Work

Everyone has their cross to bear, and work seems to be mine. Does work, worrying-about-work-jobs-losing-getting-jobs occupy other people’s thoughts to the unnecessary degree that it does mine? In literature and movies, the big challenge is finding a life partner, cancer or Alzheimer’s; no one ever appears to worry-overmuch about jobs and work. In fact, most don’t appear to even need to actually show up at work and are always available for endless hours untangling relationships with friends, parents, boyfriends. Even people in some high-stress fields like medicine are concerned most with the travails of love. Is this just stupid-TV or is that how most people’s brains work – is 90% of most people’s brains devoted to the state of their relationships, with work merely the steady background hum of their brains?

My brain, in contrast, has solid neural pathways connecting work and anxiety, and anything (even something previously enjoyable) that acquires the trappings of work (pay for instance) immediately invokes anxiety. And if I look closely at the anxiety, it usually doesn’t even make any sense – why should I feel anxious about completing a paper when I know what needs to be done and how to do it? Why should I endlessly rerun conversations I’ve had with colleagues/bosses replaying what I should have said versus what I did say?

Is it possible to retrain ones brain so that a new pathway is built connecting work to, say excitement or calm? My romance books are full of people who throw themselves into work to avoid dealing with personal stuff: for these people work invokes calm rather than fear; it is an escape How did that happen for them?

On the few occasions when a serendipitous blend of God-prayer-meditation scraped off the layers of anxiety about work, I’ve discovered a well of excitement, ideas and creativity – so many things I want to make, do, write about, buried under all that anxiety.

For a hellish 2 years I was a housewife – this was not out of choice but because of some random crazy visa issue (is there any other kind?) – and with every day without some well-defined-busyness-making-task before me, I felt myself getting smaller. I’m skinny and brown and soft-spoken, and in groups, it is easy to forget I exist. High-status work is the only sure-fire way I’ve found to counteract this effect. It is a curious problem to have – having a job makes me anxious and miserable about my work, but not having one makes me disappear. And I remember another one like me – my neighbor, another H4-visa wife, a Pharmacist in India, a housewife in the U.S. – she would sleep for days on end, the house dark even mid-afternoon, but would tell me that she was happy being a housewife and has no beef with the H4-visa rules that kept her from a job, even as she disappeared before my eyes, since her memories of her job were anxiety-ridden.

I read recently about how American’s commitment to work and the centrality of work for their identity has risen along with the increase in layoffs, temporary work, unpaid work . And the stories in this piece had a familiar desperate-clinging quality to it, with people who’d been laid off multiple times avowing their death-do-us-apart commitment to their jobs – “I give 150% to my work,” others gave 200%, 300%…an arms race for what you would give for a job. This makes no sense and is as irrational as me putting my family through hoops to hold onto a job that I know will boot me out with only the slightest of pangs, and drumming into my son the importance of working hard. Has working hard ever really helped anyone? I know we all think it helps, but are there concrete examples of good stuff that happened because of hard work? When I think back on my life, all the good stuff that happened, happened because of some combination of serendipity, showing-up, and being-at-the-right-place, and which I sometimes later spun into a story of hard-work and ability.

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out of the box

A while back I wrote a post or two about embracing life as a “ze” or “they” or, you know, “person” instead of a “she.” One of my major fears about doing this has to do with relinquishing the privilege of legibility out and about in public, part of the package of privilege that comes with being cisgender.

This weekend I had a most amazing experience. I was at a big summer event, wearing shorts and a tank top, and I felt the most comfortable I may have ever felt with my appearance. There I was with short hair, leg hair visible in boyish shorts, armpit hair not only visible but much longer than I actually like to keep it, and more comfortable than usual. It was if all of a sudden I just stepped over a line and I was no longer trying to be a woman.

The step itself was minute. It was tiny. I’ve been to the same event with the same hairy legs and armpits lots of times. It’s part of the summer, and along with that comes my discomfort with my body and my choices not to conform. People sometimes stare and when they don’t I spend most of my time worrying that they will. I’m always afraid some strange man is going to start yelling derogatory things at me about my “gross” legs. I spend a lot of my time thinking about how I’ll respond and almost daring people to actually say something. Every time someone whispers around me I think it must be about me. And the truth is, up until now, I’ve also felt that my legs are kind of gross. But I don’t shave, cause I also think that shaving makes my legs look pre-pubescent, which is grosser. It’s been over a decade since the last time I shaved and still I don’t actually like the look of my hairy legs in a nice dress.

