When the seasons change and the air gets a little chillier outside, I like to have myself a big fragrant bowl of piping hot phở at any one of my local noodle houses in Garden Grove, CA (where the Vietnamese population is one of the largest anywhere outside of Vietnam itself). Its soothing warmth reminds me of the comforts of home and the people I love.
For some, food is simply a means of survival.
For many, food is an instrument used to pass down generations of culture and stories.
Gentrification upsets me. Every time I go back home to Portland, there’s a new hipster “ethnic food” spot…that’s often not owned or ran by a person of color. Instead of investing in the already rich existing Mom & Pop shops in these diverse communities, we choose to push them out of them way for another strip mall of overly-priced “fusion foods” that we don’t need. It’s not always done with the intention of appropriating and erasing people’s culture, but the consequences always seem to scream otherwise.
And this usually starts with the way we perceive food.
I have been seeing way too many articles and blogs from various mass media outlets (ranging from The New York Times to Starbucks) going on and on, recklessly, about how phở can now be remixed with quinoa and how cà phê sữa đá should now be spiced up with a little mint leaf garnish. Those who do not understand Vietnamese culture, and quite frankly, Vietnamese people, will never understand why this is offensive until they attempt to try to at least understand the basic humanity behind Vietnamese cuisine beyond the attractive aesthetic.
Many Vietnamese American families have faced traumatic dehumanization and displacement due to war. Losing their homes and businesses. Losing friends and family. So something as simple as a bánh mì (made with tender love and care) is enough to remind them of a more peaceful time. Maybe they see a thriving city within the flaky crust. Maybe they see a quiet countryside within the milky coffee.
Vietnamese cuisine is deeply rooted in family and healing. This is why phở cannot be made with broccoli and bánh mì cannot be made on a bagel, because it's thoughtless. It’s a rearrangement for no other reason than to rearrange. Each ingredient has a purpose and adds worth to its respective dishes. Asides from the overall cultural meaning and value, the former literally means "rice noodle" and the latter literally means "baguette"!
As a Vietnamese-American who craves not only for a good traditional home cooked meal, but I also hunger for my family’s missing history and the stories that make up my identity, and the identity of so many others like me. I didn’t grow up knowing a whole lot about how my family came to America. For my family, these times are often too painful to talk about, so they express it through other various means like their cooking.
My Grandma illustrates her vibrant childhood through the careful craft and techniques she uses to preserve and pickle vegetables, the precision she deploys when she debones a chicken or fillets a fish, and the eternity’s worth of patience she exudes when she steams (her favorite) salted eggs and braised pork in a clay pot. It reminds her of simpler times living in a rural small town with her friends and family. It represents happiness. To this day, she still cooks the same way as her mother did and her mother’s mother. I peel back another layer of her story every time I eat her food. It's an experience.
For some, food is sexy, food is trendy, and food is a way to make money.
For many, food is home.
I moved out my parents’ house in Milwaukie, OR when I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 18-year-old. The home that I had shared with my favorite person in the world, my Grandmother, and the only home I’ve ever known.
It was terrifying, exhilarating, and bittersweet all at once. When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to be an adult.
Staying up as late as I wanted.
Eating whatever the hell I wanted.
Going anywhere and everywhere without asking for permission.
…so yeah, I like being an adult.
Flash forward almost ten years later, the popular idiom, “home is where the heart is”, starts to resonate with me more than ever.
The perks of living at home, at least for me, was that it was a given that I’m going to get along with the people in my house. However, living on my own this last decade has proved otherwise. I’ve never thought of myself as a confrontational person, but that was until I experienced my fair share of shitty roommates. I’m talking about people who do not understand or respect the concept of personal space, boundaries, or common courtesy. My last spot was a goddamn nightmare that was the quintessential culmination of all those lovely qualities.
It’s probably my fault for being complacent and being fearful of having to go through the process of house hunting again, but I couldn’t be any happier when I did find my new place. Finally, it was quiet, it was clean, and there was no weird racism. It was also the most unorthodox living situation any young professional could have possibly found themselves in.
As my fellow twentysomethings go about their glamorous millennial lives living in these sexy downtown lofts, I found myself living with two 70-year-old Vietnamese retirees.
