feel over routine challenges burns me out too easily.

Meanwhile, I admire those who by nature or nurture are free of this maddening trait. I stand in awe of “big picture” types and people who simply get things done without fuss (or stress dreams).

… How do they – or you – do it?

… Do you believe perfectionism is cultural?

… Is “the perfect the enemy of the good” as they say?

And if so, why can’t we all be friends? (Tell me.)

The Time I Almost Lost My Face

“Taking a selfie?”

By now, I’ve come to anticipate Z’s familiar scoff whenever he catches me turning my iPhone lens inwards. He concedes that taking a selfie isn’t a terrible idea if I can capture a magnificent landscape behind me … but he doesn’t understand why I sometimes take them in mundane settings like subway platforms, dentists’ offices, and on our living room couch.

IMG_4718

Here’s one from home. No justification, no filter.

Most of the time, my motivation for these snapshots can be attributed to a mixture of boredom and vanity. But for several months in 2015, I took photos of myself out of pure fear.

I was afraid that I would lose my face — and not in the figurative sense of experiencing mild social embarrassment (which had always been presented to me by my Chinese-American family as one of the worst possible outcomes in life).

I was afraid that after an upcoming surgery, I would literally no longer have a face I’d recognize as my own.

~

In June of 2014, I discovered a hard lump just under my left ear. It was about a third of the size of a golf ball, and I could see it in the mirror.

I was used to getting swollen lymph nodes, so I figured the new lump would subside. This conviction, together with my general laziness, meant that I didn’t get it checked out until December. When I finally bit the bullet and saw a doctor, she suggested that I get the lump biopsied.

Result: a benign tumor was revealed to be growing out of my left salivary gland — a part of my body I barely knew existed! But I wasn’t too disturbed; I thought I just needed to ease up on the Sour Patch Kids. After all, the tumor was benign and could presumably be removed.

It was only when I started investigating the removal surgery that anxiety set in.

~

My first stop was to the office of an Ear and Throat specialist. I showed the doctor my biopsy results and asked for his advice.

He poked at the lump, then sat back in his chair to ponder. Finally, he asked me my age.

“26.”

“Usually, these tumors show up in people who are 40+ years old,” he expounded. “It can definitely be removed, but the surgery is risky. There’s a chance of permanent facial paralysis.” He paused. “For you, I wouldn’t recommend removal. Looks are important when you’re young.”

I gaped at him. Sure, I valued my pulchritude — but could I really just walk around with this golf ball in my neck? “What if it grows?” I asked.

“Just measure it with a ruler every few months,” he shrugged. “Do you have a ruler?”

I thought about my plastic green ruler from Staples lying at home on my desk. It wasn’t bad for drawing straight lines, but I suspected it wouldn’t be great for measuring incremental changes in the size of rounded objects.

Bewildered, I said meekly, “Yes, I do.”

~

Obviously, I needed a second opinion, so I looked up a local surgeon who specialized in the operation. When I arrived at his office with a coffee in hand, his receptionist smiled apologetically and motioned for me to toss the drink.

“He’s very particular about food and beverages in the office, even in the lobby,” she clarified conspiratorially.

I would soon find out those weren’t the only areas in which he was particular. When I met him face to face, he addressed me with a military brusqueness.

Of course you have to remove the tumor,” he huffed indignantly. “Any remotely trained doctor would tell you that. If you don’t remove it, the tumor can grow tendrils around your facial nerve, and you would end up with facial paralysis anyway. Also, it can turn malignant, and then you’re looking at much lower survival rates. The surgery is delicate but routine, and I am very experienced. Now, let me take a look at your MRI results.”

As I struggled to weigh his words against the words of my first doctor, I reluctantly handed him a CD from an MRI lab I’d visited recently. To my surprise, he fumbled the CD and dropped it on the floor.

He tried to pick it up and fumbled it again. The CD clattered against the tile a second time.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with my hands today!” laughed the surgeon.