But this time, something was different. We walked up to stand in line at the entrance, and as I looked around at all the things women around me were wearing, I felt calm, detached, and most of all, apart. I didn’t feel like I was in a struggle with those women over how women should dress or look, trying to make room for myself. I just thought “wow, women do really weird things. I’m glad I don’t have to wear paint all over my face in the sweaty hot or wear shorts that are going to ride up on me every time I sit down.” Later in the day I caught a pre-teen girl staring at my legs (this is the group I actually do catch staring with some frequency). For the first time ever, I enacted my plan for dealing with staring. I stuck my tongue out at her. And I didn’t feel angry or embarrassed by her stare. Instead, I thought “Good. Maybe she’ll know there are way more possibilities than she sees on a daily basis as she grows up.”

The thing is, the only step I’ve really taken is opening myself up to the possibility of being seen by strangers and friends as genderqueer and writing about that here. I haven’t asked anyone not to call me she, or changed my name, or even really changed my appearance. But I think I have decided that I would be prouder of myself if people cease to identify me easily and consistently as a woman. And maybe that’s where the line is. Maybe with that decision in and of itself, I stepped over the line and out of the box marked woman.

“You are so different from other _______!”

has been one of the most common compliments I receive. The blank could be anything like women, Asians, Chinese, immigrants, nerds… I used to thrive on this compliment—of course I am not one of THOSE women who are shallow and stupid and soft and don’t know how to drive or THOSE Chinese who spend 70 (sex-less) hours a week in the lab while others go out and have fun. But you know what, I AM a Chinese woman. Back in China, I had never been singled out for being different from other Chinese (or more precisely, Han) people (well, I cannot think of a place where I am not singled out for being a SPECIAL, i.e. independent, intelligent, rational, strong…, woman—hurray!). Turns out only in a world where I am inferior does it matter whether I am unique. And my uniqueness only counts positively when I also conform to other not so unique expectations—I have to be pretty and thin and sexy to be a good bitch/weirdo, otherwise, I am just a bitch/weirdo (which I claimed in the first draft of this blog is fine by me but in reality, may make me quite uneasy and I doubt in that case the opening sentence of this blog would have contained the word “compliment”). (I can probably discuss my internal contradiction of transgressing certain [middle-class] social norms while conforming to others in another blog, so let’s focus on the point of being “different” in this one.)

Sociologically, this probably isn’t that surprising: we are all measured against standards set up to fit the dominant groups and hierarchy is most effectively maintained when members of disadvantaged groups internalize such standards and strive to single themselves out as exceptional individuals (and of course the power to define which exceptional individuals are the worthy ones still lies beyond their control). My awareness to this tendency is probably a result of years of training in questioning the status quo and numerous conversations with friends who are equally if not more critical. I write these “unsurprising” facts down because however much I theorize them, they continue to exist and disturb me every day. My struggle in this case lies in how I and other “unique” individuals who have gained a place in a system that is not designed for us maintain our places without losing ourselves to the game. Or is it just a fantasy to stay and not be co-opted and become one of the token Asian faces (or worse, one of those who trample on those underneath her to get up)? Is my concern over livelihood only a coward excuse for not giving up my privileges and embracing the real fight? How should I guide my students from disadvantaged backgrounds without either making them into parts of a monstrous machine that chews up people like them or leading them into a bloody battleground where they are doomed to lose?

Of flags, privilege, and family

A few days ago my brother changed his Facebook profile picture to the confederate flag. I am not sure what to do in the wake of this small, harmless, heinous, ugly action. I am torn between my identities as an antiracist activist, an antiracist educator, a sociologist, and a sister. Not to mention a friend. Am I a bad person if I continue to allow a person in my life who openly proclaims racist attitudes?

As you might imagine I am not exceptionally close to my brother. We are almost a decade apart in age and have never lived in the same house. We are different in lots of ways. Example: he never went to college, I am a college professor. We have other things in common, like we both talk unstoppably and are pretty loud about it. And we both hate cops, although my brother has spent some time in jail while I’ve never been. I love him because he is my brother but if blood ties were socially meaningless we would never even speak to each other.

