Feed your body, feed your soul

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http://www.wheninmanila.com/petition-seeks-to-ban-balut-in-filipino-restaurant-in-new-york/

My first year in college I casually read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals  and subsequently the famous Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. They bombarded me with enough rhetoric, hard statistics, and philosophy on the value of an animal’s life that I decided to declare myself a vegetarian to my Vietnamese family. They shrugged, thinking this was another one of my antics and forgot about it until dinner that night. I purposefully served myself a meatless portion while my brother rolled his eyes across the table at me and said, “What are you, a rabbit?” I enthusiastically engaged him in a full-blown argument while my aunt ate in quiet amusement.

I started to become really obnoxious about it. I made it the focus of my English 1A research paper, my Public Speaking class’s persuasive speech, and my Argumentation class’s debate brief in order to weave my new lifestyle into my formal studies. I made a show of turning my nose at meaty dishes at family functions and picking out beef, pork, and chicken from my plate.

One night I went a little too far and made a scene of creating a quivering mass of stacked pieces of pork that I picked out of one of my favorite eggplant tofu dishes at the dinner table. My aunt snapped at me, “Look, I’m not going to make completely separate dishes to accommodate you. I feel bad for the animals but family comes first. You’ll eat the food I make or eat nothing.”

I begrudgingly complied, eventually finding other worthwhile causes to get angry about that wouldn’t annoy my family as much.

These days I eat very little meat. I still fervently believe that eating meat is both economically and ecologically inefficient and contributes to the horrendous factory farming industry. I’ve lost a taste for red meat in general, and tend to choose the vegetarian option when available.

However, I will eat meat when it is served to me. While it’s a lucky coincidence that a lot of Vietnamese food happens to be vegan and/or vegetarian in nature, many dishes aren’t. I’ll still eat it because I decide to take part in my culture. As with most families, when we get together the festivities revolve around the food my aunts have painstakingly made. Unadorned hands pick fresh Thai basil, peel the shells off shrimp, shape fat lumps of rice noodles in colorful plastic baskets, and season the meat with countless spices I can’t pronounce.

My family literally gave up their lives and worked absurdly hard to give my generation a chance at a better life. As I’m maturing into a more self-aware and respectful perspective of my cultural identity, I am understanding just how ungrateful it would be for me to refuse food carefully and lovingly prepared by my family. I can’t quite hold a conversation in Vietnamese, but as my best friend says, “You make restaurant menus sound beautiful.” There is little to no defense for eating meat and supporting a very inherently flawed food industry. For me personally however, there is little to no defense for childishly refusing to take part in an integral part of my culture when I have so little other ties to it.

There has always been something very uncomfortable to me about the way a certain group of people enforce their eating habits on others. Veganism in particular obviously comes from a good place with good intentions, but again and again it has struck me as somehow elitist, classist, and ethnocentric. It’s the accusatory, usually white, finger shaming me for indulging in beef pho that makes me feel like I am home.

I was really saddened when I saw that the petition to ban balut from a NYC Filipino restaurant was trending because I have seen my family eat the delicacy before in times of joy and togetherness. While I always personally abstained from participating, I learned to respect how deeply ingrained the act of eating is with the act of loving in Vietnamese culture.

I love food. I am starting to really love cooking. For years I scoffed at how much time my aunts spent in the kitchen just to prepare a single night’s meal while I worked on what I called art. I observed them moving purposefully around a kitchen where golden pots simmered and bright green herbs changed hands as swiftly as in a relay race. They worked their magic as they clucked at me dumbly clutching my pen to tell me that there was no real “recipe” that they could give me, the steps all came naturally. I figured out that cooking is their art that they pour so much love into, and I am learning to do the same.

 

Her apparition passes through me

Motherless on Mother’s Day, it’s bittersweet to be on any form of social media. It’s hard to watch people on the street holding bouquets of flowers and line up in front of high-end restaurants.

