wait but why? (blog)

[Topics explored: bilingual; languages; Chinese; intentions; curiosity; benefit of the doubt; talking with strangers on airplanes; The Atlantic magazine]

Contemplating art (I know nearly nothing about art) at The Broad Museum, Los Angeles, USA

Why has it been so long since I posted to this website that I pay SiteGround to host and claim my domain name? And that is coming up for renewal next month? And therefore causing me some anxiety about my low post rate? (Yes, this is also a bald attempt to draw attention to my referral link here. A girl’s gotta get that bag, er, a few free months of hosting rather.)

Alright, I should take a deep breath. Just write and create for me, right?

This is also what I said to myself on one of the legs of my flight returning from Palm Springs. (The second part came later…that is, now, as I write.) Why?

Towards the end of the flight, an old white man in the middle seat next to me asked me, apropos of nothing, if my magazine was (in) Chinese.

It wasn’t. I had open on my lap the latest issue of The Atlantic, an American magazine that is definitely in English. I forgot which article in it I was reading at that moment, but it was definitely in English because I can’t read more intellectual, “fancy” material in Chinese. I am sad about this for reasons upon reasons, but I acknowledge while I’m fully bicultural in my social mores, language-wise I am clearly stronger in English–writing, speaking, and in this case, reading.

Of course, a few ways I could’ve reacted:

a) flipped a sh*t and asked him, “what is wrong with you? Can you not clearly see that this is in English? You think because my face is Asian that I can’t read English?”

This didn’t happen even though I am prone to sh*t-flipping because my rational brain said “he looks to be on the older side and therefore maybe has vision difficulties I mean god knows without corrective lenses I am blind as a bat.”

b) tried to smile and calmly explained that no, my magazine is in fact in English because I am not as fluent a reader of Chinese as I’d like to be

Ding ding ding. Well, maybe I spoiled and hinted at it above.

c) said nothing

This didn’t happen because I am educated and was level-headed enough to speak up for myself. This is also because this wasn’t one of those high-stakes, high-danger encounters that keep showing up in the news. Exhibit A, B, C, D – plug to the NextShark team for reporting, always. #StopAsianHateCrimes #StopHatingAsians (I know there’s a more popular hashtag out there, but I have mixed feelings about the mixed signals it can send.)

So I’ve given you the answer as to what actually transpired: b. The man responded by saying something along the lines of oh, got it! He couldn’t tell because of his age and being without glasses.

Ahh. “Haha, no worries! I do wish I could read something this dense in Chinese, but I grew up here so.” Shrug.

OK! He didn’t mean anything by it other than being curious and seeing (the wrong) things. OK!

Right?

Right.

Right?

Let it go. I’m getting off the flight soon. We were silent the whole flight. He probably just wanted to start some conversation. Not everyone is like you, you who is perfectly fine with not speaking with people for an entire day because they TIRE YOU OUT.

I am proud of the way I responded: it was factual, unbothered, and ultimately ended the interaction in a way desirable to both of us.

More importantly, I operated under the principle of staying open, open-minded, open-hearted. It is more of what we need in the world today. That’s about as much of a statement regarding world affairs that I feel qualified making.

But there is definitely a niggling thought in the back of my mind that goes, “Why the f*ck do we have to always be calm? Why can’t we lash out every once in a while because god knows we deserve to? Why do we, or rather other people, give so much benefit of the doubt to those who doubt, mock, or prod at us?”

Cue searching for my stress relief squishy toys.

So: who is the “we?” Why didn’t I say “I?” Short answer: Asian. (For the more enlightened, they’d maybe tack on American, Canadian, etc. But you and I both know that people see and think “Asian” first.) Longer answer: because my face is my face, I’ve learned that people tend to–incorrectly–not see us as individuals. This grates at me. And yet, there is a strength to being “grouped” per se. It’s how people think of voting blocs and customer groups, e.g., “XYZ-Americans will be the deciding voters in this election,” “the spending habits of ABC consumers are changing how retailers think about [RETAIL CONCEPT HERE].” In summary, thank you for trying to understand any of this.

