When Words Weren’t There

A "Positive Office Referral" that reads: This student was sent to the Office for: Being a kind and compassionate friend. J is always the first person to ask, "Are you okay?" and encourage with "It's okay" You're awesome!

I have always found comfort in words.

When I was a young child, I had big feelings. (I see a lot of those big feelings mirrored in my very enthusiastic and lively 7 year old.) But big feelings don’t always have a place when a family is in survival mode and when the way to survive is to keep your head down, work hard, and try not to make mistakes.

I often felt lonely and out of place, growing up. I felt apart, partially a part of many worlds that those around me didn’t understand, but never in a place of full belonging. And though I was well-liked and well-loved, I very rarely felt seen.

So I began to write. Writing became the place where I could sort myself out. Writing became the place where I could be messy, where I could find my own voice. It became my most honest place, my most vulnerable place, and my most joyful place.

After my mother died, I wrote in a journal every day for a year. I still have those journals although I’ve never reread them. I keep them for when I’m ready to hold that girl who went through all the ups and downs of a first year of grief while also being 16 and a junior then senior in high school. I am glad that she had writing, that I had writing, to help through that time.

This last week, initially, after the Monterey Park shootings, the words were still there.  I even wrote about (but shared less) the waves of emotions, I was riding the day after. But as the week wore on, with the news of the Half Moon Bay shootings, with the release of more information and the video (which I will not watch) of Tyre Nichols’s brutal killing at the hands of police officers in Memphis, and closer to home, with my little one ending the week on lockdown at her school because of an armed hostage situation in the neighborhood, I found myself without words.

I tried to write during the week and no words were there.

I was able to compartmentalize to get through the week. I found it easier to talk to those I didn’t know, at a distance, than those who know me best. Friends texted and messaged to check in, and I didn’t know what to say other than facts and the truth that this is such a hard time.

All that was there was a profound sadness, searching to displace itself in self-critique at points because being mad at myself is easier than being with the deep sadness at a world on fire, multiple crises of dehumanization, and the fact that, at any moment, someone I love more than the world itself could be taken from me.

This morning at 4am, the words returned, so I am writing.

Writing feels strange. It feels transformed in its purpose.

It is, all at once, my most intimate and vulnerable form of communication, but it also requires some distance.

There was a rawness and an unhealed self in the journals I wrote as a child, a space of figuring oneself out.

Now, I write, still in an unfinished state, but also to be seen and heard without having to say all the words out loud.

I write to reassure community that eventually I will be okay, that we will be okay, if we continue to love on one another, be with one another’s humanity, hold ourselves accountable and forgive ourselves and others when we make mistakes and hurt one another.

Eventually, the words will return.

They may not be the same, but they will be there.

Eventually, we will return to ourselves. We will return to each other.

We may not be the same, but, if we engage authentically, we will find our people.

This coming Friday will mark 28 years since my (single) mother was killed in a car accident. It was the defining moment in my life. There was life before this moment and there has been life since this moment, with a chasm of unknown between them.

This Friday also will be a day of possibility, when I need to be and bring my fullest and most authentic self to be among many people who don’t know my story, when I will need words and presence.

I cannot know the future. I cannot stay in the past. I am learning to be in the present, as painful as it can be. I am learning to bring as much humility and humanity as I can into this world which sometimes feels like a dark void. I am learning to hold on to the light, to hold on to those who love me, to return to the messy.

“Are you okay?” my daughter is always the first to ask, says her teacher, and then she follows up with, “It’s okay.” (she says she actually says, “You’re going to be fine.”)

I’m okay, Mama. I’m hurting, but I’m okay. I’m going to be fine. Really. We’re going to be fine.


My little girl in a red qipao that belonged to my mother

Today, it has been hard to stay present.

We had planned to get together with my in-laws to make dumplings for the new year.

Then I woke up this morning to the news of the Monterey Park shootings and it felt like the world froze.

I protect myself from grief. I am good at surviving.

Today, I decided it would be the day for my little one to try on my mother’s qipao, one that I’ve had for years, that I wore at 19 (and through my 20s). It fit her perfectly. (It’s longer on her than it was on us, but otherwise perfect.) My whole heart. How I wish my mother was here to see her granddaughter in her dress, or how I wish she had seen me in it, for that matter.

I protect myself from grief. I am good at surviving.

We went to make dumplings, to my sister-in-law’s house. As I began chopping the scallions and ginger and garlic, to mix them with the ground meat, soy sauce and rice vinegar, the familiar smell of home, of new year, of myself, flooded my senses. I wrapped the dumplings with my kids and my sister-in-law. I made dipping sauce as my husband cooked the first pan. We savored the dumplings, then devoured them, until there were none left, until we were full. It was joyful.

That joy was resistance.

But it was also not all there was to the day.

I protect myself from grief. I am good at surviving.

On our way home, the wave came for me, sweeping me in its undertow, as I found out more about the shooter, more about people close to me who had people close to them with ties to the dance studio, as I began to breathe, as I attended the pain in my back that I woke up with this morning. The wave came as I sat with the dehumanization I’ve witnessed on social media today, since coming back from my hiatus, the lack of respect for grief, the inability to sit with what is, in our quest to have answers about why.

Of course the why matters, but our humanity matters more. Families are shattered, lives were lost; we are left again feeling unsafe. It is time to draw from our shared humanity to come together, to hold space for grief, to push past the numbing needed to survive, to allow for the heartbreak that is the first step towards healing.

I am present now. And I am so incredibly sad. I don’t want to simply survive and raise my children in a world where the best they can hope for is survival.

