A Letter- to my future child

15 Dec

My dearest child (who is yet to be conceived and born),

I woke up to horrible news that happened on the other side of the world, the part that I used to reside for a while. I hoped that it was just a heinous story that was made up by those sensational journalists who are fretting over the potential of their job losses. But no, the tragedy in Connecticut, whether I wanted to believe or not, happened, killing, wounding, shocking and permanently damaging dozens of people, including 20 innocent children who died in extreme fear.

My facebook updates (if this will still exist in your times, I’m not sure) were filled with those who are equally horrified as I was. Those who are parents, those who pray to God, those who criticize the lack of gun control in the country, and those who criticize lack of mental health policy, etc. etc.

I couldn’t help but thinking that many of us who talk about all these policy talks on gun control (both  pro and con) and mental health policies (“it’s not the gun control idiots, it’s the mental health policy, yada yada yada”), though important, are missing the point. Even as a previous policy students, I still see many things with my cultural anthropologist’s eyes. And at the end of the day, we must mourn for the culture of violence that we as humans -well, as adults- have constantly built up and masochistically enjoyed, NOT for the lack of list of regulations written on the rule books. And because of that, I greatly fear to bring you to this world, the world I have grown to detest for its gruesome reality and lack of humanity.

When I started to live in the US, a country that I spent my formative years, one thing that my family feared the most for me was the (perceived) prevalence of violence, you know, the kind that you see in Hollywood movies, easy access to firearms, racial bigotry/hatred and all the fear due to the unknown potential of being violated.

Many years later, I see no improvement, and I witnessed that certain things are even worse than Hollywood films. Some of the worst shooting incidents happened over the past several years, at universities, at a place of worship, at shopping malls and just a few hours back, at a school. Many lives, who could have contributed to making this world a more vibrant, perhaps a better place, were taken away. Such violence took away the innocence and hope, the faith that human beings can be “good,” from many of us.

I fear that I’m gonna leave you a world that believes that policy machines, systems and politics can fix such problems while certain policies are formed by those who are funded by interest groups who make profits by contributing to violence. Although I spent 2 years studying public policy, my conclusion is that policy alone is not enough. I’m often angered that those politicians endlessly debate on “the greater policy implications” and “procedures,” because meanwhile, the real narratives and dialogues that must happen -to heal, to change the culture and to bring changes- will get lost and be deliberately forgotten until another shooting incident, another rape, or another tragedy somewhere happens, which brings everything back to the policy cycle ground zero.

I fear everyday for my personal security, whether from the tangibility of the violence that may be imposed upon me -let it be the danger of war, mugging, sexual violence, pop culture’s bombardment of “ideal female images” which often make me feel ugly and powerless- or from the deep sense of inner insecurity that are caused by such potential violence.

I fear because I see many broken systems that don’t seek cure, healing and greater societal effort for holistic approach, but rather seek only endless nit-picking arguments, blaming, hatred-filled speeches, ugly politics that we have lost our faith in, and endless hurting of each other. We hide ourselves behind policy jargon and aggressive facade, while the media gradually fade the narratives away, chasing the next big thing.

I fear that violence everywhere will not cease to happen while girls are violated because they want to go to school, ethnic minorities do not have claims to live in certain countries, people get discriminated for whom they love, girls starve themselves because the society tells them that they are not beautiful enough unless they’re skinny, countries and groups go to wars in the name of peace and religion, violence is considered “real man’s nature,” destruction of nature is going on in the name of “development and progress” and the list can go on.

I fear that I’m gonna leave you and your generation the world in a worse shape where there’s no place for dialogues, justice, hope and healing.

As an adult, I feel that I’m gravely responsible for such tragic state of things. I have been busy blaming others, while I’m one of the guilty ones. I have consumed such violence that are flashed everywhere, but often failed to see the injustice and pain. I decided to look away even when I saw painful signs of social wrong, thinking, “Hey, I’m just a kid,” while in fact, I’m not. The culture of indifference which ignored to care about the others ultimately causes such culture of violence.