My eyes bugged. When he tried to usher me to the receptionist to pick a date for the surgery, I stammered something about needing to check my calendar, stumbled out onto the sidewalk, and made a beeline to purchase a hot, soothing beverage.

~

I guess it’s not for nothing that they say “third time’s a charm.” The surgeon I visited next also advocated for removal, but he projected calmness and warmth and took the time to answer all of my questions.

I scheduled the surgery for June 2015. In the ensuing weeks, I prepared for the worst. I took selfies galore, read blogs by people living with facial paralysis, read about how to deal with depression resulting from facial paralysis, and read stories about patients who’d experienced anesthetic awareness (patients who had woken up in the middle of a surgery but not been able to signify their awakened state to doctors).

By the day of the surgery, I was properly terrified. Tears streamed down my face as I waited to be operated on. My surgeon was running late from another appointment, and I prayed that he’d had some time to rest and eat a sandwich before slicing open my neck.

Meanwhile, the anesthesiologist for the operation met with me separately to discuss my medical history. I asked her about the possibility of anesthetic awareness.

She cocked an eyebrow. “You know that’s not going to happen, right?

“Please,” I begged. “Could you give me something extra? I’m very resistant to drugs. One-time-Z-and-I-went-to-Amsterdam-and-we-got-some-stuff-and-he-had-a-great-time-but-I-couldn’t-feel-anything-and-also-at-the-dentist’s-office-I-always-have-to-ask-for-more-Novocaine-before-my-mouth-goes-numb-and-”

“Alright, alright,” she interjected. “I’ll give you something extra.”

~

The operating room looked like the interior of a spaceship. Humongous white fluorescent lights hovered over the operating table.

“Am I getting a tumor removed or being abducted by aliens?” I joked weakly as I climbed onto the table. The anesthesiologist chortled as she walked over to my side.

“Just relax,” she said as she fiddled with equipment beyond my range of vision. “Think about a relaxing activity. Do you like having a glass of wine from time to time?”

“Sure,” I replied as I squinted to keep my eyes open despite the fluorescent lights.

“Red wine or white wine?”

“It depends on what I’m eating. I could go for either.”

A needle slipped into my arm.

“What’s your favorite wine?” The voice of the anesthesiologist droned. “Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Merlot…”

I don’t remember the rest.

~

Here I am, almost a year later. Thankfully, I experienced only a month’s worth of very mild, partial facial paralysis, which simply meant that my smile was lopsided for a few weeks. I did lose permanent sensation in my left earlobe and down part of my neck, but those are things I barely notice.

To this day, I don’t know if the anesthesiologist gave me something extra or if she gave me anything at all. (Who knows? Perhaps I’m the first patient in the history of medicine to be anesthetized by the reading of a wine list.)

It’s hard to say how the whole episode affected me. At a minimum, I think I’ve definitely become more aware of and grateful for my health.

As for Z? I think he’s a bit more forgiving when he sees me taking a selfie. Even if it is just from our living room couch.

couch selfie

Sometimes he’ll even push the button.

 

Introversion and Culture (Or, That Time I Built a Fort in my Boyfriend’s Apartment)

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t an introvert. Interacting with others never came easily to me. Nonetheless, over time, I’ve learned how to fake it, e.g. how to make a compelling speech in front of an audience (thank you, high school Speech and Debate); how to exude warmth towards customers (thank you, tech support job in college); and how to muster good humor when meeting people socially (thank you, red wine).

I guess I’ve improved enough at projecting a comfortable persona that some might not even believe I still struggle. On a recent Friday at the office, when I admitted I’d be staying home that night “just me and my introverted self,” my colleagues snorted, “You’re definitely not an introvert.”

Crawling into a hole

Actually, yeah — I could stay in my woman cave forever if I didn’t have to work…

While the rewards are great, performing socially is tasking, and I haven’t always been as capable. When I first joined Speech and Debate, one of the more experienced club members noticed my tendency to avoid eye contact, so he blocked me in a corridor until I could meet and hold his gaze. (We stood in that corridor quite a while.)

