Monday, December 3, 2012

Taming the Tiger: My Return to Identity Politics

My last post was about patience. This one is about anger,which is, in a lot of ways, the opposite of patience. If you look at the two "sides" of the Civil Rights Movement, for example (an incredibly reductive argument that often frustrates me), one side was about patience and passive resistance, and the other was about anger and aggression.

Civil disobedience follows the traditions of Christianity and some Asian religions that teach suffering (passion, a word that has the same Latin root as patience) and abnegation as the means to social change. Gandhi's ethos was selflessness and sacrifice. King was probably less selfless than he wanted people to believe, but he, too, took suffering--in this case, the suffering of Jesus--as an instruction on how to endure and how to make progress happen. Others involved in the black freedom struggle--Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, for example--disagreed with King's program of passion and compassion. They wanted black people to express their anger at centuries of injustice. (These philosophical differences, always characterized as a "debate" even though that portrayal lacks nuance, goes back to W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington at the turn of the century, to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass before the Civil War.)

So, anger. Frustration. Hate. These, Yoda tells us, belong to "the dark side." Christian and Jedi theology both teach us that patience and quiet suffering are better than aggression and vocal disagreement. And they paint these things in black and white, just as I have done here. But, as usual, things are a lot more complex than that.

Tiger or Dragon? Are those my choices?

In America, there are two common stereotypes of Asian women. One is what I would call a Madame Butterfly type--demure, quiet, self-effacing. The other I will name after Amy Chua: the tiger. Asian women can be sweet and ingratiating. They can also be fierce. A lot of people who buy into these stereotypes don't see a lot of middle. And it's hard, as an Asian woman, to live in a world where you have to fit into one of those two stereotypes.

When I was a kid, I watched my mom try to negotiate how she was perceived, and I felt frustrated on her behalf, and I sensed her anger. She is 4'-10". She, like many Asians, looks young by Western standards. And she is a doctor. I talked to her about this today (I was already beginning to compose this post when she called), and I asked her what it was like when she first started working in the U.S. She recalled a 60-year-old patient who was startled to encounter my mother as her doctor. "You look like a 12-year-old!" the patient said. My mom told me that her standard response to this remark--and she continued to get it, even into her 40s--was to make a joke: "I know. It's hard to believe, but I actually did go to medical school, and I am a doctor, and I'm here to help you today." What must it be like to have to explain to people that you really are qualified to do your job, day after day, year after year, for an entire career?

I know that the assumptions that people make about my parents' story have always made me angry. "How did your parents meet?" they say innocently, or "did your parents meet in the war?" No, I say. My mother is not Miss Saigon. She's A DOCTOR.

My mom was born and raised in Thailand, where the culture is Asian, but has its own unique national flavors. Thai people have some key cultural principles. One of them has to do with respect, and there are two Thai phrases that kind of sum this up for me. One of the phrases is greng jai.* My family figured out over Thanksgiving that greng jai is actually probably a loan word from Sanskrit, which would make it a cognate with the word "ingratiate," and that's how I usually translate it. Greng jai is a verb, but in my family we usually use it as an adjective--we talk about "being greng jai." As a cultural value, greng jai involves making other people feel comfortable, even at the expense of your own comfort. It involves treating others, especially elders, with the utmost respect. It involves avoiding conflicts. This is why the guidebooks call Thailand "the land of smiles." They take respect very, very seriously. So there's another phrase that has to do with what happens when people disrespect you: mon du tuk. To mon du tuk someone is to look down on them, to treat them with disrespect, to behave in a condescending way toward them. You are not supposed to mon du tuk anyone, ever. And when someone mon du tuks you, it's treated as supremely offensive. Being greng jai tends, in my observations of family and friends, to breed a lot of resentment, which is a form of anger.

The second value is called sanuk, and it means "fun." Thai people are fun-loving. They love to laugh, joke, sing karaoke, go on tour buses in large groups. They don't like doing tedious jobs without trying to make them more fun. They can sometimes be a little bit less ambitious than Japanese, Chinese, or Korean people, because ambition sometimes takes the fun out of things.

I learned all of these values, whether by nature or nurture, from my mom. My mom is fun. Her Thai pet name (everyone in Thailand has one) is "Toon," which is short for ka-toon, which means (surprise) cartoon. She often acts cartoonish, silly and goofy. This is charming and delightful, and she is great with kids for this reason. My niece and nephew and all of my cousins adore her because of this personality trait, which is both cultural and unique to her--and I'm like her. I like to laugh and joke, and I tend to give myself the giggles. My mom told me I laughed too much at my dissertation defense, and my dad told me that I shouldn't have said that strikes are fun. But they are fun! That's what my dissertation is all about: how pleasure can motivate people to participate in political action. I don't like to take myself too seriously. My husband says I sometimes act like a Muppet.