I’m not a parent yet, but one day I may become one, to you. I may not even understand a fraction of the pain of the parents who lost their children in this very incident. But I promise you today that I own up to the responsibility as a grownup, as a human being. I promise you that I will do my responsibility as a citizen. I won’t just stop at the state of being outraged and upset. I will continue to be vigilant, discuss and stay alert so that one day, I will be able to tell you that the world is indeed a better place than it used to be when I was in my teens and twenties.

I can’t be bulletproof to protect you from all the harms, but this much I promise you.

 

Surviving and Loving Me

10 Sep

I have been so mad at myself recently. It’s not that there has been a single incident that made me feel this way, but I’ve been very… well, unhappy.

Recently, I met up with my friend Dika, whom I have not seen since her wedding in Jakarta. She is now back to Singapore and started a new job. We were catching up on chitchats that we have not shared for a while, and I was telling her about the rough patches that I’ve been going through recently. She is one of those really grounded and gracious people, so maybe I was just seeking some sort of advice from her. She also talked about some of the challenges that she went through over the past couple of months, and I guess we both found comfort in the fact that both of us have been (in my case, I still am) on the same boat.  One thing that she said really struck me and made me think about it for days. “you know it was really difficult when I constantly compared myself to others, so I stopped doing that, and I think I’m happier now.”

Happiness. Happy. Happier. Aha, maybe that’s why I’ve been so mad. It’s a concept that I’ve avoided thinking about for a while. Really, while I have been feeling like Sisyphus (the king in Greek mythology who tried to full with Hades, the god of underworld, hence punished to constantly push up a boulder only to realize that it’s gonna be pushed down), it’s something that I haven’t given much thought about, because “everyone else in the world” has seemed to be happier than me.

In the age of hyper-voyeurism, it’s become impossible for me not to know what is going on with the people that I care and most importantly (and very unfortunately), people I don’t care about. The girl who used to sit next to you in the econ lecture in college is all the sudden this big shot investment banker in New York (or wherever). The guy whom I used to work with is now a big shot consultant in so-and-so company. This girl I sorta know is now a CEO of a startup company. Ex-boyfriend is in med school and married (true story). And the story never ends. Everybody seems to be moving on and most importantly, happy, except me. Everyday is just a constantly competition (for what?), because I’m not meeting the expectations that I’ve built up based on what I see in others.

Yeap, I’m so mad at myself.

And I panic. What have I done while they’ve achieved all that? Really, what have I done wrong? Why the heck am I the only one in the world who’s freaking lost and unhappy? Where am I driving myself to?

Then I catch my breath. How do I know that they are happy? Why do I even care? Where is I in the midst of all this nonsense? As Dika mentioned in our conversation, I’m never gonna be happy (and always exhausted) if I don’t stop. So I tell myself.

I have the right to get lost and take the roundabout route. I have the right to enjoy and hate various moments of my life in order to find out my true passion. I have the right to survive the most difficult version of me during challenging times. I have the right to love myself with all my heart. And most importantly, I have the right to be happy with even the most imperfect, clueless and lost version of me.

So I decided to build myself a survival guide. Perhaps I can place happiness at the center of it then I can probably filter out all the noises, one day at a time. After all, “Happiness is equilibrium” and I just need to “shift [my] weight” as Tom Stoppard said (thanks Sarah for your favorite quote). And maybe, it will get easier for me to say, “Hey, I’m so in love with myself and happy with every moment of my life.” And until then, I keep adding a line a day to the survival guide.

On Invisibility

17 Jul

“For God’s sake, can you just TAKE compliments?”

On one fine evening out on Arab Street with my friend Yvette (the official “last” dinner in Singapore for her, before she went back to Rwanda), she told me she liked my outfit, and I probably said something like, “Oh, I just got it for really cheap.”

“You know what my aunt says when people tell her she looks good? She says, ‘Oh, you should have seen me yesterday!’ with her attitude.”

