Embracing My Truth…Out Loud

I had the privilege to speak tonight at “Out Loud: A Social Justice Arts Event,” put on by my church and our Social Justice committee — It was an amazing and inspiring evening of visual and performing artists that spoke their truth powerfully in advocacy for a just society. I was so grateful to lend my voice and story to this gathering. Below, I share my piece from this evening, in its entirety.

Embracing My Truth…Out Loud

I am not your model minority….or am I?
On the outside that may be what it seems, living out the American Dream.
BA, MA, then PhD from an elite world-renowned university. Perfect middle class family.
Speaking “accent-less” English flawlessly.
But we are all more than we seem.
And, I’ve always had a truth to speak, but, I was taught that I should be silent…so I struggle with the complexity of respectability and identity and who I am v. who I should be, and who will be there with me, if I stand my ground…or if being me and speaking out freely means I will stand alone.

In 6th grade, sitting next to a new friend who had moved from Taiwan to California via Alabama, a boy next to me leaned over and said pointedly, “Why don’t you tell her to go back to where she came from?” I didn’t have the academic label of racist nativism, but I knew his request made no sense, even at 11. “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?” I replied. He looked at me confusedly, “Huh?” he said. “Well, unless you’re Chumash or Barbareño, you’re not from here, either you see?” I began, before the substitute teacher called out to me, “Betina, please be quiet. No talking.” I had never been admonished by a teacher. I said nothing but felt the red heat rising to my cheeks. The boy glowered at me. I felt ashamed. I felt alone.

I wish I could tell that little girl that she was brave to speak her peace, that she should be proud not afraid, that this would not be the last time she risked being shamed for standing up for someone she cared about nor the last time she felt shut down for speaking truth. But instead she sat there questioning whether her voice had done anything.

I kept going and growing, silently counting the days, months, years until I could leave the safe but silent spaces where I grew up. I wanted so much to be liked and accepted but I felt more and more alone.

And then I left, and went to UC Berkeley, a place where I thought I’d finally feel free, where I’d finally find me, a place rich with history of struggle and solidarity. But there as well, I struggled to see my own identity, on the one hand being pulled to be the model minority, on the other never being quite radical enough comparatively. Who was I to speak of injustice when others had it so much worse than me? Who was I, but a Chinese American girl, who did not even speak the language of her ancestry? Certainly not your model minority. Not really Chinese then you see, a girl of the So-Cal suburbs, but as well as I could speak English, I was still never quite American either. I was neither. Surrounded by those who looked like me, I still felt ashamed. I felt alone.

I wish I could tell that young woman that she could be brave enough to speak her peace, that she should be proud not afraid, that this would not be the last time she risked feeling shame for struggling with her own identity. But instead she sat there questioning whether her voice was worth anything.

I became a mother officially 3 times in less than 20 weeks, giving birth and then adopting. In motherhood, I thought I’d finally feel free, I’d finally find me, in the faces of these three; a HAPA baby and two African-American teens. Son of my flesh and daughters borne of the sorrows of having lost our mothers prematurely. When my girls faced educational and institutional inequality, it came naturally to raise my voice in advocacy. But when mental illness and post-traumatic stress came knocking at our door, I lost my voice and found inadequacy. Certainly, now I was not your model minority, suffering silently. I felt ashamed. I felt alone.

I wish I could tell that young mother that to reach out for help is the ultimate bravery, that she could be both proud and afraid, that this would not be the last time she risked feeling shame for struggling with inadequacy. But instead she sat there questioning whether her life was worth anything.

Then finally, the choice became one of fighting alone and invisibility or finding redemption through reaching out to community. I spoke out. I reached out. I got help. I found out that I may have been broken and imperfect but I was not alone. And there was no shame in vulnerability, that in fact, there was power in the inadequacy of my humanity because it drew me closer to authenticity. I finally began finding me.

These days, I work daily to address the inequalities of a schooling system that continues to treat children like mine differently from one another and differently from how they might view me. I teach teachers to recognize that students are not all the same, but that each one shares the right to honored humanity, to support individually, to become the best they can be. I teach teachers to draw from their identities to recognize how who they are shape who and what they teach.

And, these days, I still struggle with the complexity of respectability and identity, who I was, who I am, who I will or who I should be. I struggle with my story and my vulnerability, especially as a member of the academy. I struggle with my voice and truth telling even in my community, and I wonder if you will still stand alongside me. Because I will keep struggling.

I was taught to be silent, but I’ve always had a truth to speak.
So, I am not your model minority, but I am working each day to create a model of what it means to be me.

A Community Crisis

Photo by Khürt Williams on Unsplash

Like many people in America, this morning I woke up to news of the Las Vegas mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival last night.  Like many people, I am still processing this shooting, as I have processed the numerous mass shootings that have taken place since Sandy Hook.

If you know me, and/or have followed this blog since its inception, you know that some my very first posts were about Sandy Hook and its aftermath because my family lives in Newtown; my nephew was a 2nd grade student at Sandy Hook Elementary School; my brother’s family and community still grieves and struggles with the impact of the shooting on their community 5 years later, even as they have “moved forward” in living day to day.  I have had acquaintances and friends touched by several mass shootings since Sandy Hook.  Every time, every time, every time, I have felt the same cycle of emotions: shock, loneliness, grief, anger, helplessness, more anger, and a desire to do something that will make a difference.

I’m not an angry person, but my anger stems from the helplessness I feel in each of these moments.  I know how to advocate and use my voice, and I do that.  I do believe that advocating for responsible gun ownership (if gun ownership must exist in the US) is critical.  I also don’t believe in dismissing thoughts and prayers.  But, honestly, I don’t believe that thoughts, prayers or even advocacy are enough.

We must come together in community.

After Sandy Hook, I read about a gun activist who said to a mother who had lost her child, “My right to bear arms is greater than your child’s right to life.” I don’t know if this was fake or real news, and the point is not to argue legitimacy of the quote.  The point is that we live in a society where someone could conceivably say that to another person.  We live in a society where, whether we say that or not, we sometimes hold our own rights and privileges above the rights of others to life and humanity.  We live in a society where we can and often do choose to ignore or dismiss the suffering of other human beings because they are not like us, because we do not believe that their stories are true, because they don’t live in our neighborhoods, because they have a different immigration status.  We are more committed to being right and justified than we are to coming together to community.

I don’t have to agree with you to love you.  I love many people who I have deep and fundamental disagreements with on many areas.  I still choose love.  I still choose to honor their humanity.  Many people don’t agree with my beliefs. I’m not asking for agreement, but I am open to engagement that doesn’t need to end in consensus, but that is done with an open spirit.  Because if we engage, then even if we leave with our beliefs in tact or solidified, we can no longer dehumanize someone who is not like us.

I am no one so important.  I am a single voice.  But, I see a community crisis.  And, I ask you to engage, to find someone who is different and search for similarities, for common humanity.  And yes, continue to pray, advocate for your beliefs, and hug your children tight.  But, don’t do it in your own enclaves, because then we are just waiting for the inevitable next time.