Thai women are caught between these different values in a big way. The Thai word for "lady" is khunnai. Khun is the Thai equivalent of donna in Italian or Spanish. You use it with someone's first name as an honorific. (My mom refers to the author of our favorite Thai cookbook, Cooking Thai Food in American Kitchens, as "Khun Malulee.") My mom and one of her best friends used to call each other khunnai as a joke when I was a kid. They meant it kind of sarcastically--they were basically calling each other "primadonna." The rules of greng jai require women to be extremely lady like: ingratiating, self-deprecating, in other words, Madame Butterfly types. (I once found this fascinating academic article about how Thailand's polarized gender norms developed through Victorian influence in the mid-19th century.) On the other hand, a lot of Thai women, my mom included, rebel against this norm. They are more like the Thai equivalent of American tomboys, which is what my mom was, and what I was growing up. (When I was about to get married, my mom went over to Thailand on one of her annual trips, and, to her great relief, her more girly friends helped her find an outfit for the wedding. She looked amazing, too.)

Between being greng jai, being small, and being ka-toon-ish, my mom has often wrestled with American norms for professionalism. I shouldn't necessarily say "wrestled," because she's been so successful, but I think it has come at a cost to her. I asked her if people used to treat her like a little girl when she was starting her career. And she told me the 12-year-old story. Then she explained to me that she knows that she has to be quite serious when she first meets patients, so that they will learn to trust her. She also consciously tries not to be intimidating. She told me: "The way I joke is usually self-deprecating, and makes other people feel good. Make yourself a bit less important than they are." I asked if it ever made her angry, and she said that it did. A lot. And she sure can be a tiger mom sometimes, let me tell you. I am self-deprecating too, sometimes to a fault. For example, I often tell people that my dissertation is really just a string of hilarious anecdotes about theater people, which I recognize undercuts my own work. (There are a lot of hilarious and weird anecdotes in my dissertation, though.)

So recently I've been having some of my own trouble with this conundrum. When I started teaching at 22, I, too, looked young. And now, at 33, very few people can guess my real age. My students often guess that I'm 20 (It's not that they think I'm precocious--they just don't know how old a college graduate is, and, for a lot of them, I am the same age as their parents, which is hard for them to believe.) I also get told that I "act young" a lot. This is more personality than maturity, though--I love to laugh, I cry easily, and our society values stoicism, and equates maturity (and masculinity) with stoicism. When people constantly treat you like you're young, you start to feel disrespected. And, at least for me, that disrespect has made me pretty angry.

So I am angry, but I also often look angry when I'm just trying to act serious. When I was 17, a friend of mine sent me a picture that she took of me. When I saw it, I thought, "wow, I look pissed." But I also remembered that, when she took it, I was just trying to look serious, to keep a "straight face." About a year ago, I learned about a real phenomenon known as "Asian poker face." The basic story is that a lot of Americans have trouble reading Asian people. So I hate to get all identity politics-ey, but sometimes when my students tell me that I "seem angry all the time," I think maybe they're just not used to looking at faces like mine.

I asked my mom about this, because she has a tendency to raise her voice when she gets passionate or serious, and so do I. She said, "If I don't yell, people don't listen to me because I'm a very small person and they don't take me seriously."

So you see, I grew up with a lot of mixed messages. Be nice. Be fierce. Be the best you can be. Don't brag. Don't apologize for being smart. Don't get cocky. Fight for what you believe in. Don't be a bitch. "You catch more flies with honey..." Don't say people are being sexist just because they disagree with you. And DON'T play the race card. It was hard to sort out. And it's still hard to find balance. On top of it all, I don't look Asian to everyone. As my mom reminded me today, Thai people tend to think I look like an American. Most other Americans tend to think I look Filipina, Hawaiian, or Mexican. Most Mexicans think I look Chinese (their word). I complained to my mom about being a member of--in a lot of ways--an older generation of biracial people, and she told me not to feel sorry for myself. Other people have had it worse. (I know that.) "Don't worry," she said. "Just tell people that in 40 years everyone is going to look like you."

Hillary Clinton, my mom's contemporary, is also my mom's hero. I think Hillary, rather than Bill, was the reason my mom decided to become a citizen in 1995. When Hillary ran against Obama, my mom and I argued a lot about whom we supported. My mom thought I was betraying feminism by supporting Obama. I thought Hillary was playing the race card too much. This is an old story in cultural studies--race and gender often fight for territory.

I tried to persuade my mom that the advice she was giving me was a little bit contradictory. I was complaining about being treated like a little girl, and she was telling me, in some ways, to act like a little girl (make jokes about yourself, smile), but also to act like an adult (don't show your emotions, don't giggle). We both have really loud, ha-ha-ha laughs. I think we both laugh like that not just when something is really funny, but also when we're uncomfortable. She understands American racism really well. She told me that I have to gain power before I can change things. So I guess it's time to tame the tiger.

*All of my Thai transliterations are phonetic and totally made up by me. Thai uses a different alphabet, and there are Roman transliteration rules, but since I don't read Thai, I can't spell in Thai.