No, it’s not an old folks home and they’re not my grandparents, but they do have my Grandmother’s spirit. I think the one element that I’ve really missed when I was living at home in Oregon with my Grandmother was her warmth and her unconditional kindness. I’m not even talking about cooking and caring for me (but that is welcomed). I’m talking about grown people being able to look each other in the eye and say hello in the mornings without expecting anything else.
No hidden agendas.
No passive aggressiveness.
No roommate drama.
If my Grandma has taught me anything, it’s that no matter how other people choose to treat you, try to find the goodness in everyone. Kindness is not a limited form of currency or an expiring coupon. It’s not tied down by any pretense nor does it discriminate different backgrounds. In other words, it shouldn’t take one to receive kindness in order to give kindness.
KINDNESS IS KINDNESS.
It’s only been a few months, so who knows how this current living situation will eventually turn out, but the one thing I can’t stress enough is whether or not you’re living with someone, being a good person shouldn’t be conditional. It should not be something to be rewarded for. It is inherent and it is as organic as the air we breathe.
That’s what I’m learning from my old friends. They get a bad rap due to our ageist, youth obsessed society, but our elders have so much wisdom left to impart. They’ve seen things! Things we wish we had the pleasure and privilege of witnessing. I’m thankful to continually make new friends no matter the age.
Plus, old Vietnamese folks always have good food stocked in their house.
"My brother and I are polar opposites, but somehow our differences have brought us closer together."
I don’t remember how I met my brother.
I don’t remember him being born.
I just remember him always being there.
It has been almost ten years now since we’ve lived under the same roof. I can’t speak on behalf of all siblinghood experiences, but we were raised with the mentality of always loving, forgiving, and looking out for each other no matter what. I never truly appreciated those sentiments until I left home and my brother’s presence was no longer a constant in my life.
“You only have one brother”, our family would always say.
When we were kids, we used to keep a stack of notebooks full of wild ideas. They were random, nonsensical concepts that had zero connection or correlation to anything concrete. They were often one sentence or one word, and we would construct an entire story filled with colorful characters and multi-layered narratives off of just that one sentence or word. That’s something I really miss when my brother’s not around. The boundless imagination and the limitless creative energy that flows so naturally every time we’re in the same room.
It’s like our brains are plugged into the same outlandish outlet.
I didn’t grow up thinking we were all that different. I had always assumed we were the same person with the same bizzaro interests and quirky habits. While there were some superficial similarities (a shared obsession for the made-for-TV movie, “The Temptations”, and a mutual dislike for the condensation bubbles that collect on the inside of water bottles when they sit around for too long), I have come to realize how different we are more and more each day.
He shreds on the electric guitar, he’s covered in tattoos, and he has a little girl.
I write make believe, I have bushy anime hair, and I’m a bunny parent.
Despite these differences, our core values remain intact: finding purpose through art.
My kid brother has the touch for music. He’s like the dude version of Rogue, a mutant in the X-Men who has the ability to absorb other mutant’s powers. It seems as though he can compose any song and play any instrument that he comes in contact with, and he's gotten better with age. I’ve always thought he had a more tangible talent than I did. I was more of the motor mouth who talked his way in and out of things.
I get super defensive when other people talk about him (even family). I think some folks look at him and make their irrational assumptions without understanding that he’s really strong and capable. He’s adulting a lot harder than me these days. He’s got me beat in the home ownership and raising a family game. If I think about it, I’ve always been the more defiant one. I’ve always gone against and rebelled against traditional Vietnamese socialization because it was cramping my style.
He’s always been the good kid with the tattoos.
I was initially worried about us growing apart due to our obvious differences. Maybe we wanted to build our own legacies. Maybe the people and spaces we’ve been surrounding ourselves with in the last decade have radically altered our political, social, and artistic philosophies...but somehow we never drifted.
We always found our way back to each other.
I don’t have those stacks of notebooks anymore, but I will always have my brother.
There will come a time in our lives, when seemingly out of nowhere, all of our friends and family’s minds will simultaneously combust with concerns about us dying alone.
“Are you seeing anyone yet?”
“When are you thinking of settling down?
“Tick tock, you’re not getting any younger…”
Um, no thanks. I’m still trying to figure out how to buy “adult clothes” for job interviews.
