Dear People of Color, I’m Sorry

My previous post was one of my most popular to date, and the feedback I’ve received from people of color has convinced me that I should write more about race. I guess the first question is: why haven’t I written more about race? There was a time when I cared a lot more about the Asian American experience in white America, but my foray into thinking about race critically never got much deeper than that. For the past five years or so, my understanding of racism in this country has been completely stagnant. Why is that? Part of it is that I devoted almost all of my intellectual efforts to my writing, and I think it’s telling that I wrote about Asian Americans in all of my novels — I did want to be part of the Asian-American narrative. But I still didn’t think deeply about what racism meant to me or how the Asian American experience could be connected to the Black, Latinx, etc. one. I didn’t write about Black Lives Matter, I didn’t express outrage at the fact that white America voted Trump into power, I chose not to get involved in the people of color community at Yale.

To all my fellow people of color, I’m truly sorry. If you would allow me to explain myself, though, there is another reason for my lack of participation. I have been and still am self-racist. Well, that wouldn’t be the accurate term anymore, since there has been a movement in the academic and activist circles to redefine racism as prejudice plus power. When a person of color discriminates against a white person, that is racial prejudice, but it is only when a white person discriminates against a person of color that such discrimination becomes racism. So, since I’m not white, I cannot be racist against myself. Instead, what I have been is a participant in and a victim of white supremacy culture. Let me explain. White supremacy culture is the predominant culture in our society. Its traits are definitely not limited to white people or even to America, but those particular traits are used in our country to shut down minority voices and perpetuate the dominant status of white culture. All my life, I’ve grown up within white supremacy culture, and its effects have been lasting. When I was in high school, I wanted more than anything to have white friends. Unfortunately, white people saw me as a goody two shoes, as someone who spent all her free time studying and playing piano. They never saw me as an equal, and they would often look through me as if I didn’t exist. Well, not all white people. White girls. White guys, on the other hand, sought me out to talk to me, maybe because it gave them a thrill to lure a straight-edge girl into darkness, to see if they could crack my sexuality.

In high school, I cared about things like how many white people were in my Facebook pictures. The more the better. I highly doubt that white people have ever looked at their friends, noticed that they were all white, and wondered if something was wrong with them. I looked at Asian Americans who had mostly Asian friends with disdain. The few Asian Americans who had majority white friends, I looked at with awe and admiration. How had they managed to do it? How had they cracked the code? What did they have that I didn’t? Fortunately for me, in college I dated my first Asian American man, who patiently taught me to embrace my Asian side. And he was tall and handsome and charming, defying the American stereotype of the quiet, skinny, nerdy Asian guy. After dating him, I never saw Asian men the same way again. I developed a newfound attraction to and appreciation for Asian men, because they shared so much of my experience and my culture.

Despite that I started allowing myself to indulge in the Asian part of my culture, however, I was and still am very “self-racist”. I’ll admit, it continues to offend me to this day when someone comments on how Asian I am. I often claim proudly that I am interested in Asian culture the way white people are interested in it — I like the sightseeing and the food and the raw feeling of a developing country, but I’m not at all connected with Asian current events or pop culture or politics. I love visiting Asia, but only as a tourist, and I’m happy when Chinese people think I’m Korean because I fumbled so much asking for one coconut in Mandarin (I ended up asking for yige zhege). When I traveled in Asia with my dad, I let him do all the talking for me, even when I could easily have spoken up. I really struggle to speak to anyone except for my mother in Mandarin. That’s not something to be proud of at all! It’s shameful. If I really think about it, I am incredibly grateful that my mom forced me to speak Mandarin to her, and my Mandarin is good enough to communicate most things. If I really think about it, I’m really proud that my Mandarin was good enough that I translated an entire personal statement about my immigration client’s domestic abuse. If I really think about it, I’m really proud that I was able to overcome my fear of talking to Chinese people in Chinese when I was in China last, because my siblings depended on me.

I would be remiss to say that I have any real understanding of what it means to be a Chinese person. My experience of China has mainly been cheap massages in fancy massage parlors.

So why does a part of me still believe that being a white-washed Asian American is a good thing? Let me tell you why: white supremacy culture. Dear white people, racism isn’t just the KKK or your senile anti-semitic grandma or Donald Trump and his supporters. That kind of overt racism is certainly harmful and can lead to death. But subtle racism can have more long-term effects, simply because it’s easier to recognize and reject overt racism, but subtle racism unknowingly changes how a person of color sees herself. Dear white people, every time a person of color writes about her experience with white supremacy culture and you are offended and imply that she shouldn’t write like that, that is racism. Every time a person of color writes about racism and white privilege and you call her racist and deny having white privilege, that is racism. Every time you try to argue with a person about the definition of racism and white privilege, that is racism. Every time you try to flip the conversation and accuse people of color of making you uncomfortable, that is racism.

