Unexpected Beauty

Photo by ever wild⚘ on Unsplash

Have you ever had a week that just didn’t turn out at all the way you had planned? Or maybe, it was a week that turned out exactly how you planned but took a strange detour that revealed something unexpectedly wonderful?

This work week has been…well, it’s been weird.

It started off somewhat normally, with Monday, the first day of the semester, spent prepping my classes and mentally preparing for the back-to-back 12-hour days that would be Tuesday and Wednesday.  I was excited and a little nervous because I’m trying new things with classes that I love to teach, but I felt ready — newly tenured and fresh from a few weeks of break. I definitely was still feeling somewhat raw, thinking about the evolutionary process that this 40-days until my 40th birthday journey have been bringing, but I also felt ready.

Tuesday also started out normally enough. I had a bunch of meetings, taught my two classes and could tell it was going to be a good semester. There was great energy and discussion in both classes, the time flew by and I was excitedly thinking about changes I was going to make between my first and second classes. I got home early enough to spend a bit of time with son (I’m relishing every night when he wants to hang out before he goes to bed since he’s in middle school now, and I’m thinking the nights are numbered) and then headed to my backpack to get my laptop and finish off a couple things before I went to bed.

And then I realized that I had left my laptop sitting on top of the smart panel in the classroom where I had held my evening class.

I quickly called/texted/emailed a bunch of people who might be on campus or near campus. My friend and colleague recommended I have campus security check the room for the laptop.  They did so (just 90 minutes after I had left the room) but it was gone. At 11:35 pm that night, it connected briefly to some network that allowed me to see that it was in an apartment building 2 miles from campus, but just as quickly, it went offline.  When I saw that message, at 2 am, I couldn’t go back to sleep.

The next morning, exhausted after 4 hours of sleep and facing a 12-hour day with a class and a late meeting with my doctoral student, I filed a police report.  I also posted what happened on Facebook.

And then, a few unexpectedly beautiful things happened:

  1. I forgave myself.  Or rather, I practiced self-compassion, and probably for the first time in my entire life, didn’t beat up on myself for being a careless human being.  I was exhausted. I was carrying a lot of things.  I was talking with students. I was thinking about the classes I had taught.  I was thinking about my sweet children as they got ready for bed.  And I forgot my laptop. Admittedly, I wasn’t present in that moment and it wasn’t my best moment.  But, they can’t all be your best moments, and sometimes even expensive accidents happen. Usually, in my mind, this makes me a terrible person.  This week, it just made me very, very human.
  2. People were so incredibly generous with me.  Honestly, friends, family and colleagues were so amazingly empathetic, angry for me, and so genuinely kind.  I had multiple people offer me laptops that I could use until I could find a replacement.  I had people share stories of their similar momentary lapses. My department office staff, department chair, dean, IT person and fiscal office worked incredibly fast to help order a new computer (it was my university laptop that was stolen, after only a year of use). The officer who took my report offered kind thoughts (though she wasn’t particularly confident that we’d recover the device). Not a single person treated the loss of the laptop (nor my subsequent stress) dismissively, everyone understanding that, for an academic, the loss of a computer can be devastating, given how much of my life work is done via technology (particularly my work, as someone who is a huge educational technology advocate and does a lot of writing).
  3. I didn’t lose a single piece of intellectual property.  Everything was backed up to the cloud either via iCloud or Dropbox.  It was literally like a Christmas miracle. And I was so, so grateful because I have worked many, many long hours (over many years) to produce the work on that computer.
  4. I was able to be present to the incredible blessing of the people in my life.  The students I get to work with are phenomenal–thoughtful, engaged, interesting and passionate.  My family is the best. Although I didn’t get to see them much Tuesday or Wednesday because of my long hours, I got to take my son to Tae Kwon Do today and get to take my daughter (who has a day off from daycare tomorrow) to a local indoor playground. I’ve been able to be present with them because I was able to forgive myself.  My cousin wrote a beautiful tribute to my mom (that actually happened on Tuesday afternoon before the loss of the laptop, but I’ve been revisiting it since) and her independence, reminding me of things that hadn’t been at the forefront of my memories about her.
  5. I became present to my immense material privilege.  I knew I could afford a new computer, if worse came to worst, and the university couldn’t fund a replacement.  I knew that if I couldn’t afford one, someone would let me use a computer until I could get another one. It would have been a hassle, but, materially, not devastating, particularly if I could recover my data.