I avoid the conversation like the plague. It’s one of those topics that discourages me from attending familial and social functions. Like aren’t you interested in my career or thoughts on current events? There are literally a thousand talking points out there that are way more interesting than my love life. I empathize with my female counterparts, because if I’m already this annoyed as a privileged heterosexual male, then they must be experiencing this sort of nuisance times a hundred.
I am uncomfortable with this idea of having to check off specific life benchmarks every time I hit a certain age. I don’t roll up to the local retirement home and holler at the 80-year-olds like, “Y’all ready to die yet?!” Just because I’m in my late-twenties now doesn’t mean I’m ready for that kind of commitment. What if it’s not even on my radar at all? We behave as though this is a universal want and need. We live in such a monocultural bubble sometimes. The influences within our microcosms inadvertently set the standard for the way we view the world like a thousand voices screaming the same sentiment into an echo chamber.
Listen, I respect and love all of my friends who are married. Some of them have found an incredible sense of bliss and purpose within their marriages. I already know I’m a great partner and will potentially be a great husband one day, but there’s still so much life left to see, discover, and experience as a young person before I am ready to take that leap.
My first heartbreak in grade school came with a very important lesson: you’re no good to anybody if you don’t know how to love yourself. I was a broody and mopey kid spending days upon days being hung up on the same girl. “Why doesn’t she love me the way I love her?” I still am that kid some times, but at least now I’m able to pick myself back up. There’s something underrated about self-reliance. We have been socially conditioned to not only desire co-dependency, but to also think and react in an unrealistically sacrificial manner that is detrimental to our own well-being. We call it “selflessness.” I have seen folks who take this misguided concept to the extreme until there is nothing left of themselves to give.
I want to be the ultimate version of myself, so that one day I can share a partnership with the love of my life in a thoughtful, equal, and meaningful way. We complete each other by already being complete people. Someone once lectured me that the idea of “finding yourself” is just another way of getting lost. To that I say: “How do we know what we’re made of if we’ve never been challenged?” Sometimes it takes getting lost to find your way back.
Self-empowerment and self-improvement through self-care and self-love is neither self-indulgent nor selfish, but a fundamental responsibility to one's self.
Don’t forget to love yourself.
"Did you wake up feeling sad today? You're not alone."
Kehlani got me thinking about my own family. My grandmother on my mother’s side committed suicide a few years before I was born. I heard she was wonderful woman and a nurturing mother. I will never know why she so sad, but I can speculate through observation. Here was an immigrant woman who had to flee her country due to war. She leaves her immediate family behind to start over in a strange country where she couldn’t speak the language or land anything more than a low-wage labor job. She’s alone with one husband, an abrasive mother-in-law, and eight young children to look after. She was the family anchor, but who was anchoring her? It’s an all too common story shared particularly among Southeast Asian American immigrant families.
So how do we get this conversation rolling?
Here’s an excerpt from a recent Washington Post article on Asian American mental health that I found really informative: “According to 2007 data from the National Center for Health Statistics, female Asian Americans ages 15 to 24 were second only to Native Americans in their rate of suicide deaths. A study in 2005 found that Asian American college students are more likely to seriously consider suicide than their white peers.”
Far too often this issue is not even discussed in our own communities. I would have loved to have been there for my grandmother to assure her that there is someone who was willing to hear her out and make sure her feelings were not just a figment of her imagination. The best way, in my honest opinion, to respect someone and their feelings is not to bluntly tell them to “tough it out” or “suck it up”, but to validate them by listening.
I’ll make this quick: I hate respectability politics and ableist attitudes. Just because we haven’t seen or experienced the ill-effects of mental health ourselves doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. By sweeping it under the rug and invalidating the very real experiences of other human beings, we are denying them a right, a resource, and an outlet to heal. We are making it ten times worse than it needs to be. Just take a step back and take our own personal biases and viewpoints out of the equation for a second, because it doesn’t take much to lend a helping hand. Sometimes it can as simple as asking another person, “How are you doing today?”