Every time a Jewish person makes a joke about eating Chinese food on Christmas, that is racism. Jewish people may think that Chinese restaurants are open for Christmas because, like them, Chinese people don’t celebrate Christmas. That’s not why. Poor, uneducated Asian Americans are among the most underprivileged groups in the United States. They do not benefit from the model minority myth. Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas because they’re open on every holiday, including the Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn Day, National Day. They’re open on every holiday because they need the income and now, because of white supremacy culture, they’re expected to be.  You are essentially making a joke about people who are a cut above slave laborers and victims of human trafficking. I know for a fact that some of them are literally mail order brides, because I’ve represented them in court. Instead of making jokes about Chinese food on Christmas, try avoiding Chinese food on Christmas. Go on another day. If you must go, instead of laughing about it, try expressing sympathy for the workers who, unlike you, have to work on Christmas.

Dear people of color, I’m sorry. I’ve been silent too long for fear of upsetting my very white community, for fear of uttering the two words “white people”. I’ve been ignorant too long of how white supremacy culture has affected me. I’ve been too slow to join my fellow people of color in the fight against oppression. But I promise to be better. I have to be better, because white America is so, so racist and it’s only getting worse. I have to be better, because my children will grow up surrounded by racism, and it’s highly likely that they will be racist themselves. Can biracial children be racist? I don’t know, but I don’t want to find out.

The Things You Have Not Done

One of my first trips to Florida. I will never understand how you can leave your kid. I’m going away for a week this summer, and I’m already freaking out about leaving Juno.

On my Facebook newsfeed recently, I saw a quote that went something like this: “You can’t destroy someone else and decide how hurt they get to be.” Like most things on Facebook, it’s a little overdramatic and it’s an overgeneralization. But the idea behind it is something that everyone should know — you can’t hurt someone else and then dictate how hurt they should be or how long it should take to get over that hurt. To me, this quote also means that no matter how many things you do to try to make up for it, it is up to the victim to decide when to forgive you and whether the offense is forgivable. Over the past week or so, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. In general, I like to think I’m a forgiving person, especially when it comes to family. As long as I see any possibility for improvement of our relationship in the future and that person is putting in as much effort as I am, I am willing to forgive past transgressions. But when the offenses are so great and the hurt so deep, and the person shows no sign of changing, what then?

This question is made more difficult by the fact that he and I come from such different cultural backgrounds. Which is right? If I asked a Chinese relative about this, they would tell me that I’m being ridiculous. He doesn’t beat you, he doesn’t show preferential treatment to his sons over his daughters, he visits you when he can, he brings you gifts, he paid for your education. What more can you ask for? Of course he left you when he and your mom got divorced. What could he have done, taken you with him? A child needs her mother. Of course he moved away to Florida and then to China in search of better career opportunities — that’s what a man does. Can you imagine your life if he hadn’t done that? Could you have attended the universities you did? Have you thought about how much better your life is because you don’t have student debt? Plus, many fathers who divorce and remarry don’t even stay in contact with their children from previous marriages. He went above and beyond. Now you owe him your gratitude and hospitality as long as he lives.

On the other hand, if you asked a random American off the street, they would probably disagree with my Chinese relative. You would be perfectly justified in never speaking to him again simply because he cheated on your mom and left you with her, they would say. Even if you were to forgive him for that, what about the fact that he married someone you despised and didn’t invite you to his wedding? What about the fact that while you lived in Ann Arbor, he visited you twice in your entire childhood? What about the fact that he didn’t come to your high school graduation? What about the fact that he openly dated his girlfriend (while he still had a wife) for more than five years before he admitted that she was his girlfriend and he has yet to formally introduce her to you? What about all the times he has lied to you? What about the fact that you’re doing him a huge favor raising the child he neglected and he questions whether it was the right choice because now that child is resentful of him? What about the fact that he comes into your home, leaves the toilet seat up wherever he goes, and complains that there are dishes in the sink and not enough food in the fridge? What about the fact that when you went to visit him as a child, there were cobwebs in the bathtub and the toilet was clogged and the house hadn’t been cleaned in a decade? What about the fact that when your high school boyfriend went to visit his house, you were the one who had to vacuum dead lizards and cockroaches out of the guest bedroom?