I have something like love for a mother that doesn’t exist. I want to feel that warmth and comfort, the security in knowing someone will sacrifice anything to ensure my well-being and happiness.

I think about her when I felt the cold empty space when I sensed I was intruding on friends’ family functions. I think about her every time I receive kindness I don’t expect. I’ve thought about her whenever I feel compelled to clean up after others and no one notices. I think about her a lot when her words tumble out of his mouth. I think about her when I try to figure out how best to love others.

I think about her when I feel alone in ordinary moments:

a flip of a switch,

a voice at the door,

nearby footsteps,

a presence,

a creamy blanket,

a wiping motion,

morning rituals,

retrieving a glass of water,

letters organized neatly,

a purse,

a garage door,

a gentle touch on the shoulder,

quiet arms,

a doodle on my to-do lists,

words of forgiveness,

a dressing room,

freshly cut fruit.

I know what moms are supposed to be like, what they do, how it feels to be taken care of and loved unconditionally and treasured, to be comforted and looked out for, to be doted on, reprimanded “for your own good”. My mom’s mom gave up her life for her child. My mom wanted me to have a better life than she could provide. At least in my family, sacrifice runs in our blood.

A mundane domestic scene, yet somehow a poignant display of unconditional love.

They used to say I had beautiful hands

[CW: Blood mention, some graphic details about scars and wounds]

Of the few childhood photos I have access to and from what my relatives tell me, I was once a baby with beautiful lily-white skin. Summer after summer of romping around in the dirt under the hot California sun, however, significantly darkened my complexion into my adolescence. I started to get mistaken for different ethnicities. Being outside so much without supervision often triggered my hay allergies and my arms and legs broke out in ugly rashes. It didn’t help that my face was also riddled with scars from roughhousing with the neighborhood kids and getting into very physical fights with my brother. Never one to think ahead or have much patience, I would always pick at and peel off the scabs on my face and come home with dirty, bloody fingernails and a rebellious grin.

My mother, not amused and decidedly concerned about my prospects as a presentable human being, went straight for the traditional beauty products. She came home with one of the most expensive things you could buy in an Asian supermarket: edible bird’s nest. It’s a rare delicacy that is known for its medicinal properties.

A quick Google search says that a case of these can be priced to upwards of $100, which goes to show how desperately my family wanted me to have a perfect complexion. 8-year-old me wasn’t into it.

Around the same time I started my first onset of pubescent insecurities, my Vietnamese family started to bemoan my deteriorating beauty as well. Their moisturized hands poked and examined my face and limbs like they were assessing fine china and clucked, “You’re pretty enough to get by. Once you’re older you can pay for surgery for that face.” It was the first time I learned that my face was something that needed fixing.

I’ve always loved wearing light pastel colors, but my family discouraged me from doing so (“They make your face look dirty, dark, unclean”). As I got older and gained some curves from puberty I was teased by my family for indulging in eating more than what was considered a ladylike serving. I learned to hate my thighs and my cheeks, and eventually started to pick at those too. Eventually over the course of high school I outgrew this and was able to focus my energies elsewhere until just recently.

I’m 20 now and my eczema came back full force when I moved into my current apartment. My hands started to become scaly and irritated. What started out as minor bug bites devolved into nasty wounds because when I scratch a bad itch, I scratch until I bleed. Sometimes I’ll scratch even further into the raw flesh. The skin on the back of my legs was the worst. They were two huge open wounds and for weeks it hurt to walk or use the stairs. I felt self-conscious about exposing my legs for the first time in years.

My skin is the ugliest it’s been in a long time.

In the midst of my dermatological troubles I got my second tattoo a couple of weeks ago after months of working with an artist to create the design. It felt good. It helps me feel like I actually am in control of my impulses and have the power to choose what permanently stays on my skin.

me and my tattclose up

I went to a dermatologist on campus for a consultation and he said that I needed to be gentler with my skin. Cooler showers, shorter baths, soothing lotion, protective sunscreen, and, as always, hydration. It’s easy to forget that our bodies are vessels that need to be taken care of before they start to revolt against us. I asked him if there were products I could use to lighten the hyperpigmentation of my darkest-looking scars and he shrugged and said, “You can’t quite undo the damage, but you can stop the habit and prevent it from getting worse.” Strangely, this was good enough for me.