I have come to understand the effects of mental health on a more intimate level this year as well. It’s funny that I had a conversation with a friend recently about “generational trauma” and how it affects children of war refugees. Experts say it could take up to three generations for that sort of trauma to evaporate from the gene pool. I have no idea whether or not I’m affected by it, but I do feel like something’s not right from time to time. When I stopped traveling and finished filming my documentary series this summer, I had a huge rush of emotions that seemingly came out of nowhere. It was difficult to explain to others my overwhelming feeling of emptiness. My moods kept swinging back and forth like a pendulum, and I often wanted to be left alone. What helped me cope with these feelings were the awareness and the ability to openly express them. I wrote, I spoke, I conversed, I created, and I did whatever it took to alleviate the weight that I was carrying on my consciousness. That’s me coming from a privileged standpoint where I had the choice and options to seek help. Plus, it was relatively mild in comparison to most cases. There are far too many people that I know who are hurting and are feeling hopeless, and they have no one to turn to.
We owe it to our friends and family to not let it get to that point.
Most of the time, people aren’t even looking for answers or advice, they just need someone to care enough to show up and show support. I just want those people to know that it’s okay to not feel okay here and there. We often are quick to judge or to shame others for not “snapping out of it”, but the truth is these battles with inner turmoil, depression, and suicide are complex and could potentially be lifelong wars. We will never know what it’s like to be in someone else’s head until we drop our knee-jerk needs to police their emotions.
Let them feel and let them be heard.
Don’t listen to respond. Listen to understand.
"A common narrative shared among my first and second generation Asian American friends is finding the balance between self-fulfillment and fulfilling our family’s expectations."
One of the most transformative periods of my educational career would have to be my junior year in high school. I had perfect attendance, straight A’s - except for one B - (thanks a lot, French: Level 2!), and I also made a ton of films.
Every chance I had I would exploit my assignments by persuading my teachers to allow me to create a video. I would turn an essay into a video essay or a research project into a video research project, etc.
I didn’t have a clear or coherent vision of what my life’s “big picture” was going to look like just yet to declare filmmaking as something I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I knew I was good at it.
However, the cold pragmatic methodology of my family kept swirling and searing into the back of my mind leaving me feeling guilty for not actively seeking to find something “practical” to do with my life. I wanted to make them proud, but it didn’t feel right buying into their premeditated formula for success without experimenting with my own first. To appease their wishes anyway, I took a supplemental “Health Careers” course and shadowed my big cousin who was a Pharmacist. Just to entertain the idea of medicine for referential purposes.
It was literally one meeting that somehow was spun and interpreted by my family as, “Ben, you’re going to be a Pharmacist now. Don’t fail us.”
Since I was raised by a village filled with a plethora of voices trying to contribute and influence my every move, I felt as though I was being pulled in multiple conflicting directions. The biggest disappointment of all was that I had forgotten what it was like to listen to my own voice.
With all the noise occurring in the background, I never gave up on making films. For my U.S. History final, I hand wrote a twenty page script, bought my first digital camera, rounded up all of my friends and shot an overly-ambitious (and wildly self-indulgent) action war drama incorporating an amalgamation of all the elements I absorbed through Mr. Alper’s U.S. History class about the 1960s Vietnam War era.
It was extremely long. It was filled to the brim with outrageous gun fights and historically inaccurate aesthetics. It made absolutely no sense, but Mr. Alper walked away impressed with the energy and effort that I had spent putting into the project. He said he admired the creativity and dedication. Heck, some of my friends just wrote half-hearted essays the night before and we all got the same grade. But none of that mattered to me. What was important was from that moment on, I knew this was more than just a hobby.
It was something that I needed to do.
To this day, I still get asked, “When are you going back to Pharmacy school?” No matter how much I have accomplished, no matter how many people have told me they appreciated my work; me quitting my first term of Pharmacy school to pursue my passions was not what they had envisioned for me. I used to be resentful about the criticisms and the judgement. It used to keep me up at night, but I've made peace with it. I now understand the root of the conflict. My family, they're war refugees who came to this country with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the lint in their pockets. They value safety and stability over everything else. What may be interpreted by others as “materialism” such as the desire to own a home, a car, etc. actually represents peace for them.
Why wouldn’t they think that way? They have every right to! For what they had to go through in order to live freely without persecution, it makes sense that they wouldn’t want to take any more risks in their lives as they have already taken the ultimate one: leaving behind what they’ve known their entire lives and jumping into the strange abyss that is the unknown…for a small sliver of hope.