I am so grateful for all of these things.  I do wish I still had my laptop or that someone had returned it.  It would have made my week easier and certainly less exhausting.  But, if I had to lose my computer, I am grateful that I gained perspective. I am grateful that I was able to reflect on my own growth. I’m grateful that it could have been much, much worse, but it wasn’t.  I’m grateful that I lost a material object and not something more.  But more than anything, I am grateful for the many, many loving people in my life.

Sometimes we find beauty in the most unexpected places.

Sometimes You Open Yourself Up & You Break

My grandmother (my a-ma, my mom’s mom), me, and my mom

I began this 40 day journey to my 40th birthday with reflections about my mother on Tuesday.  Then, yesterday, I went to see Crazy Rich Asians with my dear friend Tami (I know, not opening weekend like most respectable Asian Americans, but in homage to my immigrant upbringing and increasingly introverted self, at a mid-week, matinee showing with a gift card, sneaking in contraband milk-tea and Taiwanese pastries).  Honestly, I only went to see the movie because it’s such an important hallmark of representation for the Asian American community.  I had read the synopsis and spoilers and I really didn’t think I was that interested, but, you know, for the good of the people.

I saw it. I liked it. I laughed. I cried. I saw so much of my story on the screen.

I mean, I’m not married to someone who is crazy, rich or Asian, so not the central romantic plot of the story, but Constance Wu’s Rachel Chu was so familiar to me, an academic, raised by a single mom, who hadn’t ever been to Asia (so it seemed) until her adulthood, and who struggled with her Asian American identity.

Then, this morning, at 5am, with my 3-year old (who had crawled into bed at 4:22 am) lying on my chest, I began to cry.

By 5:10, it was a full-on shaking sob, loud enough to awaken my husband who, with some alarm, thought our daughter had smacked me a good one across the face in her sleep (this was a viable possibility as this has happened many a time in the past) and offered me an ice-pack.

Then, my daughter woke up, also thinking she had hit me, and wanted attention of her own because suddenly her hand hurt, perhaps from the impact of thinking she struck my face.

So, I took a few deep breaths and went from grieving daughter mode to competent mommy mode, and took care of her.  I told my husband why I was crying and he gave me a big hug. There were lots of hugs before the family left this morning, but also no more real tears because mornings are hectic when you’ve got to catch a 7am bus (my son) for school and it’s one drop-off for the Papa carpool of kids.

But now, it’s 7:17, which seems like a perfectly appropriate time for reflection before an 8am call and the start of a workday where I’ll need to be in competent academic mode. In those 10 minutes between 5-5:10 am when mist turned to sob, here’s what I was thinking.

The parts of Crazy Rich Asians that touched me the most, perhaps unsurprisingly, were the few scenes with Rachel and her mother.  [Note: If you haven’t yet seen the movie, you may want to skip to the next paragraph, although I’ll try not to put many plot spoilers here] In the first scene with the 2 of them, Rachel’s mother tells her that though she has a Chinese face and may speak Chinese, in her head and heart, she is different.  And in that moment, I felt named what I have experienced most of my life.  (Jenn Fang, of Reappropriate, writes about this beautifully in her Washington Post article) Later, just after the climax of the movie, Rachel asks her mother about her past life, and apologizes to her because of the impact she feels she’s had on her mother’s life direction. Her mom says to Rachel that she (Rachel) doesn’t need to be sorry about her (mom’s) past life because all of her past life led to her best thing–being Rachel’s mom. I don’t really know if those were the exact words, but that was the sentiment, that all the sacrifice, change, risks, trials that Rachel’s mom had gone through had been worth it because of how proud she was to be Rachel’s mom. And, that was my mom, too. I know that this is how she felt about me, and I have felt so many times (as a child and teenage, and as an adult) regret for the way that I shifted her life, and a desire for my success to make-up for her sacrifices.  This was my heart on the screen.  Finally, in the pivotal Mahjong game towards the very end of the film, as Rachel is walking out of the parlor, after powerfully claiming her right to be “good enough” despite attempts to shame her because of her (and her mother’s) past, she proudly takes the arm of her mother, who gives one direct look at Eleanor Young, before walking out with Rachel and preparing for their journey home.

I couldn’t process this yesterday, but in the early hours of the morning, I felt deeply the loss of my own mother, not just the physical loss, in that she will never be there to walk in during the most painful, beautiful, and important moments of my life, but also the loss that comes from not knowing who my mother was as a whole person.  Rachel didn’t really know her mother’s story.  I didn’t know my mother’s either.