Once, a lifetime ago, I complained to my aunt about how insecure I felt about the countless gruesome dark marks that disfigured me. She pointed to her face and said, “Look, I have them too. These are all battle scars. Each one has a story.” My aunt was looking pointedly at my then torn-up knees from a particularly embarrassing scooter accident. “When people look at you they won’t just see another girl. They’re going to see a warrior, a survivor. That’s something, right?”

Where have you been?

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I am the type of person who hates explaining herself. I would much rather hide under the covers, look away, recede.

It was a muted summer, with a room with a view. It was getting drunk with friends for the very first time. It was relocating and standing up for myself. It was my head in his hands, listening to him tell me to be safe. Too bad I’m not so good at that.

People like my brother are troublemakers. People like me are trouble-seekers. Once I moved away from family for the final time I locked myself in crisis mode and now I can’t seem to get out. I pick fights and I push buttons. I kick up dirt and slam my palms against chain-link fences. When all you’ve ever known is the transience of stability, it’s hard to get comfortable.

It was a wringing of the hands and rapid thoughts, heart beating so fast at the danger I couldn’t see. I spent days on end blankly refreshing the browser again and again hoping I’d find connection. I sat very, very still in a city of commuters. Every morning I woke up to the sound of children playing and praying next door. Every night I begged for sleep so I wouldn’t be tempted to literally tear my skin off. I walked barefoot around the block asking the homeless where the hell I could buy some chocolate milk at 1am, glints from stray cats’ eyes and dusty neon signs lighting my way around the city. Keys failed. Pills failed. Dismissive comments from my therapist failed. Sex, anger, and intoxication were the only things that made me feel alive.

When I started to try to separate myself from the things that were making me feel detached and unreal, I started to become completely unhinged. I started to feel everything that I had numbed before. There was jealousy and loneliness and so much anger.

However, there was also effusive love and friendship and intimacy and everything else I had almost forgotten. There were soft amber lights and laughter. There were arms wrapped each other’s shoulders as we stumbled down the streets in a joyous haze. For the first time in months, everything I wanted to say started to pour out and, instead of repelling others, it drew my most treasured friends closer. I became an open wound: stinging, putrid, raw, exposed.

I am a walking healing scar. I have never felt ready, and I don’t know if I ever will. I can’t emphasize how scared I’ve been of change and of my ability to function. For a brief moment each day I come back to the apartment, however, I smell cooling pastries on the table and sunlight peeking through the blinds. I go into the room and smell skin on blankets and turn on the comforting fairy light draped over our bed and I remember that this home’s been worth it, he’s worth it, and I’m certainly worth everything that’s happened.

A smile

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What It Feels Like #3

The first instance I can remember was when I was walking home from school. I was just in 7th grade, when my body was just beginning to undergo all its strange changes. A large truck honked at me and I jumped, wheeling around to see if the driver was someone I knew and instead was met with ugly hands formed in a lewd gesture that I only understood years later.

Fast forward to when I have recently graduated high school. I was sitting on a bench outside work for an opening shift but my manager had yet come to open up the doors. A man was walking by when he spotted me.

He said, “Good morning. How are you?” I looked up and said, “Fine thank you”

“Why don’t you smile for me”

Without thinking I smiled on command. “That’s better. Beautiful.” He walked away. With a stupid, joyless smile still plastered on my face, I felt nauseated for reasons I couldn’t place.

It happened when I was asking my boyfriend for directions over the phone on a windy afternoon, my hair flying all over my face. I heard two brief honks as if to say “hey, you!” followed by the howling laughter shooting out the mouths at least two young men. I start to shout back “Fuck you” until I realize I’m still on the phone and silently give them the finger instead.