I completely understand. That’s why I no longer hold a grudge. This is bigger than me and that is why my current work is so reflective of their experience. I have come to better understand myself by better understanding them. The only way I would have failed them is if I never took any risks at all. I owe them to actualize my full potential and to put myself out there in order to inspire others with similar backgrounds to take the same shots as well. I think that’s special, it’s necessary, and I thank my family for providing me with the opportunity to do so. Because at the end of the day, our community has so much to offer in terms of art, education, history, politics, etc.
We can't all be doctors.
So when they nag me about, “When are you going back to Pharmacy school?” or “When are you going to settle down and start a family”, I know that it’s coming from a place of love. We may not share the same process or the same dreams, but we all want to reach the same level of catharsis and comfort. That feeling of knowing the members of our family will be okay at the end of it all.
If you’re reading this and you’re still concerned about me, I want you to know that I’m more than okay.
I am complete.
"Asian American history, and growing up in the whitest city in America, has taught me to fear Donald Trump’s America."
In the 3rd grade during a routine morning roll call, my teacher asked me to stand up in front of the entire class to introduce myself to an international exchange teacher, who was visiting from Japan. She proudly exclaimed, “This is Benjamin. He’s Vietnamese!”, like she was showing off a piece of furniture or something. The subsequent exchange between the Japanese teacher and I was a mixture of confusion and intolerable awkwardness. The kind that brings a fiery redness to your cheeks and an irritating itch to the back of your neck.
Even though I was too young to be aware of the fact that I was being singled out solely because of the way I looked, and for being one of two Asian American students in the entire class, my little 3rd grade mind was still questioning: “Where is the correlation here? Am I supposed to be okay with this?” The Japanese teacher and I may have spoken different languages, but we both shared this non-verbal agreement acknowledging that we may have been “other’d” and exoticized for really no good reason other than perhaps we both have straight black hair and almond shaped eyes.
Whenever I think about how the education system has failed me in giving me an inclusive and culturally competent education, I think about that moment. I think about how my teacher couldn't tell the difference between a Japanese and a Vietnamese person. I think about how my teacher couldn't tell that I am an American. It's an all too familiar representation of a very complex feeling that every minority student has gone through in one capacity or another.
This existential crisis of “where do I belong?”
What’s worse than feeling like a perpetual foreigner in my own town is the fact that I was ignorant of some pivotal, game-changing American history. Due to a lack of resources and an incredibly whitewashed curriculum, I had no idea about the Japanese American internment camps during my grade school years. It wasn’t even glossed over in our U.S. History classes.
I had only uncovered its existence way later during a passing conversation with my friend’s father, who was a second generation Japanese-American. He told me whether or not you were an American, the government rounded up any person of Japanese descent and put them in a concentration camp due to this xenophobic fear of the "enemy" (which happened to be the Japanese government during World War II).
My curiosity was catalyzed and I needed to know more. This inspired me to take an Asian American studies course during my first and only term at Oregon State University. It was taught by a Japanese-American professor and the entire class was made up of a predominately Asian American student body. I was so elated that such a class even existed. It made me feel like I existed.
But the feeling of welcomed jubilation did not last very long. As much as I enjoyed and was made whole again by Asian American studies, it brought an overwhelming feeling of disappointment and white-hot rage towards the very place that I was supposed to proudly call my home. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration/exclusion.html) to the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/23/opinion/why-vincent-chin-matters.html), it was all a harrowingly eye-opening experience for me as a young Asian American trying to navigate and uncover my community's past.
Vincent Chin was a young Chinese-American man who was born and raised in Detroit, MI, the once mecca of the American automobile manufacturing industry. One night, he was walking home and was confronted by two white men. They called him a “Jap” and blamed folks who looked like him for taking away their jobs (at that time the Japanese automobile industry was soaring). His life was tragically ended by the two white men that night as they bludgeoned him with a baseball bat until his skull cracked open.
They left him to bleed out in the street.
I am disheartened as I am deeply disturbed that history is beginning to rear its ugly head once again during this post-election period. Friends and acquaintances in my circles have begun to chronicle their run-ins with racist hatred on social media in more ways than just traditional schoolyard name-calling. Hate crimes against Americans of Muslim faith have risen 6% in the last week alone (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/15/us/politics/fbi-hate-crimes-muslims.html?_r=0). Now the folks associated with the president elect are talking about implementing a Muslim Registry. That’s right. You read correctly. They want to put all of the people in America who identify with the Muslim faith to register themselves and their families in a database so that the government can keep an eye on them (http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/trump-supporter-cites-internment-precedent-muslim-registry-n685131).