While I was probably the person who was closest to my mother for the last 15 years of her life, I was a child, who was uninterested in who my mother was as a person, because, honestly, who cares who their parents are as people when they are trying to develop who they are as a person? Developmentally, that comes later. It comes when you go through those adult moments and want to know what it was like for your parents in that moment (particularly your same gender parent). It has come so many times in the last 23 years.  But my mom hasn’t been there to ask the questions that only she could answer.

So, this morning, I thought that the time has come to piece together who my mom was, as best I can.  I know it will be imperfect, but it will be better than having no memories.  This morning, I resolved to ask people who knew her to tell me their memories and stories of her, to help me to know who she was as a person, to help me to get a piece of myself back through getting some of her back, before it’s too late. I know it’s been almost a quarter of a century since she died, but I am hopeful.

For my brother’s 40th birthday, 10 years ago, I asked that people send me letters or stories for him and put together a book.  For my own 40th birthday, I am asking that people who knew my mom or who know people who knew my mom, Ming-mei (Lois) Chen Hsieh, to tell me their stories, to bring my mom home for my birthday.  To give my children a chance to know their grandmother who they will never get to meet in this life.  Please, even if they are small stories, and if you could pass this blog along if there are people I don’t know.  I’m easy to find on the internet and Facebook and happy to share my e-mail address if people message me.

I did not know the road to finding who I am would lead me here, or perhaps that it would lead me here so quickly, but this would be my greatest gift.

Sometimes you open yourself up, and you break.  And you reach out to community (some of whom you don’t even know) to help put you back together.  I know my mom made a difference in people’s lives.  I need those stories now more than ever.

Mommy and Me

My mom and me at my baptism

My mom is by far the most influential person in my development.

I say that she is the most influential person even though she died when I was 16, and I’ve now lived almost 2/3 of my life without her.

This morning, on my habitual morning scan of Facebook, I came across this New Yorker piece, “Crying in H-Mart” and immediately, I thought of my mom.  Like the author, I lost my mother before I felt I should have, and, like her, random things can still (23.5 years later) send me sobbing in public places (often movie theaters, actually, where at least I can hide my crying in the darkness of the venue).

However, I wished that I could relate more to the cultural connection that Michelle Zauner shared with her mother.  I rejected most of my Taiwanese heritage growing up, in a fruitful and futile attempt to become more “American” (which, at that time, I thought of as cultural assimilation). Recently, the loss of my aunt, my mother’s only sister, combined with my own desire to support my children in embracing their cultural heritages, have helped me to realize the importance of reconnecting with and reclaiming my cultural identity. I’m working towards knowing who I am and who my mother was before the generation that knew her passes on.  It’s hard for me, and painful.  I don’t really know the people who knew my mom well as a young person, and, as extroverted as I seem, I feel so culturally awkward among older Taiwanese Americans. I’m working on it, and working towards it, because I have little hope that people are going to come flooding me with stories about my mom, before I knew her, out of the blue.  I know I have to ask. I know they’re likely to share.  But, I’m working towards it.

After reading “Crying in H-Mart,” I went on my morning run.  On my run, I thought about my mom at my age.  I realized that my mom would have been just about my current age when I was born.  It is 40 days until my 40th birthday.  I came home and calculated our respective ages, and realized that when my mother was my age, I would have been 14 days old.

That realization hit me hard.  I think of how similar and how different our lives are.  At my age, my mother had a 2-week old infant and a 10.5 year old son.  Her marriage was moving towards dissolution.  She had a graduate degree in chemistry but had never finished her doctorate after postponing it when my brother was born.  She would soon make a trek across the country to move to a small, mostly White suburb of California, to stay with my aunt, uncle, cousin and grandmother, leaving the friends and life she had established in upstate New York, to start a new life, as a single mother, near her family.

After my mother and father divorced, my mom withdrew from many of the connections she had previously.  She had to focus on taking care of my brother and me, working multiple jobs, earning new certifications, doing the single mom hustle (i.e. doing it all without any thought or time for herself).  In the midst of all her work commitments (which included weekends), she still found time to take us to church each Sunday, to make grocery shopping a special adventure (I did not know that grocery shopping was an errand and not a treat until well into adulthood), to foster connection within the family and to ensure we were studying hard.

She did this so that I could have my life. At almost 40, with my own 3-year old, 12 year old (and 2 grown daughters), a solid marriage, a doctorate, and an academic job (where I still hustle, but more out of drive than necessity), I have some comfort in that I have much of the life she would have wanted for me.

But, I also, more than anything, wish that she was here with me.

And so I am aware, perhaps more than many (almost) 40 year olds, that I am on borrowed time, that I need to model self-care for my children, that I need to leave them signposts about who their mother is, that I need to guide them to know their heritage, that I want them to be proud of who they are, that my life matters, that today is a day to make a difference, that loving hard is the best gift, that loving hard endures long after we are no longer here.