A reaction, a smile, attention.  It’s easy to give them what they want without even trying.

It’s hard to talk about these sorts of things with the males in my life. This is because, in their words, it’s largely invisible to them. For them it seems street harassment is almost mythical, something you only read about or see on television. It’s not like I can ask them for much anyway, as I can’t always be holding a man’s hand to ensure safety from harassment. I shouldn’t have to.

I could go at length about how my own family has reiterated that women are predestined to suffer at the expense of men, and how a woman’s primary goal in life is to exhibit grace under pressure. I know that if I were to ever bring this up to them they’d tell me to cover up, as if my existence is a sign that already says “Asking For Trouble”. There’s something profoundly twisted and wrong about the idea that it’s a woman’s responsibility to accept this and play the game.

I’m tired of inadvertently taking on the role of public plaything for male passersby. I’m tired of having to tug my shorts down and my shirts up so I can avoid leering glances on public transportation. I have to make myself small, I have to keep my eyes down, and I have to become nearly imperceptible so I might walk outside the house free from harassment. After spending upwards of a half hour getting ready in front of a mirror, I intentionally put on a wrinkled shirt or mess up my hair or smudge my makeup hoping the imperfections might deter strangers from taking interest in me. I thought that getting glasses and wearing them regularly would be an extra shield between myself and the outside world. Instead, at the bus stop again a man whistles at me like he would a dog. On my way to donate items to the nearest thrift shop a man whistles at me long and low from his car window, slowing down so he can see the reaction on my face I cannot hide before screeching off with an audible laugh.

Passively casting my eyes down is not enough now, though. Doing my best to refuse men the satisfaction of visibly upsetting me by ignoring their advances is not enough. Erasing my features, dimming my presence, folding into myself to take up less space is not enough.

I’m trying to do the opposite. Giving in to the social controls forced upon me by slimy men on the street is no longer for me. I’m not exactly busting out the low-cut shirts and lifting my head defiantly as men on the BART indulge themselves, but I am keeping my eyes forward. I know I don’t deserve to feel shame for being a girl and having a girl’s body. I know I’m entitled to my voice much more than these men are entitled to lob their unwanted attention at me.

No more stewing in resentment of city scum and the general patriarchy for me, though. Now I believe in something a little more powerful than that: self-love. I’m learning not to let the noise of harassment get to me and force me to diminish myself. Self-love says, I deserve to dress how I want and feel good about it without having to compromise for anything or anyone else. I think that is more dangerous to the patriarchy than shabby clothes and a deep frown could ever be. Men on the street don’t deserve my full smile, but I need to remember that I always do.

 

I feel itchy in my own skin

What it Feels Like #2

What it Feels Like #2

I like to be as transparent as possible when I’m on social media and have since let go of anything that may inhibit me from self-promoting my blog or asking candidly for help.

It never ceases to amaze me just how responsive people have been to my need and how encouraging people have been. I don’t consider myself a very good friend when physical distance is involved. In fact I find long-distance friendships very difficult to maintain, with few exceptions, if there’s little to no promise of meeting up in person in the near future. Still, people I have not seen since high school or literally in over 5 years are always the first ones to lend a supporting hand. I’m so grateful. It inspires me, really, to spread that amount of sheer kindness around.

My mother taught me to depend on kindness. My aunt taught me to be wary of kindness. While I understand now that they used kindness as a crutch or a red flag as a means of survival, I’ve found that exuding kindness is necessary for my own.

I’ve always strived to be self-reliant and have been infamously stubborn about demonstrating that ability to look after myself. At the same time I’ve also always held on to the idea that people are inherently good, and only relatively recently recognized that they will typically be responsive when asked for help. So far this ideology has taken me much farther than I could ever hoped.

