I feel my heart beating faster as my mind rummages through various childhood memories.
Just a minute ago, everyone at my team offsite was asked by the facilitator to share one childhood story that’s significant. As people went around the room, I tried hard to concentrate in the moment so I could listen to what others had to say. However, different scenes rotated past me, waiting to be picked, as if I were standing in front of a luggage carousel.
Even though I am a relatively new addition to this team and one of the few people of color, this group has made me feel at home. Our desks sit in close proximity to each other in a typical tech work space. We chit chat, sometimes about the weather, sometimes about our weekends. Yet, I understand the power of storytelling. I know that moments like these are valuable, and rare, because you can really learn about someone. In my line of work as an equal rights advocate in corporate America, intimate learnings can pull you significantly closer to the other person. If the moment’s used right, acquaintances can become friends; friends can become allies.
What should I share? What can I share? Most importantly, what do I want my coworkers to see about me?
Do I share that growing up, in typical immigrant fashion, my brother and I lived apart from my parents for many years? The main method of communication with my parents was through pages of fax that we would exchange. Despite the demanding small business that my parents ran, my mother poured her heart into these faxes long past midnight because they were her way of communicating, to the best of her ability, that I am her daughter and that I am loved from far away.
Do I talk about when I was catcalled on the street as a young blossoming woman? When I told my parents about the incident, they (over)reacted by silently handing me an oversized brown vest and suggested breast reduction as a solution rather than teaching me that the men’s behavior was unacceptable. Even though years later I cofounded www.ThickDumplingSkin.com, an online community space that addresses body image issues and eating disorders within the Asian American community, I still feel ashamed about my own body today.
Do I dare revisit the memory of the freckled blonde boy, who, outside of our school library in front of other children, told me, “You stupid Chinese. Go back to where you came from.” And how I spent the rest of that night writing in my diary about how I didn’t understand. I remember vividly that I scribbled down, in between tears, “Why would this boy say what he had said to me when we are all the same human beings and we bleed the same kind of blood.”
The above all happened when I was barely nine years old.
I went back and forth between those memories, and more. My heart beat doesn’t slow one bit.
I raised my hand and volunteered myself next.
I had no idea what I was going to say.
When I opened my mouth, I started to tell the story of when I was cast as the butterfly in my kindergarten school play. I wanted to be the prettiest butterfly. My mother and aunt stayed up all night making me wings. My pair of wings were made out of salvaged cardboard, wrapped in shiny silver foil, and outlined with red tinsel. I even had antennas made out of glittery twisties. My mother dressed me up in a pink dress with red tights the next morning. I definitely looked the part compared to my fellow “actor” who was supposed to be “grass” and only wore a lime paper crown for his costume. My performance was a proud moment captured on a photograph that I cherish.
I talked about learning in college that, while I attributed my wings, both literally and metaphorically, to my mother, my distanced father actually played a significant role that I never knew. While I was deep asleep, he was the one who found the cardboard, trimmed it, and made the wings along with my mom and my aunt. Realizing my father’s invisibility helped me to love him more.
The story garnered some sweet sighs. But I immediately regretted the moment that I had wasted.
In a moment of panic, I chose to share a story so generic that it told others in the room, “Hey look, I’m just like you! I have parents who adore me and I adore them. My childhood was normal.”
I couldn’t get that moment out of my mind for many days. It made me think about the frequency of choosing what identity we wear in front of others, as immigrants, as women, and as people of color. Do I share with people my commonalities with them, despite the differences in my physical appearance? Or do I share a piece of my world, in hopes that the risk will further define my humanity and bring me closer to those who I subconsciously seek acceptance?
In that moment, I failed. I chose the safe option. I chose to make others feel comfortable over my own authenticity.
In this last year, I have felt more powerless than ever when coming across yet another death of a young black/brown girl or boy at the hands of law enforcement. These stories fuck with me because they always end with the precise entity that’s supposed to protect and watch over us.
What can I do? What can we do?
In my failure to be true, my contribution is this:
Until we, as immigrants, as women, and as people of color, choose to own our own narrative and be fearless in sharing them with boldness and courage, we will not be able to change the trajectory of this country that we call home.
Our body of experience is crucial to share. If we can bring those who are ignorant to the injustice of our society through our stories into our world — what it’s like to be us, every day — perhaps we will spend less time fighting each other and arguing over who’s “reality” is legit.
As immigrants, as women, and as people of color, we have to stop hiding, blending in, and thinking that if we were just quiet, we wouldn’t be noticed.
So I write this, in hopes that today, tomorrow, and the next day, I will choose to be vulnerable. You will choose to be vulnerable. In vulnerability, there’s power. In sharing our stories, we are empowered.
So let’s go there. Let’s start there.
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