So I could detach from my brother; it would not even be that hard. I could stop sending him cards or asking my dad about him and I could be curt and polite when I see him on visits to other family. We had that kind of relationship for several years and no one would really say anything if our relationship became that way again. I wonder if maybe that is my moral obligation. Maybe I am cheating, relying on my white privilege, when I leave my antiracist politics at the door in order to have a relationship with my brother. Relegating these deeply held beliefs to a set of political opinions like who I vote for that I can just set aside for a while in order to have a conversation about gardening with someone who will only disagree with me about anything else. I do not know if it would be so easy to relegate my antiracist beliefs if they were actually about me instead of just my friends, or if they were about my partner or my children. Why do I even want to have a conversation with someone who flies a confederate flag even though he knows it symbolizes the belief that some human beings are not, in fact, really human beings?

But I guess there’s the rub: family is not socially meaningless. It is, as Bodhi just reminded me, the place where I’m from. Family and home form a core part of me, I guess, even if it’s a part I’m ashamed of and sometimes repulsed by. I wonder if that’s why I never feel more impotent as a teacher, sociologist, and activist than with my family.

I am proud of the success I have engaging university students to think about white supremacy in 2015 and in their own lives, but I worry how I can convince anyone in the broader world of anything if I can’t even convince my own family, the people who supposedly love me best. My family are some of the few people I interact with who have truly divergent views from my own, not counting students who are directly subject to my authority. They are one of my few chances to preach outside the choir. When I can’t do it, when I know it’s useless, I feel like a complete and utter failure.

Worse, I know that any descendants of slaves who might look at my Facebook page and see that flag will know that I am not the kind of white person that can be counted on. I often feel proud of my relentless efforts to remain close to my family and that they are part of my integrity as a person. But I guess right now I stand (ambivalently) for family, but also for racism, and what kind of integrity is that?

Everyone has her place.

That’s true right? It all fits together. The blonde lady who smiles at everybody and tries to save the world, the public sociologists who get all the Facebook likes, the theorists who seem born knowing who invented which term, the demographers with all their fancy models. Everyone fits in perfectly. But none of them is me. Oh, and of course, there are the critical folks. They are the coolest and I so want to be one of them. Sometimes I almost feel as if I am one of them. But then that doesn’t seem quite right. How could my 23-years of brainwashing education make me capable of critical thinking? My country didn’t have an anti-colonialist history (according to everyone from the former colonial powers) and as a matter of fact, it’s becoming a neo-colonial power—there goes my ability to critique global inequality. Plus, I am too good at statistics—everyone knows you cannot be a real critical thinker if you understand numbers. So maybe I could fit in as a statistician (however much I would have hated that label is not important, having a label is)? I am an East Asian and everything. But then I am also a woman and apparently would never be good enough to assist in advanced stats class. So, I am a highly educated soon-to-be-professor who cannot find her place. Is that how you spell irony or hypocrisy?

Bitterness and snarky jokes aside, this does feel strange. I had to stop here last week when I was writing this post as I realized that I am not quite sure whether my confusion comes from my awkward position as an intellectual or my ambiguity about who I am as a person. Maybe it’s about how weirdly those two morph together. As a person, I am probably boringly normal, with my tiny cute smile decorating my feminine Asian face. It throws people off when I walk around with a “BITCH” tank top. My struggle to be taken seriously intellectually seems to be deeply connected to the assumption that I am not supposed to have a bitchy personality. So I suppose my confusion comes from how much who I am dictates what I can/should/do know and think—to me and to others. This is probably not necessarily a negative thing if I truly reject the idea of any knowledge being “objective”. Then why am I also angry and frustrated all the time for not being able to find myself a clear label if all these labels are just made up? Or am I more frustrated with the fact that nobody else seems to be struggling when they should? (Maybe they are just not telling me?) Why can we not just all be weird and without a place?

Then I became confused by all this confusion and ambiguity I have: Without my credentials as a future university professor or the reassurance that my closest friends (who also are very high in social and cultural capital) share at least some of these sentiments, would I still have all this nonsense in my head? Would I feel safe to put it in words? Maybe the space for a non-place and being/becoming what Unamerican calls “someone who is hyper-aware of her own thoughts” is what I should be thankful for and aware of as my privileges? Then who am I to judge who should or should not be comfortable with their labels?