Nowadays, I would have no issues entering a staring contest, but I still require lots of alone time. This even applies to time away from those closest to me. For instance, when living in Z’s studio apartment a couple years ago, I built a “fort” out of clothing and chairs just to have some personal space for the day. I wasn’t the least bit upset — just needed a private area to read a book and have some snacks.

Friends under a virtual tree

Adolescent me loved escaping into online games. I could look fabulous in a corset, while wearing pajamas in real life!

Some might find these tendencies off-putting, but they’re part of who I am. Introversion is a spectrum; of course there are going to be people who fall towards the ends. Given my own nature, I have a great deal of empathy for international students coming from countries that view introverted behaviors as the norm. Arriving in the US where extroversion is glorified as well as materially rewarded, these students have a tough cultural adjustment to make.

I am thinking specifically of the students in the English support program I work for, most of whom are Chinese or Indian. Though they come from privileged families, many were brought up in a way that they don’t seem self-confident by American standards. They’re often hesitant to speak up in class, though class participation is a major part of their grade. They may shy away from chatting with professors, though relationships with professors can be key to later internships and recommendation letters. For many, career fairs are particularly nerve-wracking — not only because of the language barrier, but also because they were taught never to boast about their accomplishments. Some, having been raised to keep their problems private, are even afraid to speak with us advisors.

A couple of incidents I’ve witnessed highlight how drastic these cultural differences can be. Once, a female student came to me in tears because her professor had made remarks to her that she saw as harsh or impatient. She didn’t understand why the professor seemed not to like her — she was quiet and got good grades, facts which had always endeared her to teachers in her home country.

The other incident involved a taciturn young man who was almost removed from his professor’s class. He hadn’t been misbehaving in the traditional sense; it was just that his silence in class “creeped out” the professor. The professor insisted that the student either go to counseling (a huge no-no in the student’s culture), or not come back to class. Though the young man was eventually reinstated, it was an incredibly frustrating ordeal.

~

Situations like the above are hard to advise in, because there’s not necessarily a party that’s right or wrong. I am also loathe to make international students feel that the values they grew up with are at all inferior. Still, the fact is that they chose to study in the US, where – for better or worse – a certain amount of sociability and self-promotion are critical to success. And so I give students what tips I know to  mimic these traits … ways to approach a professor, clubs they could join to make friends, how to deliver a presentation …

Introvert

I would never have thought I could advise anybody about how to appear less introverted.

Final thoughts before I go. First, culture is not monolithic (there are introverted Americans and extroverted Chinese). Secondly, the differences between individuals will always be greater than the differences between groups (in any large sample of international students from the same country, there will be immense variation in personalities). These things said, we can’t be blind to the fact that culture plays an enormous role in shaping behaviors.

Fortunately, new behaviors can be learned and new cultures adapted to. After all, none of us can stay in our forts forever.

Sweet Dreams Are Made of This

A couple months ago, I went to an event at a local bookstore in Brooklyn called “Lucid Dreaming Night.” In the packed bookstore basement, three guys who’d co-authored a guide to lucid dreaming gave tips to the crowd on how to direct what happens in their dreams (à la Inception). I listened with detached bemusement, jotting down notes now and then, but upon returning home, my scribblings were soon lost behind a stack of bills, catalogs, and credit card offers.

For better or worse, I’ve gone from a teenager who avidly writes in her dream journal, to an adult immersed in the practicalities of everyday life. While there’s nothing atypical about that transformation, what surprises me is the extent to which I still find myself and others – young and old – tied to dreamy romantic narratives.

This is especially true when it comes to the topic of romance itself.

Cinderella in the display windows at Galeries Lafayette

Is it time to wake up from the fairy tale yet?