I didn’t particularly know what to say. So I just told her it was an Asian thing. We Asians are not supposed to show up, we are programmed to be “modest” in our actions and words. Then the whole conversation really made me think of the aspect of Asian womanhood, at least to my life so far.

I “became” Asian when I went to the US as a 15-year-old girl. That was the first label that was given to me. An Asian chick. The label came with many other tags, such as being quiet, a hard worker, genius in math and really, having not much of character at all. In one word, I was automatically considered an “invisible one,” just like all the other FOBs at my school.

The thing is that I didn’t choose to be invisible. My English was not great and I didn’t know how to socialize in the language and the particular social structure, so I couldn’t talk much and I didn’t have any other choice but working hard. I was good in math because that was about the only subject that didn’t require much English.

I was invisible by default.

It was a very painful period of my life, but I did well. I excelled in my high school career, graduated at the top of my class, and went to a decent university. But what many people don’t know is that I stayed up many nights in the bathroom after the light-out time in my boarding school dorm, I practiced English pronunciation that I couldn’t quite get during the day (and often was made fun of) hundreds of times so that I could speak it right the next time, and I woke up 6am every morning so that I could do more studying than others. Eventually I started to become more active. I was able to speak up.

I did all these so that I could become visible. But even then, I was still a hardworking Asian girl who is good at math (and maybe in other subjects, too, but only good in academic sense). I was still invisible.

Now, I feel very comfortable with English (which is my working and social language everyday these days), and people know that I have a sarcastic, biting sense of humor along with my “attitudes,” and maybe I can thank my American education for that. I tried really hard not to be “that Asian chick” who rarely speaks out her mind, who studies a conventional discipline (econ, biology, engineering, etc) really hard and dresses too well. I chose to speak out (often very nervously I admit), chose an unconventional major (although I did study hard), and ran around in my sweatpants with no makeup on purpose. I tried hard to prove myself different. I tried to be visible.

But the funny thing is that I still find myself “choosing” to be invisible often unconsciously. Maybe it got started after I came back to Asia a few years ago while I was struck with a sense of reverse culture shock. But then thinking about it, I’m not sure about that at all. Looking back, in the States, I deliberately “oppressed” the Asian side of me, because it was too painful to be one. In a way, I chose not to see a part of me that I associated with invisibility. And now, I come back to my “home” culture, I feel a sense of displacement, and I’m not sure how to position myself. Gradually, I became invisible again. I am afraid of how people may judge me, because I act “too American” and “too White.” My dad used to yell at me for being “too loud” and “too all over” when I was younger, and the same voice is ringing in my head again. The culture that brought me up for the first 15 years of my life is creeping back in and the confusion that I probably should have had as a teenager is hitting me hard.

From all the voices of the past and present, I hear clashing things: Be modest.  Don’t be afraid to express yourself. Be quiet. Talk out loud. You are not supposed to think that you are beautiful (and you are kinda ugly). You are beautiful in every way. And I become buried in all these voices, then again, I become invisible. I choose not to express, because I don’t wanna be judged in one way or another, and this time, such invisibility brings me a temporary comfort, but maybe a deeper cut.

I don’t think it’s simply about a confused individual’s confidence issue, although to a certain extent, it is. It is about certain social constructs and how they may affect an individual (or many individuals) of certain origin, let’s say an ethnic minority (in American context) woman whose cultural diversity should not only be celebrated but also be reconciliated. And even as an ethnic “majority” in Asia, the same individual still feels the cultural pressure and ambiguity, now faced with the “home” culture, because she would hear the society dictating how a good Korean woman should be while maintaining the invisibility at the same time.

When will I become visible by default? When will I be able to take those compliments without feeling the necessity of being modest? Will I be able to love myself truly without being able to truly see herself?