I know that my path is to continue to push for transformation, for a world that is better, where there is hope and where the humanity in us connects with the humanity in “them,” where we recognize that us and them are constructs that we can move beyond, if we truly want to move past the fear that constrains us.

But tonight, I am just so, so sad.

I am letting myself be just as I am, because not pushing down that grief, making space for it to be, is the first step towards a world where we are free to be.

And that is everything.

Today and every day.

Monterey Park

Growing up, as a Taiwanese American in a predominantly white Northern LA County suburb in the 1980s & 90s, outside of my family, Monterey Park WAS my connection to Asian American identity and the Asian diaspora in America.

My single mother was not a fan of freeway driving so we only went to Monterey Park a few times a year, but these times were important, formative memories in my childhood.

Monterey Park was where we would get Asian groceries (at Hong Kong Supermarket). It was where my maternal grandmother could see a doctor who understood her language and could explain her treatment to her. It was where we would come to visit my paternal grandmother, many years after my father himself was out of regular contact. It was where I felt my mother found a piece of herself, a piece of her homeland, a glimpse into the life she had before she chose a new life here in the US.

Monterey Park always represented a part of myself that I felt adjacent to. It was perhaps the one place where my mother felt more at home in this country than I did. I felt out of place, like I should have fit in, but I just wanted to get out. Like so much about my Asian American identity growing up, it was something I didn’t know how to embrace because I didn’t know how to embrace myself.

When we moved back to Southern California ten years ago, Monterey Park still became a (similar and different) sort of hub for us. I was coming towards my Asian American identity, after years of running away from it, but I still was unsure about what my place was in the Asian American community in Southern California. There was a lot to still sort through.

Monterey Park was where I would visit my aunt and later my uncle in the hospital before they passed, where we would come for dim sum and eat together. During the pandemic, we went on regular “foodie adventures” to get out of the house and pick up take-out in the greater Los Angeles area. Several times these adventures took us to Tokyo Fried Chicken, and as we drove through the streets of Monterey Park, down Atlantic and Garvey, I would remember driving through these streets when I was a child. I pointed out places that were still there, and those that had disappeared, a bit of my history for my children. I realized that coming back to this community, that I was never REALLY a part of, but that had been a part of me, was healing. It showed growth and hope and a path towards the embrace of all of who I am, all of who we are.

This morning, I woke up ready to celebrate the (Lunar) New Year, the Year of the Rabbit, a year of peace and prosperity. I had prepared red envelopes for my children and my sister. We have plans to make dumplings with my husband’s family. This is a year where I feel growth on the horizon.

I woke up.

Then, I saw a text from a concerned friend.

I checked Twitter.

I saw Monterey Park trending.

I knew before I knew in the way one always knows.

The details change, but the collective grief is the same, familiar feeling, in waves.

I always wonder how close this time, how many degrees of separation, how unsafe I will feel today, tomorrow, next week, next month, in this body, in this country, in this society.

I never have answers in the moment, and they have become less important as I remind myself to just be because all of these answers will be what they are, and I can only be with them if I allow myself the space to fully grieve.

To hold space for those lost, who were just out to celebrate the new year, to dance, to be in community, on one of the most important days of the year.

To hold space for the families of those lost, who will never be able to celebrate new year in the same way. Who will never be able to hold those they lost.

It is so much.

It is too much.

I know that joy is a form of resistance. I know that only in community can we find healing.

But this morning, there is only stillness, reverence, sadness, heaviness, anger, exhaustion, borne of love and proximity, and too much senseless loss and targeted violence.

Stillness, Happiness, Hope

Photo of a small square black card on a red background with "Do what Makes you Happy" written in white script

It is a new year.

For the first time in many years, in the first two weeks of this new year, I have been held, I have been hopeful, and I have been (relatively) still.

I get stuff done.

I am always running.

I am often running from myself, from my fears.

Sometimes, I am running from what my heart wants most, and then running headlong towards it because I don’t know how to move towards the best things in my life with intentionality that honors who I am, what I deserve, and the communities that care for me so deeply.

This year, I want to move differently.

I want to do less. I want to force myself less. I don’t want to settle for less than I deserve.

This year, I am beginning with a pause.

In pause, there is space.

In space, there is creativity. There is beauty. There is hope. There is anticipation.

I am leaning into these things.

I am still afraid.

But I am sourcing courage from those who love me most. I am learning trust. I am trying to be patient.

I am working to do what makes me happy. I am allowing myself to want and to feel with my whole heart.

It hurts sometimes.

But sometimes it hurts to heal.

I am working on being more honest with myself, with my heart, with my limits.

I am being held (accountable) by those that love me more than I know how to love myself, who stand for better for me when I am unable to stand for myself, who are pushing for what’s best even though, in the immediate, it’s not what’s easiest.

The answers are all around me. I just have to look. Today, my daughter bought a box of “Happy Cards.” She left the one at the top of this post on my desk, and when I went to pin it on my cork board, I was reminded of these things:

A picture of two cards side by side, one that says "Believe in Impossible Possibilities" (Eva Evergreen, Julie Abe) and another that says "Create the Life You've Always Wanted" held up by a magnet that says, "Let's Do This"

It is a new year. I am trying new things. I am letting go of things that I’ve held onto so tightly because I was scared that they would slip out of my grasp if I loosened my grip. I am trusting that what is for me will be mine, and what is not for me has still taught me so much. I am breathing in gratitude, even as I feel sometimes adrift is a sea of grief.

I will breathe.

I will be still.

I will move towards happiness.

I will keep hope.

Happiest of New Years to us all. May we all move towards creating the lives that are our heart’s greatest desires.