Often, at a certain point in getting to know someone, it comes up in conversation that my boyfriend is French. I divulge that he lives in Paris, and that he visits me on occasion. Just these basic facts lead many to believe our coupling is plagiarized from some scoff-inducing chick flick. And while I usually don’t correct that notion, the reality couldn’t be more different.

International long-distance relationships are like Cinderella stories in reverse. The romantic stuff happens at the beginning; then, when the distance kicks in, it’s a lot of maintenance work. Most of that work has to do with communication, something which is subject to the frustrating limitations of technology. In practical terms, this means I spend a lot of time staring at mysterious conglomerations of pixels which only vaguely resemble a human face.

In addition, I’ve frequently had to choose between catching some z’s and catching up with Z (couldn’t resist that one, sorry). Since we both work full time, there’s only a tiny window during we can chat on most days. If I’m home by 6pm (Z’s midnight), we can hang for an hour before he falls asleep. If I return a bit later, I might have to stay up until 1:30am (his 7:30am) for a brief check-in before he dashes off to work.

selfie in bed

I end up taking selfies in bed if he doesn’t pick up … At least the camera loves me, riiight?

Another issue I haven’t mentioned is the expense of being long-distance. I fully realize how privileged we are to be able to visit each other enough to maintain our relationship. Though Z bears the brunt of the cost, when he forwards me his flight confirmations, I cry a little inside calculating how many bottles of wine and burritos we could have bought with that money.

breakfast burrito

So many of these — SO, so many.

Even when we lived together during my teaching assistantship, life was far from a bed of roses. The constant anxiety of what I would do after the school year tore me apart. My work prospects in France were severely limited by the fact that my visa would expire with the assistantship itself. I was a nervous wreck who barely stepped outdoors, taunted by the wicked stepsisters of despondency and self-doubt.

So.

If I’ve learned anything over the past few years, it’s that what makes an experience worthwhile is not always the appeal of its narrative. The unnarrated hours are what make up the vast majority of our days, and – ultimately – they’re what count.

~

We finally got engaged during Z’s most recent visit.

Brunch at the Rabbit Hole

Obligatory happy couple photo (you’re allowed to roll your eyes — I know I would).

The next step in the story that you never hear about is the year (give or take) that it takes the US government to process applications to marry foreigners. We’ve spent the last couple of weeks filling out forms as well as printing out old emails and photographs to prove that we’re not in a fraudulent relationship. Whenever the immigration officials decide we’re legit, Z must fly over to marry me within exactly 90 days.

Or the coach turns back into a pumpkin.

While I’ve already started getting questions about wedding dates and where we’ll eventually settle, I’m holding off for the moment on thinking too far ahead. I know that no matter how rigorously we plan, no matter how lucid we try to render the future, there’s only so much we can control of our realities and our dreams.

tattou reve

“Is this forever?” is a question I posed to both my tattoo artist, and to Z. (The ink reads “rêve” — or “dream.”)

Weirdos Gone Wild: Diversity in New York

Once again west of the Atlantic and thousands of miles from Paris, I considered bringing this blog to a close. Then – while stranded for half an hour on a subway platform in Brooklyn, directly across a sign which proclaimed the name of the station to be “Bedford-Nostrand” – I realized that irony is universal and situations demanding cultural adaptation don’t just occur abroad.

Sure, the Paris metro system may be a leaner, cleaner, and relatively more punctual machine. But the grittiness and unpredictability of New York are just pesky side effects of its single greatest attribute–

Human diversity.

earrings on the eiffel tower

When it comes to cities, I’m polyamorous. Paris will always be in my heart … and under my earrings.

Previously, I’d grumbled about Parisian society being codified and uniform. While it pains me to reproach the City of Lights, I have to call’em like I see’em. In the short weeks I’ve been back in New York, I’ve had to re-acclimate myself to the mindblowing medley of people who rub shoulders here. I had forgotten the endless possibilities of pageantry, the euphoric accessorization of existence.