Doesn’t that sound familiar?
The scariest part about all of this are the people clamoring to give the president elect and his ideas a chance. A chance for what? A chance to normalize white supremacy? Are we so bold as to ask people who have been abused by racism and xenophobia to kiss and make up with their abusers? As the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."
As much as I am outraged and terrified, I am not surprised. It’s classic Americana. Like baseball and apple pie, using differences to divide instead of appreciating said differences has been the name of our game time and time again. If we don’t know our history, we don’t know ourselves. If we don’t know our history, we’re bound to repeat it. This is why Asian American history, and the history of every other marginalized American community, needs to be included and normalized in our curriculum. These tragic events continue to unfold because there is a lack of a fundamental understanding of our humanity. It’s easier to group non-white folks together, and mark them as “others”, than it is to take the time and effort to understand them and their culture, their plight, and what makes them human.
A recent article in The Atlantic eloquently sums up my feelings about Portland, Oregon: “Talking constructively about race can be hard, especially in a place like Portland where residents have so little exposure to people who look differently than they do.” Old wounds from my childhood may still sting here and there, but I want nothing more than my hometown to progress. We need diverse books, we need inclusive education, and we need a wide-range of positive voices more than ever. When we know each other on a more socially intimate level, there's nothing left to fear. All that's left is to celebrate one another, differences and all.
I am fortunate to have studied Asian American history. It has productively forged my identity as a Vietnamese-American. It has helped me identify with the struggles of my neighboring Asian American communities and it has brought us all closer in uniting to fight against bigotry.
Wherever you are and whoever you are, the fight for progress begins and ends with education.
A year after my high school graduation, there was a rumor that I had died in a tragic accident. It forced me to re-evaluate my life in more ways than one.
I was one year removed from graduating high school. I moved down to California to attend college and pursue my dreams of becoming a world class filmmaker. They say the first year is always hard. For me, it was the hardest. I spent most of my days running away from obligations, hiding in my room binge watching sitcoms, and trying to recover from the death of my father.
I don’t know if you’ve ever lost someone close to you, but there’s no feeling like it in the world. Every waking moment feels distorted and unreal. It was numbing as it was lonely. I blamed myself for the longest time. I was there when he was in the hospital, but I didn’t stay the entire time. He was sick, but I was told he was going to get better. I was excited for him to see how well I was going to do for myself post-high school, so I wanted to get back to laying that foundation. When it happened, I couldn’t help but blame myself. I could have been there, but I chose not to.
I could have saved him.
The first year in California, I spent many late nights working in a dark, stuffy film projection room at my local movie theater. I didn’t choose to work there because I needed the money (it was shit pay). I worked there so that I could pass the time. Find some semblance of purpose again. The monotony of cleaning projectors, running films, and watching people enjoy the experience of cinema was oddly comforting.
It was the only place that felt real in a long time.
I got to a point in my life where I was starting to accept that maybe I wasn’t going to achieve my lofty goals and maybe I should start accepting the reality of finding something “practical” to do with my life.
That feeling didn’t last very long.
One night at work, seemingly out of nowhere, I received a flurry of texts and calls from several old friends that I haven’t heard from in a while.
“Ben! Are you okay?!”
“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?”
“We heard you were in an accident! I thought you were dead!”
Those words of panic sent a shocking jolt to my nervous system. Here I was mindlessly sleepwalking through what was suppose to be the defining years of my young adult life trying to figure out how to deal with my unresolved emotional challenges…and all it took for me to snap out of my hazy funk was some insane rumor about my untimely demise floating around my hometown. I was confused at first, angry even, that someone would spread something so reckless, but it was sort of a blessing in disguise to tell you the truth. It made me re-think my current trajectory and question, “What if I did die right now?”
“Have I accomplished all that I set out to do?”
“Was I a good person?”
“Will anyone miss me?”
“What would have Dad thought?”
I didn’t sleep that night. Whether it was the neuroses or the need to console my friends by assuring them that I was truly fine, all of the thoughts and feelings running through my mind was overwhelming. However, I was touched to know that there were friends who cared enough to call. I didn’t want to let them down anymore. I took a long hard look at myself. I was alive, sure. My eyes blinked, my heart beats, and I still bled every time I got a cut or a gash. I was alive by definition, but I had forgotten how to live.