On Goodbyes

31 May

It has been very hectic several weeks recently, mainly because I’ve been running around to say goodbyes to everyone leaving Singapore. Yes, I do know that Singapore is an ever changing economic hub that is more or less transitory destination for many people (sadly), and a lot of my friends have been here for graduate school education for 2 years, so there was nothing unexpected. But after several trips to the airport (which is on the opposite side of the town from where I live, by the way), I got to think more about what this human ritual that I can never get used to is about.

Really, there’s nothing “good” about goodbyes, and nothing “fair” about those farewells.

You may already know that I’m not such an expressive person (my Asian upbringing, hint hint) when it comes to emotions. I’d rather hide behind my strong, tough facade, and many people have found it troubling (and hopefully fascinating too), because I appear to have the bubbly, loud, “American” personality at first. But I really stink at how I truly feel and care about the people that I love, and it has been an interesting journey with many of my close friends due to such personalities of mine. But the only time that I actually express my feeling is when I cry. I get embarrassed by it a lot, but often I can’t help it. In Korean, they say that I “have lots of tears.” Yes, I do. I have lots of tears, partly because of the regrets from not showing the others how much I care and love them, partly because I am not sure when I’m gonna see them again.

But the biggest reasons why I can’t help but being extremely sad is my fear of being detached. For someone who identifies herself as a “lost child of the world,” I feel very attached to the sense of attachment, if this makes sense at all. I always try to create a “home” wherever my next destination is, and the home, the family, happens to be the friends that I make. I attach myself to them, and I dwell on the sense of belonging. The whole appearance of independence that I pull off actually comes out of the security that I have from this home, and it is the only reason why I am not fragile. In many ways, they have become a part of me.

So no, a piece of myself leaving me is not good and not fair. I hate it so much.

Then I look back at all the goodbyes I was forced to say. Tons and tons of them, with my own family in Korea, best friends from middle school to go to the States, college friends that I bonded over intellectual and not-so-intellectual conversations with Chinese food and cheap drinks, ex-boyfriends who wanted too much or too little from/of me, people that I loved so much but never managed to let them know fully, and most importantly, the person I used to be. I leave a piece of me behind whenever I have to say goodbye to my homes, my people, my loves.

And over the pain of not-so-good, unfair state of things, I still stand straight, chin up, and walk on, hoping that it will be a new day tomorrow that brings me a bit of healing.

Day 30: Finally the Last Day!!!

18 Mar

So this is FINALLY the last day of my 30-Day Project (although I’m posting this a couple of hours after Saturday)! Spending my entire evening packing my luggage –yet again— to head to Singapore (yes, I have a job now), I asked myself why I began and held on to this project over the past one month or so.

Yes, of course, I wanted to do something productive with my time, and I wanted to commit to something for at least for a month (although I don’t think I’m over my “commitment-phobia” issue, just yet). But as I went along, I realized that it was more than that. I was re-learning about what I had been passionate about and who I really was. During the past 2 years or so, I had been studying public policy and utterly confused about how the discipline could actually be connected to my passion, to the things that really mattered to my life, from my home country to academic origin as an anthropologist to social justice and human rights issues. But by writing about something everyday, whether I had something that I was dying to write and talk about, or I was going through internet endlessly seeking some inspiration, I always found something that I could write about. Some postings were over 1,000 words and others were only 200 words or so. But everyday, I thought about what I would write (throughout the day), then sat down in front of my laptop in the evening, then I produced, sometimes to fulfill my “public duty” or other times, to bring my thoughts together.

And I learned how to be myself in front of others. Yes, I promised that I would write on women and gender issues, and I think I was pretty good with following the theme. However, when the whole thing comes down to the essence, I was selfishly and shamelessly writing about myself. I rarely talk about my personal stuff with others, and many of my friends find it difficult to get to know me, because I rarely share anything personal. It hasn’t always been intentional, but it has been more of my personal habit of protecting myself, perhaps overly. But here, whatever the topic of that day was, I always related it to my personal experiences, thoughts and feelings. During the process, I remembered lots of my life stories. My life hasn’t been that long, and my memory can be very selective (just like yours), but I had to collect them together in order for me to survive. I was working on a “storytelling project” for a very, very selfish reason of telling my stories to others via this internet means, and ultimately, re-narrating them to myself, so that I can locate where I am in my life.