And now, I am crying at my computer, in my home, rather than in an H-Mart grocery aisle (although I may treat myself to a grocery shopping adventure after all of this), but I am grateful also for my mom’s legacy, for what I do have of her. For how hard she loved and how much she gave, and how blessed I am to be her daughter and how blessed I am that I still have time to grow.

I love you, Mommy. And I miss you. Somedays more than others, but every day. Thank you. I see you better now. Thank you.

Finding my way home

A screenshot of my successful application submission for my second Bachelors degree

It has been a long time since I’ve been an undergraduate.  Over 18 years, to be exact.  I was a student (on and off) for 10 years of those 18, but the application process has really changed since the mid-90s when I last applied to be an undergraduate.

Today, after 2-hours fighting with the Cal State Apply system (and some help from a very nice staff member who was able to finally able to fix, or circumvent, a bug that was preventing me from updating my profile information, and thus submitting my application), I officially began what I hope will be a journey towards reclamation of my cultural heritage, through learning about Chinese language, history, culture and current Asian American experiences.

Over the last few years, but especially in the last several months, I’ve realized that the loss of my heritage languages (I consider both Mandarin and Taiwanese to be my heritage languages) has cost me so much. As I was sitting with my aunt in her final days, although she could still speak English with me, I struggled with not being able to communicate with her Mandarin speaking caretaker and saw the gratitude in her eyes when her doctors spoke Taiwanese and Mandarin with her.  I’ve been hesitant to go to Taiwan or China (despite my son learning Mandarin for the last 7 years) because of my shame at not being able to speak. I mean, if we’re keeping it 100% real, I’ve felt shame in local Chinese restaurants for not being able to speak.

But it’s not just about language.  When my mother passed away, many parts of me felt like they died as well. My mother was, in so many ways, my lifeline to my culture. Because she wanted what was best for me, she chose to promote my greater mainstream cultural assimilation.  It paid off in some ways.  I got into many great colleges, graduated from one of the best public universities in the nation (Go Bears!), pursued post-graduate work and am well respected professionally. I also speak perfect, accent-free (American) English and am neither housing nor food insecure. I own my home and have an amazing life partner and great children.  So, by all those measure, I guess I am successful.

But I have never been able to shake the feeling of not being good enough. I was a teenager when my mother passed away, at the height of teenage rebellion, having long rejected her attempts to teach me Mandarin at home. As a single mom who didn’t enjoy freeway driving and who didn’t have a lot of disposable income, the 35 miles and cost of Chinese school made it not realistic for us.  Besides, we only had weekends to spend together as a family, and Sundays, we went to church. Family and faith were important to my mom.  Culture was too, but I suppose she hoped I would figure it out in college.

I might have, if she hadn’t passed away so suddenly when I was 16.  Or at least, maybe I wouldn’t have run so far away from my ethnic and racial identity.  I don’t know how my life would have been different if my mom hadn’t died, but I know that it would have been different somehow.

I want my own children to know who they are, as Taiwanese Peruvian Americans.  I want them to have a strong sense of their multiple racial/ ethnic/ national identities, the strengths and struggles people with these (and other) identities have faced. I want them to see how they fit into the tapestry of American culture and the ways in which they will likely face and hopefully surmount, in coalition with others, the structural barriers set up for them because of who they are.

But I can’t do that if I don’t have that knowledge for myself.

So, at (almost) 40, as an (almost) tenured associate professor, I’m beginning on this journey, in the place I’m most comfortable…the classroom.

It hasn’t been easy. I’ve already had to fight with my internal monologues about how ridiculous I am for going back for a second bachelors degree at this point in my life (and career); convince my close friends that I’m not crazy for taking this on; deal with an automated application system that wouldn’t let me change my profile information so I could SUBMIT my application; stress about whether I actually have even met the gen ed requirement in oral communications (on paper) even though I’ve been an oral communications professional for over 15 years; waste money on sending more transcripts than I needed to because I didn’t realize how the transcripts were structured.  It’s been a journey.

But already, I’m learning compassion, for myself, but also for my students who have likely also gone through these struggles and many more. I am recognizing what privileges I have (academic, institutional, financial, citizenship) and in the midst of these humbling experiences (which I’m sure I’m just beginning), I am developing strength to advocate and kindness towards who I am becoming.

And I am excited that, although the path may have been long and winding, I am finding a way back home, to a (more) cohesive Asian American and Taiwanese American identity.