This year, I turned 28. I have never been more grateful to be alive and living the life that I have long envisioned for myself. Looking back at that time, and that specific moment, I am thankful for it. Thankful that it took a disturbingly morbid scenario for me to realize that I am worth it. That I am worth the time, the love, and the energy to be invested in. I mourned for my father and I mourned for the downward spiral that I was in, but when my heart became full again, I was ready to finish what I started.
My father would have been heartbroken if he knew that I had given up on my dreams.
All of our lives we have these voices, externally and internally, telling us to wait. Waiting to make enough money to pursue our passions. Waiting to travel to our dream destinations. Waiting for the world to change. It's unfortunate that sometimes our irrational fear of mortality is what continues to push us forward, but we only have a handful of years left on this Earth. Don’t waste it on waiting. If you love somebody, tell them you love them. If you’re good at creating, go create. If you know you’re worth more than the circumstances you were dealt with, then go out there and make yourself whole again.
I don’t have all of the answers, but when I am faced with the question of "when is it the right time to live?"
The answer will forever and always be: today.
"Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless." - Brandon Lee
I stopped using the term “faggot or gay” to describe someone or something I didn’t like.
I stopped using the term “ghetto” to describe something that I thought was lesser in quality.
I stopped using the term “retard” to describe someone who I didn’t agree with.
The only times I’ve ever used these words in my regrettable youth was to harm and to degrade.
Do you remember a time when you or your friend said one of these words and you all thought it was okay? Looking at it now, knowing all of the different people you’ve met and come to love, do you believe it’s still okay?
These words are loaded with negative connotations. The ways in which we choose to use them are often charged with hate and venom. We have culturally normalized these words without ever taking a moment to critically think about these words in a historical and social context; thinking about how they have been used to tear down a person or an entire community.
“That’s gay!” = Anti-LGBTQ+
“That’s ghetto!” = Anti-Black
“That’s retarded!” = Anti-Disabled
It seems so trivial on the surface, doesn’t it? We want to believe that these are just empty words that can be thrown around liberally and interchangeably to express our discontent and/or for humorous purposes, but when we put real faces and lives to these words, it’s not so funny anymore. If you are reading this and you don’t see how problematic this behavior is, then you must be privileged. The privilege to be comfortable with your own identity, the privilege to live within the safe confines of a homogeneous and gentrified neighborhood, and the privilege to be able to speak without consequences.
I have confronted my own hypocrisy and I have come to recognize my own privilege. I was born as a straight, cis-gendered Asian American male in a traditional and conservative Christian household. I have never been stopped by the police for looking suspicious. I have never been able to not land a job due to my physical or mental capabilities. My sexuality has never been questioned. I have lived a good life thanks in part to the sacrifices of my immigrant parents, and a path paved by hard work and ample opportunity. Not many folks are able to say that as much as I wish we all could. This is why I never want my privilege to get in the way of my ability to empathize. It’s not to pity, but to understand that we’re not all cut from the same cloth. If we want to solve our problems as a collective, we have to examine them in a nuanced, pragmatic, and sensitive manner.
It begins with the way we talk to and about each other.
In a perfect world, we all would have the equal opportunity to interact with all of the communities that surrounds us even if they are completely different from our own. I attended my first same sex wedding last April. Never in my life have I been so inspired to witness two human beings display their love and devotion to each other in the most truthful and tender way. How could any person with a beating heart look at that and not be moved? But the truth is I shouldn’t have to have a Black, a gay, or a disabled friend to show basic human decency. Political correctness is just correctness. It’s about respect for your fellow human beings more so than an argument about semantics. For the abled, re-learning the way we use our words is, at worse, an inconvenience. For the unabled, these words can help build bridges to understanding and help us all become closer. The power of words represents a chance to reclaim a lost identity and to no longer feel invisible.
Never underestimate the power of words. Words can destroy as much as they can uplift. Just like any tool we use to navigate life, let’s choose to use our words to uplift.
Let’s choose to see each other.
If you’re reading this, I’m sorry you had to find out this way.
Christianity was something that was always present in my life, but it made me feel like an outsider. It felt like a rigidly foreign concept that I could never genuinely grasp or make a sincere connection with because of the impossible standards it set for me before I even knew who I was as a person.