Exhibits A through Z: A girl with an electric blue bob in a lolita frock; a violiniste with purple dreadlocks diffusing heartwrenching music in the subway; a lanky boy rocking tights patterned like dollar bills; a beautiful woman sporting a turban and denim jacket with a giant horse’s head printed on the back.

These, of course, are just sketches of a small but eye-catching sample.

Instead of worrying about sticking out because of my race or for wearing shorts, I’m now concerned that my hair isn’t asymmetrical enough and that I have no visible tattoos. To be fair, I live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, an area described by my new next door neighbor as “half Polish and half hipster.” While this wouldn’t be problematic in and of itself, it does mean housing has gotten ridiculously competitive. Still, I managed to score a little niche of my own down this rabbit hole — a niche, it turns out, on the same street as the apartment of Hannah Horvath, Girls‘ main character.

Girls, Lena Dunham and me

Best friends and roommates, obviously. (I’m a little embarrassed that I spent time doing this.)

But it wasn’t easy nabbing this undersized shoebox my landlord calls prime real estate. When I tried to put down an oversized deposit, the landlord shook his solemn head.

“Before I let you move in, I have to see your bank statements,” he huffed through a heavy Eastern European accent. “You don’t make a lot of money, and – I dunno – maybe you buy a lot of dresses or something.”

“I don’t buy that many dresses!” I yelped. “I’ve got enough dresses!”

“I don’t know you,” he retorted. “So give me three months of bank statements or forget about it.”

I skulked away for a week to collect French paperwork. I also bought a dress in secret to spite him.

~

When moving day arrived, I considered myself lucky to have jumped through all the hoops. I was happy and eager even as I struggled up three flights of stairs with overstuffed suitcases. While my mom stood by to lend a hand, my landlord bragged relentlessly to both of us about the apartment’s fire safety. This was a fact which completely escaped my attention until I later googled my landlord during a fit of boredom.

Of course he had to have a dark and terrible secret. According to a news report, he had been the owner of another building on our street which had burned down due to arson. The fire, sped by liquid accelerant, had killed two tenants and put another in critical condition. The report implied that my landlord frequently had troubles with his tenants, and there could’ve been disgruntled former tenants who wanted to retaliate.

Upon this discovery, I immediately made a priority list of items in my apartment to rescue in case of fire. I also resolved to find out more about my neighbors.

fire and fleur de lys

I stoked this fire on Christmas Eve in France. No thoughts of arson crossed my mind.

I started my quest by knocking on the door of a guy with whom I shared a wall. A man in his mid-to-late forties with long white hair opened up. Looking behind him, I saw his space was plastered with Girls Gone Wild posters. Also, an empty black guitar case lay open on his mantelpiece, propping up Twilight books inside like some kind of shrine to teenage vampires.

“Hey … I’m new here,” I sputtered, trying to avert my eyes from the bizarreness of his lair. “Just wanted to say hi.”

After explaining who I was, I asked my neighbor about himself. That’s when I learned:

  • He was “YouTube before YouTube existed.” When I asked what that meant, he said he’d had a record label before rock music died.
  • He was currently writing his personal memoir full-time. He’d been doing it for ten years. Full-time.
  • He was a “real writer,” by which he meant he wrote by hand. He’d produced 300 handwritten pages which were currently sitting in storage because he was afraid our landlord would sneak into his apartment and read them.
  • He was convinced that our landlord was a sociopath who electronically bugged our closets.
  • He was convinced that everybody else in the building also hated our landlord, and that I would come to hate him too. “You’ll see,” he intoned ominously. “I hope not,” I replied.

~

I’ve now given up trying to confirm the psychological stability of those around me. If someone wants to burn down the building, well, at least I know where the fire escape is. The truth is: the only way to live in New York is to make peace with diversity. While I experienced a bit of “reverse culture shock” coming from Paris, I’ve realized that this is exactly where I want to be.

Park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn

New York — weird but wonderful.

(Though if we’re friends and you haven’t heard from me in a while, please do call to make sure I haven’t perished in a fireball.)