Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Guilt, love, and genre fiction: What Asian Mothers, Christianity, and Academia have in common

My favorite teacher of all time was my high school senior year Calculus teacher, Alice Snodgrass.

Today one of my Facebook friends reminded me of one of her sayings, which I use in a paraphrased form all the time: "Don't be sorry, just be better."

So here's a question: When you are complicit (in the system), how do you live with the guilt? When you want to be part of the solution, but you find out that you are still part of the problem, what can you do about it, besides moving to a commune and quitting the game?

You start by recognizing that everyone is already complicit. Even if you are an atheist whose favorite founding father is Marx, you know that we are born that way.

This is what I got for my mom for Christmas:

Fifty Shades of Chicken: A Parody in a Cookbook

I think I realized with some final finality this summer--at age 32--that my mom isn't perfect. It happened when she asked me to read (after I finished my dissertation) Fifty Shades of Grey, so that we could talk about it. She was on her cell phone, and she was on her way to buy the second and third volumes at Sam's Club. Holy moly. Though I have uh pee-ach(e)-dee, I am not one to judge people's taste in reading, as my friends and family members know. But this news, to put it mildly, shocked my fucking--um, socks--off. MY MOM READ FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. My mom, who taught me how to be a feminist, who encouraged me to pretend I didn't have a body a novel that is glorified soft-core pornography! I am rarely stunned into silence, but...holy crap.

Now, trust when I say that this discovery didn't make me lose any respect for my mother whatsoever. She is still my first heroine. But when she told me that she not only loved this novel, but also could not put it down and needed to read the sequels as soon as possible, I was like, "wait, who are you and what did you do with my modest Thai mom who wants to talk about sex like she wants a hot poker in her ear?" She told me that she didn't like the sex parts. My mom is probably the only person who read Fifty Shades of Grey for the story. That's why she wanted me to read it. She wanted to hear what I thought. She was having my dad read it too, but she didn't trust his opinion as much on matters of....what?

In my humble opinion, my mom wanted us to talk to each other about this book as feminists. She wanted to know if I thought that the heroine was really a hero or not. Well, it may surprise you to learn that I do think she's a hero at the end of the first novel, because she leaves the fucker. I know she's going to go back, but that's why I stopped after the first one. I wasn't crazy about the book (even though I couldn't put it down). What I didn't like was how unrealistic it was. I mean, really. A girl from Portland saying things like "chap" and "have a chat"? Helicopter rides from Portland to Seattle in half an hour? Didn't P.L. James do her homework?

She did, of a sort. The novel kind of makes the argument that Tess of the d'Urbervilles has a happy ending.

Now, I don't know how the Fifty Shades trilogy ends, because, as I have already said, I didn't make it past the first one. I found one blogger who was writing chapter-by-chapter summaries-with-feminist-criticism of the second book, but she stopped because she got a job. The Sparknotes aren't out yet.

Aside: oh yeah, I am totally an advocate of using Sparknotes. I especially give them to English Language Learners to read alongside the actual book. I also try to discourage my honors students from using them. I tell them that many Sparknotes were written by good friends of mine, and that their interpretations are biased. (If you are reading, author, please tell me that a non-Yale student would have even noticed, let alone waxed poetical, about the allusions to Chaucer and T.S. Eliot at the beginning of Grendel, and I will give you $5 the next time I see you. Smile.) If my students copy the Sparknotes, I always catch them. I can't catch every kind of cheating--no teacher can--but it's usually pretty obvious, when an AP Literature student starts using words like "subjectivity," that they didn't come up with that themselves. My students used to accuse me of being prejudiced when I caught them plagiarizing, but then I did the somewhat cruel thing of reading one of the more egregious plagiarizers out loud, just to demonstrate how obvious it was. Fortunately, the guilty student was not in class that day, because everyone else died laughing.

My first year in grad school, I learned about a legendary game played by English PhDs called "Humiliation." Here's how it works: you take turns naming a canonical book that you have never read, trying to up the ante until someone "wins." So, if I were playing this game, I would first say that I've never read Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Then I would say another one that I find too embarrassing at the moment to confess. My ace in the hole used to be Native Son (I finally read it in order to write a seminar paper, which is often how we get those embarrassments out of the way). Now, my winner is that I haven't read all ten of August Wilson's cycle plays. I won't tell you which one(s?) I haven't read. You can try to guess.