What about the fact that he congratulated you on your engagement and then turned around and said that he didn’t think your marriage would last? What about the fact that, two days before your wedding, he said he thought you were too unstable to be married? What about the fact that his excuse for not knowing anything about you is that he never lived in the same house as you? What about when he was getting a divorce and he made you tell your siblings about it? What about when he was hacking his then-wife’s computer and he made you create a spreadsheet of her properties? What about when he was too tired from staying up all night talking to the private investigator he hired to stalk his then-wife so he threw the car keys at you and told you to re-park his car? What about the fact that all he’s ever said about your blog is that he wishes you wouldn’t air the family’s dirty laundry? What about the fact that every time you try to tell him about your work he says that artificial intelligence will replace your job in a few years? What about the fact that he cannot remember anything you tell him because he is never listening to you? What about the fact that he never smiles or responds to anything you say to him? What about the fact that he can barely offer a grunt when you talk to him about the things most important to you but he will turn around and laugh and joke with a business partner?

This is one of the last times I saw Billy Bob smile like this — openly, vulnerably. Your kids don’t smile anymore. I wonder if you’ve noticed.

To my father, I would say: it’s not the things you have done, it’s the things you have not done. It’s not my fault that Billy Bob doesn’t want to talk to you anymore and hides in the next room to avoid sitting next to you. I never told her how to feel about you, and I almost never talk about how I feel about you. The only time I spoke negatively of you is when she asked me why I thought she needed therapy. And I was honest. Because she was neglected for years. I have simply encouraged her to work through her feelings about you in the safety of a therapist’s office. She has run away from those feelings for years. When I let you stay in my house, it is for her benefit. I invited you to her choir concert, to her golf lesson, to her therapy session, even though she did not want you there. Why would I do those things if I wanted to sabotage your relationship with her? Her anger and disgust towards you is hers alone. If I were her, I would hate you, but she is her own person and she forms her own opinions. Maybe you should think more about why she acts the way she does towards you instead of blaming that on me. She talks to us all day and all night but she doesn’t have more than two words for you. Trust me, I don’t have anything to do with that. As for me, I refuse to be another minion in your life that you take advantage of. Your ego is the size of a planet and until you stop blaming others for all your problems, you will never repair your relationships. I’ve been your therapist and life coach and nanny since I was ten. I quit.

Dreams

My dream is to look out my front porch and see something like this.

Today I want to write about something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently — what a career means to me. I feel super strange to say this, almost ashamed, like I’m betraying my parents, generations of feminists, and my own intellectual ability. Here is my confession: lately, I’ve been pondering if a career in the traditional sense is worth it to me. This is coming from someone who had the stereotypical Tiger Mother, was convinced that my job would mean everything to me, and did what I had to do to get accepted into Yale Law School. For many years, my ambition defined me. My self-worth was comprised of 4.0s, academic honors, and prestigious internships. When I arrived at Yale, I was such a stereotypical first-year that I look back and cringe at myself. I wanted to practice international human rights law and save the world, I wanted to clerk on the Supreme Court, I wanted to become a federal judge. Slowly, as I looked around and saw people who were further along those paths, I began to question why I wanted these things.

Someone once said in a TED talk, pretty sure it was Alain de Botton, that if two jobs are equal to you and you are having trouble deciding between them, you should choose the less prestigious option. Prestige is nothing but the opinions of other people, he says, and will not bring you happiness. When I look at things that way, the world suddenly makes a lot of sense. Yale Law School is full of people chasing prestige, because it is full of people who care very much what other people think about them. There is nothing wrong with that, and many of them will go on to do great things, but it’s just not me. While it would be a lie to say that I’ve never cared what other people think about me, I think that I simply care less than others, and I value my own happiness over prestige. Yes, it would feel great to be a world-renowned lawyer or judge. A part of me would enjoy being that, and I would probably be good at it. But at what expense? International law is a romantic concept, and you have to be passionate about international law itself to enjoy it. If you actually want to make a difference in people’s lives, being a diplomat or politician or even Peace Corps volunteer would be more effective. At one point in my life, I considered all of those options, but I know myself enough to know that I don’t want a career that will relocate me every few years or require working more than 40 hours a week.

I think millions of lawyers just collectively laughed at me. Fifty might be feasible, but 40? Forget it. And you know what? They’re probably right that I won’t find a job as an attorney working 40 hours a week and making reasonable money. The only one I know of is in Omaha, Nebraska, and I’m pretty hesitant to move my entire family there. That’s why I’m starting to accept and even embrace the possibility that I will never use my J.D. The only kind of legal job that I would want is to start my own practice, which I haven’t investigated enough to say for sure I could do it. So what could I do if I didn’t practice law? Apparently, lots of things! I just applied for a teaching position that would pay $100/hour, allow me to make my own hours, and has offices all around the world (including Ann Arbor!). I loved teaching in college, and if I get this job, it would be extremely hard to turn down. I could work part-time, take months off to travel the world, move back home to Ann Arbor, and still make a better living than I could as an attorney. And the best part? I would have enough time to write, take Juno to the dog park every day, train my horse, and create new recipes. Recently, I was looking for a horse to lease, and there are so many of them owned by people who don’t have enough time to ride them. I don’t want that to be me. What’s the point of owning an animal that costs more than $1000/month if you’re not going to ride it?