Chimamanda Adichie said that she once thought that a good writer/storyteller is someone who had gone through tremendous tragedies in her life, and when she realized that she didn’t have anything standing out in her own life, she mourned for the lack of tragedies (However, she later realized that the power to tell different stories can be much more powerful, while there is always the danger of telling a single story). I was worried at times, too, and even afraid. I don’t particularly feel that I’ve had many challenges in my life that I could tell others with interesting flavors. And because I was like this, I always had the thoughts behind my back, asking “who am I to make comments about the others’ stories as if they are my own?” This was perhaps related to my old habit of self-consciousness that I mentioned earlier. But I chose not to be afraid of judgments, because I know that I (and my thoughts) cannot be loved by everyone, and I want to accept that it is OK not to be part of the harmony that other people demand.

BUT I would like to think that some of my stories were different (from what? I’m not sure), yet genuine. I hope that some people were able to relate to my thoughts and experiences, and find themselves in my stories. This habit of writing is likely to continue (although probably not on daily basis), and I hope that I will have many more stories and dreams to share with others.

And I give a gentle, self-congratulatory pat on my back.

Day 29: Maya Says…

16 Mar

I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.
-Maya Angelou

I hope that every woman has young spirit and does what Maya told us. We must defeat what the world says on how we should be and tell the world to just shut up. We are gonna tell the world how it should be. And I hope that many of us really do kick some ass seriously.

Day 28: Elections Are Here- Korean Politics and Women

15 Mar

It’s about election time in Korea. It will be held on April 11th, and the hopeful congress-men and women candidates are running around like mad chickens. One thing that the Korean media focused was the fact that the heads of the two major parties –Saenuri Party (conservative- formerly known as the Grand National Party) and Democratic United Party— and one minority party (United Progressive Party- I directly translated, and I’m not sure about their English name) are all women.

For Saenuri, the head is Park Geun-Hye. She is the daughter of a former president Park Chung-hee, who is known as a “benevolent dictator” who held his power for 19 years until he was assassinated. Han Myung-Sook leads Democratic United Party, and she was deeply involved in women’s activism, although not many people seem to know about this. She was also a prime minister for a few years. Lee Jung-hee is a former lawyer who graduated from an elite school yet she has always been with the non-profit law and labor activism. I read an article somewhere that when she was in undergrad, she took a class by Han and was motivated by the feminist education.

So doesn’t Korean politics look more or less over with this gender inequality stuff, no?

But in reality, only 6% of Saenuri’s candidates and 11% of DUP are currently women, and the actual politicians who are at the National Assembly participating actively in policy and law making are even fewer. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, only 44 out of 299 seats in the National Assembly were taken by women, and South Korea ranked 87th out of 143 ranks (there were more than 150 countries while some where ranked the same). This is even below North Korea, although they certainly have a very different system than the rest of the world. This is below the world average of 19.7% and Asian average of 18.3%.

There is certainly a long way to go for South Korea’s political scene to be more inclusive of women. We need more women in the National Assembly, because we need more policies and laws to accommodate the needs of every citizen of the country, not just half of its population (male population, to be specific). I would like to believe that policies and laws are meant to provide social frameworks that guarantee better democracy and human rights for everyone. I can’t imagine people who are not necessarily in need of maternity leave even thinking about the necessity of such laws or making a comprehensive, user-friendly policy. I’m not saying that men are not capable of making women-friendly policies and laws, but they are often hindered by male biases, not capable of seeing the other half’s needs.

I honestly don’t know what lies ahead of Korean politics this year, as there are elections for the president as well at the end of the year. But I hope that there would be more women in the National Assembly, speaking up for those who have been muted for long, whether they are policies on women or others who have been disempowered systematically within the society.