But wait! What's so humiliating about this game anyway? There is no canon anymore, so I thought that there was no required reading. Whenever I tell high school English teachers that there is no required reading, they don't believe me. They're partly right--I mean, there is one author listed by name in the Common Core State Standards. I bet you can guess which one. But what were the canon wars for, if not to end this game of humiliation? What's fascinating is how the canons have changed--in private and affluent public high schools everyone reads Their Eyes Were Watching God. In urban and rural public high schools, everyone still reads The Scarlet Letter.* When these kids get to college, will they be able to humiliate each other by playing the dozens about what they have and haven't read?

If you ask me, my mom was both embarrassed and proud to have read this trilogy. I know because, at our family reunion in August, when I was reading it, we found out that my sister-in-law's reading group, all female professionals, also read this book, and many of them loved it. And my mom told all of my aunts to read it and told them how much she had enjoyed it, even though she knew better than to enjoy it. My mom, like me, likes to flaunt her guilty pleasures, because we are the first hipsters (kidding). My mom and I are both crazy about Tetris. She is unabashed in her love of Rachel Maddow. She owns about as many shoes as Imelda Marcos, whom she does not admire, unlike Michelle Rhee.** (Mom thinks Imelda is a Bad Woman, but she told me when I was a kid that she didn't have any shoes as a child, so she's making up for it now.) The worst part about becoming your mother is when you start buying shoes like crazy.

Many well-educated people hate hypocrisy and take umbrage as if it was their job, and as if they are not themselves hypocrites. But, as any teen will point out to you, all adults are hypocrites. Walt Whitman wasn't the first to say it, but he said it well: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes." If he wasn't so famous, I would call him an egotistical jerk. But poets have a better chance than politicians of contradicting themselves without getting in trouble. Better, but not great, especially since their reputations are forever.

Second aside: When I taught Whitman at the Quaker school, one of my students refused to read any more after he found out that Whitman was queer. "I can't identify with this," he said. He, like many homophobic boys, just wanted to make sure we all knew that he wasn't gay, in case we were wondering... Anyway, I did win over many of the other students with the poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," which is my favorite Whitman poem. Quite a few students at the school (about 10%) were there on scholarships that send "urban" students to boarding schools. So I taught many kids from Philadelphia proper, New Jersey, and New York, including Brooklyn and Queens. The ones from Brooklyn and Queens eventually taught me how to take the train to New York to visit my friends. But Whitman was early days in my time at Westtown. One of the Brooklyn students, a very talented baseball player who aspired to the MLB, helped me draw a picture of New York Harbor so that the students could see what Whitman was talking about. This was Back in the Day, 2002, so it wasn't as if I could just pull up a photo on my trusty computer and project it on the smartboard. Even at the prep school, we had only one smartboard. It was brand spankin' new, and it didn't work half the time. I learned very early on what many teachers know: always have a backup plan in case your technology craps out on you.

Anyway, it is now pretty well understood that Walt Whitman was not an egotistical jerk. He was, however, misunderstood in his time, and then a later poet tried to appropriate him to his "side" of things. (This is, by the way, my favorite Ginsburg poem. I'm just not such a big fan of long poems if they aren't by Homer or Milton--and since I didn't mention the Ramayana, that makes me a race traitor, I guess.) What Whitman knew is that everyone, not just every man, not just every American, contradicts herself. As I said in a previous post, I am guilty: I love to eat beef and bacon. I love coffee, wine, and beer. I buy most of my clothes at Target. Do I know I'm a guilty consumer, complicit in capitalism? Yes. Do I try to pretend I'm not guilty? Of course! I drive a Prius!

Further confessions: I don't only eat grass-fed organic beef, either. It doesn't taste as good as the fatty agri-business stuff. I loved, with an ironic eye for the sexist bits, all of the pomp at my graduation. And I enjoyed my wedding, which, though conducted by an Ethical Humanist, still bore some of the scars of patriarchy. And I wear a wedding band, even though I know I am not a slave to my husband, and I also have many gay friends who cannot legally marry in the United States, and I hate that. And I have had family members and students work at Target, but I certainly wouldn't want to work in a sweatshop in China. My grandparents left China for a reason. As my mom always says, life is better in the U.S. than anywhere else she has lived.