I have many dreams. I want to keep a hobby farm full of chicken and goats and rabbits. I’m not sure if I could stomach raising livestock for meat, but I like the idea of it — they can have great lives while alive and you can ensure they are treated humanely. I feel like that’s the most ethical thing I could do as a meat-eater and owner of an obligate carnivore who consumes two pounds of meat a day. (At this point, you might as well classify me as an obligate carnivore too, considering my dietary needs.) I want to have land, enough land for a farm and garden and stable. There is nothing more important to me than to give my animals the absolute best in their too-short captive lives. And, when the time comes, I want my kids to grow up next to nature, away from technology, letting their imaginations run wild. I want to teach them to ride, to ski, to track deer. I want their idea of a fun Sunday afternoon to be a competition to see who can lasso cattle on horseback. Basically, I want to raise a bunch of cowboys and cowgirls. Who also speak four languages and have lived in four different countries. Who are confident in their identity and intimately familiar with their Chinese, Taiwanese, and Jewish heritage.

I’ve never felt more at home than when I put on my cowboy hat.

My dreams are so, so much more important to me than a job. I want a job that will not only allow but support me to do all those things. I’m not picky about what the job actually entails, as long as it’s not doing evil and it challenges me and fulfills me. If that means I never use my J.D., so be it.

My Fairytale Story

First photo together. We both look like babies.

First photo together. We both look like babies.

There are eight days left until I’m no longer single, unattached, free to roam the world. Eight days until I will never be alone again, except by choice, until I get to tell everyone I know that I’m sure this is what I want. Short of either of us developing a brain tumor that changes our personalities dramatically, I’m not getting divorced. People may think that I’m naïve or delusional, but I’ve spent my entire life studying other people and trying to understand them. That comes with being a writer. I follow all kinds of blogs and all kinds of wives, from the former teen mom who got married to her childhood sweetheart after dating for 18 days to the young Mormon student who got married and had two kids before graduating college. I believe that, as long as you have a good understanding of who you are and who your spouse is, you can predict the success of your marriage. With a certain degree of compatibility, you can make a marriage work with anyone. Staying married becomes a choice. It’s been a while since I had real doubts about my relationship, which is an actual miracle, if you know me at all. Once I’m married, though, I won’t allow myself to even consider the alternative. This is what I’ve chosen.

Though I’ve struggled with commitment issues all my life, I hope I can still say that I take commitment extremely seriously. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always taken commitment so seriously that it scared me. I want to be able to live up to my word; I hate letting people down. In fact, I was so adamant that things wouldn’t work out between Dan and me before we started dating that I kept telling him not to date me. Well, it was a bit more subtle than that, but I’d had four out of five relationships end because I couldn’t love my ex back the way he loved me. When I first heard this song on the radio, I laughed so hard — it was the soundtrack to my life. The one ex that escaped the unfortunate fate of my other exes, I couldn’t get over because I was so afraid that I’d never be able to love anyone else the way I’d loved him. He was the only living proof that I could fall in love. So yes, I warned Dan that I was 99% sure I’d break up with him and I’d ruin him for other girls because I was that perfect combination of emotional and crazy that guys often mistook for true love.

A happier moment in Chongqing.

A happier moment in Chongqing.

Not only was I sure I’d break his heart, I was sure that he couldn’t handle being with me. I tried to warn him what loving me would entail. I told him that I could say I loved him, cook him dinner every night, knit fuzzy socks for his newborn nephew, and then wake up one day six months later and realize that I’d never been in love with him. I told him that any day, I could wake up and want to leave. I told him that, if I wasn’t actively deluded by my desire to be in love, I might never be able to articulate what he meant to me. That I might never be able to admit, even to myself, that I cared about him. I told him that when things got overwhelming for me, I would run. That he might have to go searching for me in the middle of the woods. I told him that loving me would require giving me every ounce of love, patience, and life he had, leaving him nothing for himself, and the rest of his life would gradually burn out. I really knew how to sell myself, huh? A lot of my prophesies came true. There was the time I asked him why he couldn’t be more like my ex. There was the time we flew across the world and were eating ramen noodles in a mall in Chongqing and I told him I didn’t know if I loved him enough to do the rest of the trip with him. There was the time I told him that I would rather die than continue long distance with him.