Every so often I still feel selfish. Sometimes I’ll spend days on end fixating on my physical flaws and punishing my body until I realize that my worst flaws are most likely the ones I can’t see. Then I’ll work myself into a frenzy mass-messaging friends I haven’t heard from in months or years or lavish them with praise and encouragement I somehow cannot bring to give myself. It’s a strange tension that I’m working to even out.

When I still lived with my aunt sometimes I would be so engrossed with something, whether an assignment or a book, that I would work well past sundown. My room already was not well lit and it wouldn’t be until I heard her presence in the room and she tugged the pull chain of my nightstand lamp that I would realize it was nearly pitch-dark in the room.

I have so many people gently illuminating the space around me when I’m too preoccupied with busy nothings to know how long I’ve been sitting in the dark.

Tiny Stitches

 

 

weird copy

What it Feels Like #1

I treat writer’s block much like the way I treat depression: I don’t. I don’t discuss either very often because, I think, I have been conditioned throughout my life to believe that neither exists.

The past several weeks have been brutal. I took on too many ambitious obligations than I could handle in a summer and I became stuck. I couldn’t bring myself to perform the simplest tasks. I made elaborate to-do lists. I organized all the necessary tools I needed to do all my jobs efficiently. Somehow all my attempts to facilitate my own sudden lack of motivation proved futile. I outwitted my own preemptive measures to get myself on track. I felt I was letting the people who were depending on me down, and consequently I felt I was letting myself down.

I spent uncomfortably long moments staring blankly at my laptop screen, or laying still facedown on my bed, reading and rereading passages from my favorite books without comprehending the text. All food became unappetizing. I spent long walks aiming nowhere and ending up nowhere. Running on a treadmill didn’t feel any more productive or appealing than sitting on my bedroom floor trying to figure out what I even wanted.

I’ve written extensively about how significant writing is to me in order to recalibrate my system and find my center. This time, however, I couldn’t put anything down except mundane recordings of the day’s events or half-hearted, bland descriptions of how I was feeling. I was unable to make connections like I used to, and I showed no signs of feeling strongly about anything. I didn’t express astonishment or wonder. I didn’t express deep sorrow or spitting rage. It was as if everything I was feeling or experiencing was trapped within my shell of a body. They couldn’t come out.

I felt without a voice, and I felt scared.

I didn’t know how to manage the confusion and hurt and muted frustration I was feeling in a constructive manner. Any structure I had to my daily life fell apart and each day blended nauseatingly into the next. Without writing or any means of expression I started to lose track of what I even wanted out of life anymore. Waking up in the mornings became increasingly difficult because I couldn’t find reasons to get out of bed. Everything I did was based purely off my various whims and I became prone to binging as  well as long stretches of inactivity.  I knew that something needed to change or else I would succumb to complacency.

On one such whim I found myself at Michaels where I, without planning to, bought fabric, thread, and a few embroidery hoops to try something new. This was my first attempt:

lilycrop

Something about this clicked, and now I’m completely hooked.

I’ve always been one to gravitate toward detailed work with my hands. Embroidery requires a certain eye and a definite focus that I’ve been lacking these past several weeks. It takes its fair share of time and attention I haven’t been able to give anything else until now.

Lately I’ve been especially drawn to embroidering phrases and quotes, a new physical manifestation of my often repetitive thoughts. It reminds me a lot about what my 8th grade core teacher said about the significance of his requiring us to write in cursive. He said, cursive demands that you think in words and ideas rather than individual letters. You need to have the entire picture in mind before you can even think to out pen to paper. I haven’t stopped incorporating cursive into my writing ever since.

Embroidery is very similar. It takes a general plan and detailed structure before beginning or the final product will be messy and unpresentable. Spending upwards of 20 tiny stitches on a short word forces me to think long and hard about my work and what I’m trying to say or convey.

Thus, I’m beginning a joint writing-embroidery project of a series of themed embroideries with related pieces on what I got out of the process. The first series: What it Feels Like.