Story of my life

Der-shing Helmer
Nov 18, 2015 · 6 min read

When I was a little kid, it felt like my mom would snipe at me about everything. If my homework handwriting was sloppy, I was forced to erase and rewrite it from scratch. If I didn’t dump my trash I’d get yelled at. If I didn’t dump my trash “with a good attitude,” (ie, not trudging around like I was headed to the firing squad) I’d get yelled at. If I wasted time drawing I’d be told to go do something productive. Being the oldest child of an Asian mother meant I’d get the brunt of these criticisms the most of all three kids, but it also taught me to be more cunning.

One of my least favorite rituals was the glass of breakfast milk. I have never liked the taste of milk, and 1% sucks in particular. We would get a full glass of it every morning, and whatever I was “too slow” to finish would go into the fridge for me to drink that evening. I tried so very hard to be slow. Soaking it up with my napkin bit by bit. Watering nearby plants with milk. Due to lack of time or resources, my default workaround was simply to procrastinate on drinking it for several days in a row, until eventually it turned into an undrinkably sour and chunky mess. This would often lead to extreme shame sessions, replete with yelling and slamming cabinets. Do you think money grows on trees? Do you know how lucky you kids have it?

And we did. We had breakfast, we had dinner, we had desks to do our homework, we had a mom. My mother would often tell us stories of her youth in Taiwan that seemed too crazy to be believable. When she was in her single digits, she would have to steal and eat handfuls of raw rice or yams from her neighbors, or simply not eat for the day. Not because she grew up in a poor environment; on the contrary, she lived in one of the largest houses in the village because of her father’s high status in the military. But there was never enough food because her own mother had been severely schizophrenic for many years before she was born, driven mad by seeing her family slaughtered by Japanese soldiers back in her hometown in the northern mainland. My crazy grandmother was the sole caretaker of the household, barely able to feed herself, let alone go shopping and care for 5 young children. Her husband, my grandfather, was a very highly ranked general in the army, standing in photos next to Chiang Kai-Shek. While my Wai-Gong was doing his military duties, his five children were eking out a meager existence with a minimum of adult supervision. The few recipes I’ve learned to cook from my mother usually come with a qualifier: “this is very poor-people food.” Soup made of flour and water and salt. Steamed egg made with an egg or two and salt. Water rice. These are foods you don’t get in a restaurant (in the same way you don’t get a microwaved hot dog at a restaurant), but are also foods that my mother would have fantasized about eating as a young child. In the meantime, listening to these stories as a kid, I would spitefully fantasize about ways to dump my probiotic milkesque science experiment down the sink without anyone noticing.

In the same way that this food was poor-people food, I consider the stories I grew up with poor-people stories. My mother was not tucked into bed at night. As a child she nearly singlehandedly raised her baby brother and kept him from starving, from being crushed in the street or dead of neglect. Her violent and resentful father didn’t come to live at “home” with them until she was well into her teens. So she doesn’t have a lot of fairy tales in her head. But the stories she told me hit me hard. Years later they still choke and pummel me. There hasn’t been a year of my life that I haven’t stopped and thought “when my mother was this age, she had no shoes.” “When my mother was this age, she had lice.” “When my mother was this age, she was working two jobs.” “When my mother was this age, she had traveled to a country she had never been to before to marry a stranger.” “When my mother was this age, she was taking care of three children while my father threatened to walk out.” When my mother was the age I am now, I was in first grade. The stories keep coming.

I was a little taken aback a few months ago when I received an invitation to join a comics anthology being made about Asian fairytales. I realized suddenly that… I didn’t know any! I’ve read many, yes, but I didn’t actually grow up with traditional stories, and felt a little self-conscious about just pulling one out of a book without a connection to it. Then I got another email with more information, and a suggestion that possible contributors (who had been pre-selected, as far as I know, without any submission process) use a website filled with book pdfs to pull a random story from to illustrate. The stories should cover such and such continents, and such and such regions, and no overlap, and etc etc etc. The previous two books in the series, a “generic” one and one covering “Africa,” had already come out with an impressive roster of artists and stories, though the African version had very few (from what I could tell) African artists. Not being African, I decided to “stay in my lane.” But here was the Asian version, with a copy-paste template to fill culture into and profit from. I should note that the editors of the comic are not Asian, and only a handful of contributors are of Asian background. Why couldn’t this anthology have been strictly a submissions-based one, allowing for the many actual Asians (or Africans, for the previous project) of comics to tell their own stories, instead of soliciting art from hither and yon? Were offers to join based solely on contributor follower numbers to help promote a successful project? What is next… tales from South America? Indigenous peoples? fill in the box? Do projects like these promote cultural understanding, or reduce it to an easily digestible product? I don’t want to ask these questions about people whose work I enjoy, but how can I not, when the discussion about cultural appropriation has been so active lately? It has been in the back of my mind, bothering me for months.

My cultural identity is extremely complicated. My family history is torn into tiny pieces by war and atrocity, immigration, language barriers, mental illness and death and silence. I have multiple ethnic backgrounds, several cultural backgrounds, and for the most part have no idea how to define myself. Am I Asian? Am I Mexican? Am I white enough to be White? I don’t know. All I have are stories. And I have the luxury of circumstance to actually tell stories that I could not find when I looked for them, which might one day speak to people like me. I can’t believe that I get to do that. I can’t believe that I get to write an essay about my opinions on culture in my cozy apartment in the heart of Silicon Valley, when just a few generations ago my family was being raped and murdered, ripped apart and clawing their way to a better life. And there are other people, good people who I know and who I like, with their own stories and their own struggles, who feel like it is appropriate to use culture to pay the bills. Like it is something you can simply google and sell as a product, going through continents like checklists. Culture isn’t that. It’s not a veneer. It is not skin. It is meat, something that lives and bleeds.

There are so many stories out there. Maybe one day I’ll tell my kids about what a piece of shit I used to be, how eventually I figured out how to sneak sour milk in my mouth and carry it in to the bathroom to flush it down without anyone knowing. And I’ll tell them about how my mom used to eat raw rice out of the dirt to survive, and how I will never know what my grandmother did when she was growing up, but I wish with all my heart I could have heard one of her stories. And when you have a story that is new, well, you can write that up too, maybe draw a comic for it. But I’ll also tell my own kids to know when to stop. To respect where people come from, and not treat their stories like an accessory to be tried on and discarded. The cautionary lessons that we are in the position to teach are the ones that we’ve learned the hard way, and which makes each generation stronger and kinder than the last.

Der-shing Helmer

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