But a lot of my prophesies didn’t come true. I only came close to breaking up with him once, and I took it back after five minutes. I’ve run away from him, but never to somewhere he couldn’t find me. Though it’s still hard for me to tell him what he means to me, in the first few months of our relationship, I wrote him poetry, something I’ve never done for anyone else. The poems spoke of the way he made me feel, the way he opened me up and brought out the child inside me and touched me and erased all of the pain. They painted a future that I envisioned for us, one with creaky floors and a drippy sink and a dog running in the front door. The poems told him more about how I felt than I ever could. I’m sure that, all the times I looked him in the eye and told him I didn’t love him enough, those poems were what he held on to. There was a lot more, too, that I hadn’t imagined were possible before we started dating. A month into long distance, I asked him to move across the country to be with me. A few months after that, I invited him into my childhood home for our first Christmas together. Then, I drove out to Norwalk by myself one weekend and found a house for us.

Our one-year anniversary.

Our one-year anniversary.

Our story didn’t end there. We said goodbye to long distance after a grueling year. Not wanting to give ourselves a breather, we decided to get married and adopted a 14-year-old. We even have a puppy on the way. Tonight, we are going to our kid’s choir concert. I plan to take many photos and videos and embarrass her for the rest of her life. That’s good parenting, right? The biggest problems in our lives these days are making sure Billy Bob grows up a happy, healthy individual and feeding my stupid stomach, which has decided it no longer tolerates wheat or soy. This isn’t exactly the creaky house I imagined; it’s even better, and soon we’ll have our puppy to complete the picture.

In eight days, I will get up in front of my family and friends and tell them that I’ve found what I was looking for. In eight days, I will show them my home in the hope that they recognize how much I’ve changed in the past two years. In eight days, I will share my life with them in the hope that they can be proud of me, knowing how hard I’ve worked for this. This may not be everyone’s fairytale, but it is mine.

Teenagers

The stop sign says, "Stop telling me what to do."

Look carefully at the stop sign…that’s her slogan!

Being a parent is like having the hardest job in the world, with the most observant, demanding, and judgmental boss — your kid. Well, I should clarify…being the parent of a teenager. Sometimes, I feel like an actor on a stage and my every action, reaction, expression carries it with the implicit message: this is how you do things. The scariest part to me is not that your teenager might disagree with you, but that they might subconsciously internalize your message and carry it with them for a lifetime, withstanding even the most expensive therapy. Now that is frightening. Though less daunting, it’s not a walk in the park when they disagree with you, either. Every time Billy Bob says something, I’m always wondering what judgment underlies her comment. A few days ago, she mentioned that we eat out most nights. Immediately, I was like, “What? I cook three to four times a week. You’re delusional, child.” And then, as my mind raced, I thought, “Well, shit, maybe that’s not a lot. Is that not enough? Am I feeding her garbage?”

Teenagers resemble narcissists in a variety of ways, I’ve found. The obvious one is that they think the world revolves around them. The less obvious is that they are extremely good at drawing out your guilt. Their questions are the worst. Yesterday, after hauling my ass to and back from New Haven, cooking a four-course dinner, and clearing the table, I was on my way upstairs when Billy Bob stopped me. “Are you going to build the sofa table and bookshelf and set up the projector?” she asked. And, even though all I wanted was to retire to the study and play video games, I grabbed a hammer and headed for the basement. Yes, I felt guilty, but I didn’t do it just because I felt guilty about putting it off. I also did it because everything I do is an example to her. I did it because I have to teach her how to get things done around the house, even while working or studying full-time. I did it because setting up furniture while Billy Bob does her homework on our new couch is better family time than sitting in front of a computer screen.

The early stages of our basement project. It looks even better now!

The early stages of our basement project. It looks even better now!

Raising teenagers is a truly altruistic task. Everything you do for them is for their future benefit and for the benefit of those around them. I think it’s hilarious how teenagers think you give them chores or ask them to clean their rooms solely to antagonize them. Ha ha. It is way easier and less work for me to just clean Billy Bob’s room myself than to constantly nag her. But what happens when you clean up after your kid for 18 years? They turn into a lazy slob whose spouse divorces them for leaving dishes in the sink. What I worry about the most is making sure that Billy Bob grows up to be able to have intimate, healthy relationships with others. So many grown-ups, me included, struggle with that. And those problems stem from your relationship with your parents and their relationship with each other. Since Billy Bob joined us, I’ve felt the scrutiny on my relationship with Dan. From the simplest things like her asking why Dan drives most of the time (answer: I don’t like highways and the law school commute is enough driving for me) to more difficult things like figuring out what is the optimal amount of PDA, I’m always acutely aware that we are teaching her about romantic relationships with every interaction we have.