And this is why I am back on here again. I spent a lot of time recuperating from my trip and digesting this particular interaction, trying to make sense of it. Putting fingers to the keyboard, with the ultimate intention of sharing my thoughts out into the ether of the internet, has helped me because I’m forced to put a form to the swirl in my head. Maybe it’ll help someone else think through tangles, too.

Maybe someone will say: I get you. I see you. I want to hear you.

And that is why I paid for another year of being able to say to my friends, “Sometimes I share my thoughts at iamjwang.com. No pressure though.”

batshitrich (poem)

Dear reader,

I let this short poem quickly flow out of me after wanting to find a different way to express my frustrations as an Asian-American in the time of the COVID-19 outbreak. A bit of my logic follows. Also, warning on some strong language in the poem; the title of this post should hint at that.

On a global level, we’re in unfamiliar territory as our previous normal ways of life and the systems we’ve built to support it are undergoing a reckoning. Since I’m not a policy expert, and journalism outlets such as NPR are covering these aspects better than I can, I won’t discuss that much further. (Check out these episodes from NPR’s The Indicator From Planet Money: “Essential Workers” and “Why We Didn’t Prepare For The Pandemic.“) I just ask that we all think about what the pandemic has brutally taught us about what we need to change and rethink. Vote with your votes and consumer dollars.

Although The Indicator hosts discussed why we as a world economy didn’t prepare for this pandemic, I can’t say that I personally haven’t prepared — at least mentally speaking. As soon as I heard about this virus first appearing in mainland China, I knew what the knock-on effects would be for me as an Asian-American. At best, wary glances whenever I go out in public in this time. At worst, well, unfortunately, I don’t think there is a limit to what people can do. When I go out for walks now, despite being in a community where Asian faces are commonly seen and (begrudgingly?) accepted, I see my light exercise hand-weights as more than just an exercise tool, I have to admit.

I’ll note that I am, in fact, also in some new territory personally since poetry is an art form I’ve been able to appreciate, in most cases (don’t @ me). However, writing it is something I last tried in high school…maybe. This has been a humbling growing experience. So thanks for bearing with the length of this letter (and a helpful postscript) compared to the poem itself. Chalk it up to my nerves. I’m not so confident a writer where I let my work stand on its own with no preamble right now, I have to admit.

Thank you,

J Wang

batshitrich

this all started with us eating bats
they snap
but well our food has always been weird
they sneer
of course, our food meaning the real stuff
not counting the supersized sodiumized sweetified deepfried deboned
stuff
they love
     but honestly I've been corrupted and sometimes that is just the right stuff
     isn't that just batshitrich?

this all makes me think of that factoid the Bei Jing
or was it Wu Zhen or Yang Zhou or wherever 
my mom or grandma god I miss her took me that one summer
-- anyway, that tour guide 
they explained 
that you see these bat motifs 
(my Chimerican brain immediately went to bat mobiles) 
in this architecture because 
they were good to have around because 
they sounded the same as
fortune fú and fú
so they are fortune

I never saw bats the same way after that tour wherever
and I swallowed that fact and kept it in my belly because 
I know now
this heritage is my fortune

this all made me think though
once
why did some of us have to go and eat bats
(I didn't and I'd never)
was it for the fortune because
seriously, can we stop believing that that's how this works?
no -- seriously, can they stop believing that that's how this works?
don't they want to save their fortunes?  
they made it worse for faces like mine
f 
f u!
shit
I'm no better than they are
     that's just

my mom and dad always said
     all the knowledge you learn goes into your stomach
     it'll feed you and you'll always have something to eat
this time, I let myself be fed what
they thought and said

this started
this started.
so there are those who really deserve some fu right now
yes, I mean fú 
yes, let fortune favor us all
as some of us favor fú 

P.S. Depending on your screen resolution, this poem may not reflect its original formatting. For a little more context, check out these links about how bats are seen in traditional Chinese culture: The Silent Language of Jade” in Honolulu Magazine and commentary on a Chinese tapestry by the Met Museum. And a short history of Chinese food in America and American Chinese food by Time magazine. I scrutinized as much as possible to ensure that these are reputable information sources. There’s a lot of batshit trashy content out there.

From Yang Zhou, China, I believe.