There's this story about my family when they were lost at sea. In the midst of a war with nowhere to go, with no help in sight; my Grandmother closed her eyes and prayed. She’s never prayed before that moment. I don’t even think she knew what Christianity was, but there she stood on a boat in the middle of ocean, praying. Eventually, they made it to safety and the rest was history.
Stories like that made me wish I could believe in a higher power, in a creator who lent a hand during times of despair. I was born into a Christian household. I went with the flow to fit in. To see if religion could be as transformative of an experience for me as it was for so many others in my community. If anything, it had the opposite effect: it was oppressive.
As an adult today, I value open-minded critical thinking and inclusiveness among communities of intersectional identities above everything else. This does not mean religion can’t contribute to these values, but whatever religion my circles were practicing at the time; it did not create a space that was conducive to cultivating these values.
Every Sunday, we attended morning service and then Sunday school with the other youths afterwards. I never liked waking up that early, but it wasn’t always nails on a chalkboard agonizing. I enjoyed the social aspect of church. Observing people with similar interests congregating together to passionately discuss said interests. It was like a big book club (if the book was the bible). I loved interacting with other people my own age especially at a time when I was searching for more Asian American faces to identify with. I’m happy to say I still keep in touch with some of these folks and they’re still great contributors to society.
During a routine Sunday school lecture, the topic of marriage equality came up. This was some time in the mid-2000s. Gay marriage was a hot button issue, and it was something that was considered “morally corrupt” by many within the church. Our youth pastor preached that it was unnatural and that anyone who was tempted into that lifestyle could potentially be damned to hell. A teenager in our youth group spoke up and asked, “Doesn’t God love everyone though?”
The youth pastor hesitantly replied, “Yes, but there are certain guidelines to being a Christian.”
She pondered and calmly stated, “But if God loved everyone, then why does he impose so many rules on us?”
That teenage girl got the best of our youth pastor that day and I walked away with an invigoratingly refreshing perspective that was so radically different from the one that was hammered into my consciousness. Could there be something else out there for me? In the many mornings spent at Sunday school, I never spoke a word. It wasn’t an environment that made me feel safe to speak my mind or encouraged me to exercise critical thinking outside of the parameters of such strict religious practices.
In times of darkness, I grew colder and more resentful towards the idea of Christianity and it caused me to become more distant from my family. I didn’t want to hurt them by saying what was really on my mind, but I couldn’t lie to myself anymore either. I couldn’t sit there at the dinner table while everyone was praying and put my head down like it was a naturally empowering act for me. I couldn’t go around telling my friends that they’re good people as long as they believed in my religion and my religion only, especially since my network of friends grew more and more diverse.
As a subscriber to the power of knowledge and education, I seek to absorb as much information as I could about the world through a healthy variety of voices other than the ones I’ve become accustomed to. I learned a lot about religion this year. I attended a conference with the Dalai Lama. I interviewed a Sikh American college professor and a couple of American Muslim comic book creators. I wrote for a progressive Asian American Christian magazine. My mind and my heart have never been more open.
I am in no way anti-religion. Religion is a beautiful concept that has brought much healing, meaning, and vibrancy to many peoples’ lives and I don’t want to take that away. As I become more comfortable with my agnostic identity, I want to promote intelligent exchanges of ideas as much as I want to promote religious tolerance. I don't want to believe that my family bolted their war torn country to escape persecution only so that they could in turn persecute others. There is no reason why our ideas and our faiths cannot coexist. If anything, they often intersect.
I came out to a friend recently, who is hyper religious, that I no longer identified as a Christian. Unfortunately, their response had nothing to do with me as a person, my experience, or what my thoughts and emotions were in processing that conclusion. They just coldly asked, “But what about your soul?” It hurts to think that no matter how much good I do in the world, there will always be people in my life who truly believe that I am beyond saving. Simply because I won’t submit. Simply because I am true to myself.
If you’re still reading this, let me tell you something. I only have one belief, and that is the belief in humanity.
Life is precious as it is temporary. No one should be allowed to police each other’s values. As long as we’re not hurting each other and we’re promoting love and progress, it's not necessary to impose a universal rule book on how we carry out that love. I believe I can one day die happily knowing that I left an important mark on the world and that I have served a purpose that was bigger than me.
This is where my “soul” lies.