Recently, we’ve been watching Mad Men as a family. It’s not necessarily age-appropriate for a 14-year-old, but given that Billy Bob has already watched the whole thing and says it’s her favorite show, we wanted to take the opportunity to gauge what she thinks about the characters. She often asks me who my favorite characters are (so far: that kick-ass gay guy cut Peggy’s hair and Joan) Once, she asked if all men were bored of their wives. I chuckled at that one — I didn’t really think she believed that. We discuss themes like sex, marriage, family, and sexism, but only when it comes up naturally. Sometimes, I tell anecdotal stories from my past. I commented that Jane bothered me because she reminded me of my immature, pretentious 20-year-old self. Billy Bob asked if I slept with married men, and I laughed and said no. Thank God I never made that mistake, or else I’d have to lie to her now!

You might ask yourself why I signed up for this job, since I wasn’t the one who brought Billy Bob into this world. That’s an easy answer — parenting is hard, but it is honestly such a privilege. You get to shape and mold someone to be a happier, better person. You can make or break their future marriage. You can save or cost them years in therapy. Every time I look at the court order that grants me legal and physical custody of Billy Bob, I am struck with a sense of gravity. This is one of the most important things I will ever do. Plus, there’s the added perk of learning how to co-parent with Dan many years before we take on the ultimate taskmaster, the screaming newborn. How do I get out of that job?

I’m Getting Married Guys

Engagement on a BoatSo, I’m getting married. Like soon, 71 days soon. No, I didn’t get engaged recently…I’ve been engaged for a while and just haven’t wanted to tell everyone yet. Why, you ask? To answer that question, I’d have to answer a different question that someone asked me recently: why is a self-proclaimed commitment-phobe like you getting married? Huh. Good question.

To all my exes and acquaintances whose jaws just collectively dropped — trust me, I’m just as surprised. If you had told me a year ago that I’d be engaged now, I would’ve laughed in your face. My commitment issues have a long-seated history. When I was a teenager, I read a story about a woman who panicked before walking down the aisle. Her husband-to-be had to come talk to her. The only way he could get her to marry him was to ask her to commit to him for that day only. And then, the following day, she could commit to him for another 24 hours again. One day at a time. I thought to myself that if I ever got married, it would be something like that. For much of my early 20s, the thought of getting engaged, wearing a diamond ring, planning a wedding…was revolting. And here I am, 24 and getting hitched in two months. What happened? I’m neither religious (already living in sin, yo!) nor pregnant, so the answer must lie elsewhere.

My answer is the same one that people give when they break up with you, telling you that they just can’t commit, and then marry the next person they date: I met the right person. Dan and I were friends for a while before I realized I wanted to date him. Before I realized I wanted to date him, there was a moment when I realized he was different from any other guy I’d been with. I knew then that he liked me, but I was determined to nip that in the bud because I was sure our relationship would go down in flames. So I told him all about this other guy I liked, expecting that to hurt him and turn him off from pursuing me. It didn’t work — he had no visible reaction. I was intrigued. Because the one trait I’d always sought out in men was emotional sensitivity, the guys I dated were also bad at managing their emotions. Add to that mix my own emotional volatility, and you had relationships full of both fireworks and destruction that I’ve never experienced elsewhere. Dan wasn’t necessarily different because he was good at processing his emotions; he was different because I could throw whatever I felt at him, and he’d casually put it out like a fire.

Unflappable. That’s the word I used to describe him. In the early stages of our relationship, his unflappability drove me goddamned crazy. Do you even have emotions? I’d ask him. Do you not hurt when I hurt? Can’t you flap once in a while just to humor me? Alsdfkjldaksjf. Though his steadfastness exasperated me, it was good for our relationship, and it was good for me. Every time I burst into flames and taunted him to pour some gasoline on it, just a little bit, he wouldn’t. The result was that I, the Crazy Girl in previous relationships, became the Less Crazy Girl. And somewhere inside of me, I knew that he felt the same things that I did, perhaps not with the same intensity but with the same depth. Slowly, gradually, my wounds healed. Slowly, gradually, I began to trust him. And lastly, finally, I began to trust myself.