We all have to pick our battles. As I have written before, for a long time, feminism was a battle I decided to retreat from for awhile, whilst I fought others. When I was growing up, I was a pretty patriotic little girl for someone who experienced prejudice (the positive kind, model minority and all that) and hated injustice. It was because my grandfather loved presidential history, and because I was born and raised in the city that launched Lewis and Clark and has not one, but two museums named after Jefferson, and I believed, at the time, like the President always says, that my story wasn't possible anywhere else. But, of course, it was. We've all seen Miss Saigon, right? (Kidding! But my mom does like to tell people that my dad is a G.I. He's a (retired) gastroenterologist.) It wasn't until I grew up a little more and got a little wiser that I learned to hate America. Boy, did I feel stupid when I found out that Jefferson had owned slaves. I hated America, but I still got in a fight with my entire U.S. History class about how important it was to vote. (I'm still working on knowing when to keep my mouth shut.)

I didn't get to be a better activist until I got to the Quaker school. And then, in grad school, I became everybody's favorite armchair activist. That's a joke: I am in fact acquainted with many an activist and teachers "on the ground" who think themselves superior to us academics, we who sip coffee in the ivory tower and fritter away our days on our laptops, Tweeting about the world's problems instead of actually doing something. I like to point out that there were three men invited to speak to the psychologist Kenneth Clarke on the subject of "The Negro and the American Promise" on television in 1963, just after several of them had met with Robert Kennedy to discuss his response to the violence in Alabama and Mississippi. The three men were all in their late thirties, two of them had been born in the North and one in the South, and they represented three different "perspectives" on the contemporary debate. Have you guessed yet who they were? They were all known nationally by their first names: Martin, Malcolm, and...Jimmy. Did you guess? It's unfortunate that my hero James Baldwin, in an otherwise engrossing, powerful, signature performance, was so insistent that the treatment of African Americans was a form of castration. I lost a little bit of respect for him when I first saw that clip. (But, in his defense, he was aware that he only hated women subconsciously...) By the end of my first year in grad school, I knew how to say all the most politically correct things. But I still felt more like part of the problem than part of the solution. I also felt bad for not being a vegetarian. There's always something to feel bad about, isn't there?

People often ask me how I ended up marrying a Cubs fan. I felt bad for getting married, but I was in love, even though I know that's a social construction. And I was able to easily overlook the Cubs fandom because the Cubs are so pathetic. I've always had a thing for underdogs, you see. But I usually come back at these people by saying, "You think that's crazy? My mother-in-law is a pastor, and her mother loves the Tea Party!"

But do we all love each other? We sure do. And we respect each other's differences, too. And we are even  able to talk about politics civilly at the holiday dinner table. I get frustrated sometimes, and so do they. But they have taught me a lot, and I admire both my mother-in-law and my grandmother-in-law for their feminism, even though they're not both pro-choice. We're all guilty in one way or another. On Christmas afternoon I teased my grandma-in-law (I just call her Grandma, since she's the only one I've got) that Cornel West is always arguing that Jesus was the first Marxist. She doesn't like that. And I don't like some of her politics, either. And neither of us believes in saints and sinners (at least, not to my knowledge): she's a Methodist, and I'm an atheist. But let she who is without sin cast the first stone.

*"Everyone" is written here with some irony. Not everyone reads anything, and no one can read everything. I had to suffer my own version of humiliation when I discovered that, for literature written in English, the most important thing for me to read, besides Shakespeare, was the book, the one that I had never before felt any need to read at all. I had, in fact, been taught in my raisin' to find the Good Book highly suspect. But you can't help what influences people, and you can only partly help what influences you yourself: you can't choose your family, not even when you choose your partner. I think I would read James Baldwin very differently if I hadn't married into a Christian family and taught quite a few Pentecostals over the years.

**It should be understood that my mom loves Michelle Rhee, not that Rhee loves Imelda Marcos. I don't know Rhee well enough to know how she feels about Imelda Marcos, but I can guess....that she LOVES her. Marcos is, after all, both a shameless opportunist and a very well-dressed Asian. My mom loves Michelle Rhee because she is a successful Asian American woman who appears to care about children. I am always trying to correct my mom's misperception, but that is another post altogether.

No comments:

Post a Comment