That was the last piece of the puzzle, trusting myself. I’ve never trusted myself in a relationship — I was always worried I’d cheat, or change my mind, or simply fall out of love. Doubts would plague me until I was physically ill. When I first started dating Dan, I was 99% sure it wouldn’t work out, and it’d be my fault. Over time, that percentage dropped, but in all honesty it was pretty high even a year ago. Things were going really well about six months in, but long distance did a number on us. Every other day, I was sure that I couldn’t do it. I thought it would kill me. Somehow, we made it out alive. And then, the weeks went by, and the doubts fell away. At some point, I just knew with 100% clarity that I would never break up with Dan. Concepts like the One, being together forever, true love, etc. are too nebulous for my mind to comprehend. But I know that Dan and I work now, I know that we will work in the future, I know that I can build the kind of life I want with him. I know that I want to create a family with him, full of kitties and horses and laughter. We have made our own family here in Connecticut. On Fridays, we load up the SUV and take our 14-year-old golfing. On Saturdays, we hop the train to New York or head upstate for hiking. On Sundays, we clean and grocery shop and run errands. Since we’re already a family, why not make it official on paper? December 27th, here we come.

There is one thing that makes all of this bittersweet. To my ex Phineas, I want you to know that I’ve been thinking about you a lot. I haven’t forgotten about you — moving on like this means that I carry so much survivor’s guilt. In my dreams, I’m asking for your blessing. It kills me that you might think all of this cheapens anything that happened between us. You changed my life forever, and I owe every happiness that I have now to you. It kills me to think that you might not be happy like I am now, and you won’t be for a long time. I wish there was some way I could share my happiness with you. You deserve it. I loved you as much as I’m capable of loving anyone, and I still have so much love for you. You will always be like family to me. Someday, I hope you will let me know how you’re doing. If I had more than one life to live, I would have spent one of them waiting for you.

I Love My Life, But…

My favorite earthly possessions.

My favorite earthly possessions.

I can’t shake the feeling that this is so not me. This morning, I woke up and picked up plastic wrap off the floor of the study and shredded tissues off the carpet in Billy Bob’s room. I opened the curtains in the study even though no one was there. I checked the dryer to see if the clothes were dry. Then, I came downstairs and turned on my espresso machine and ground some fresh beans. While waiting for the espresso machine, I refilled the Brita pitcher and started to clear some dishes from the dishwasher. In the midst of clearing, I discovered that Billy Bob had put all my pretty wooden Fiesta spatulas in it, and they had been damaged. I spent five minutes fuming about how she had done it knowing that we wouldn’t be happy, because we’d told her at least five times not to. I spent another five minutes collecting my thoughts before I texted her. What I really wanted to say was: “You knew not to do that! We told you not to! It’s our spatulas! Once you have your own spatulas do whatever you want with them, but these are ours! RESPECT OTHER PEOPLE’S PROPERTY.” What I actually said was, “Hey what did we tell you about putting the wood stuff in the dishwasher? Some of them look a little damaged, so please don’t do that again.” And she apologized, and I said that it was okay, have a nice lunch.

Parenting comes in steps, and it’s much more about achieving the result you want than teaching your kids Moral Lessons. Billy Bob is stubborn as hell and doesn’t take no for an answer. She doesn’t do things just because it’s the way it’s always been done; everything must have a reason. In this case, she didn’t trust us when we said bad things will happen if you put wooden spatulas in the dishwasher. But now, she’s seen for herself, and we will never have to remind her again. Her irreverence will take her far in life, and it’s my job to foster it, not punish it.

That aside, there are so many things wrong with the scene I painted above. I’m the person who moved out of my apartment in Ann Arbor a little more than a year ago and threw away all my kitchen utensils. They were old, cheap, and beaten up, and I didn’t want to haul them across the country. I barely fit all my belongings in my tiny Civic coupe anyway. There was only one problem — I had one spatula that was fairly new and expensive, and I’d purchased it at an artisan’s market in Taiwan. By the time I remembered it, I was already in New Haven, and it was off in a dumpster somewhere. I mourned it for a few days, and then I moved on. It was something I’d always prided myself in, not having earthly possessions. If a fire burned down my apartment, so be it. If a burglar stole all my stuff, whatever. I could move across the world with one suitcase, and I liked it that way. The only thing that was irreplaceable to me was my cat Blueberry. I don’t think I’ve ever been so panicked as the time my mom called me, saying they’d lost Blueberry.

My first trip to the DMV without my mom. Wait, did I mention we also bought a car?

My first trip to the DMV without my mom. Wait, did I mention we also bought a car?

Somehow, I went from that to slowly accumulating things of real and sentimental value. I shudder to think about what will happen when we move out of this house someday. We have a freaking piano! We’ll have to take the kitchen pendant light out of the ceiling, the entryway shelf out of the wall, the towel rack out of the bathroom. Besides all the furniture, there’s the lawnmower, the fire pit, the golf clubs. Worst of all, we haven’t even used any of those things yet. Our neighbor has been helpfully mowing our lawn, we haven’t had time to set up the fire pit, and I’ve never been golfing of my own volition in my life (Billy Bob joined the golf team and convinced me to get clubs). When will we ever have time, though? This weekend, Dan and I are flying to San Francisco to visit friends and attend the League of Legends World Championships. Next weekend, we’re going hiking to see some New England fall foliage. The weekend after that, we’re heading to Six Flags with one of Billy Bob’s friends.

When your life changes so completely in the span of a year, how are you supposed to recognize yourself? Why is it important to do everything the “right” way? When is it worth it to take care of your possessions and fret over them instead of living a carefree life? How seriously are you supposed to take it when your child tells you she has “arm cancer”?

I have so many questions and so few answers.

I’m a Sister

My siblings are my world. When I first found out my stepmother at the time was pregnant, I was filled with a flurry of emotions. Having been my father’s only child for nine years, I didn’t know what a sibling would be like for our relationship. They told me that I would have to get rid of the family cat, since she might hurt the baby. I remember feeling sad and anxious. From the moment my brother was born, though, it was easy to love him. I adored him, I marveled at everything he did, he couldn’t possibly disappoint me. One of the proudest moments of my life is when he learned how to say jie jie, sister in Mandarin. When my sister followed a year later, I was apprehensive again. I was the only girl in the family…how would her birth change that? Things actually didn’t change much once she was born. While my brother was a goofy, outgoing toddler, she was just a blob. She was always crying, and she didn’t seem to like anyone very much. It took me much longer to bond with her than with my brother. Even as she grew older, she wasn’t fun the way my brother was. While my brother and I threw coconuts at the house, trying to dislodge the boomerang that was stuck 20 feet high, my sister was crying a dozen times a day. I didn’t really know my sister until we both grew up a bit.

Back when we all looked like dorks.

Back when we all looked like dorks. We’re 14, 4, and 5.

Let’s call my sister Billy Bob. That’s my nickname for her. She calls me Bear. Billy Bob is my best friend, and she has been for years, even though she’s only 14. We understand each other in a way that I’ve yet to find in anyone else. Somehow, despite growing up in completely different families, we have the same morals, values, likes and dislikes. We both enjoy painting, knitting, and mocking hipster trends despite secretly liking them. She is a lot like me when I was 14 — she has her own ideas about how she wants to live her life, and she doesn’t listen to anybody. In other ways, she is different. She is more stubborn than me, which I didn’t think was possible. She is so stubborn that peer pressure doesn’t seem to have any effect on her, which I find admirable. Billy Bob wears what she wants, eats what she wants, listens to what she wants. The only way to get her to do anything at all is to convince her that it’s what she wants for herself. I love that about her, her independence.

She is also different in that she’s a child. When I was 14, I had retired from a competitive individual skating career only to get into a competitive synchronized skating career. I had helped raise my siblings and served as my father’s therapist. What I wanted most was to grow up, so that nobody could tell me what to do ever again. Billy Bob, on the other hand, wants to be a kid for as long as society will let her. Just a few years ago, she was still crawling into my lap. She’s had a tough transition into puberty. She doesn’t know what to make of this world that places so much emphasis on a girl’s looks. Why do I have to cover up my shoulders in school? she says to me. There is nothing sexual about my shoulders. She is naïvely and genuinely unaware that she could become someone else’s sex object. At 14, I wanted to become someone else’s sex object. I wanted to be wanted, and I didn’t care who it was that did the wanting. It’s a miracle that I came out of my teenage years and early 20s relatively unscathed.

Happy about her Christmas present.

Happy about her Christmas present.

Since Billy Bob became a teenager, I’ve seen changes in her. Some of them have scared me. I’ve seen that innocence fall away from her, and I’ve seen anger replace some of her naïveté. I’ve seen her struggle with society’s expectations, and I want nothing more than to be a role model for her. To show her that you can be a woman who likes to be sexy for herself, and nobody else. Being a role model for my siblings is something that I’ve always taken very seriously. Until recently, though, there was only so much I could do. I flew down to Florida every Christmas, and I tried to bring Christmas with me. I flew to China every summer, and I tried to entertain my siblings while my dad was at work. As their parents went through a messy divorce, I tried to explain to them what was going on and to shield them from it. Through the years, though, I often questioned my role in their lives and whether I was making a difference. I loved that every time I asked my brother about his favorite memories, he always picked a time when I was there. I know that he did it unknowingly, because that boy is dead honest.

Last month, I had the chance to make more of a difference than I ever have before. And I took it. I fought for it with everything that I had. I’ve never wanted anything so badly. Next week, I have a court date. It’s just a formality, since both parents have already signed the consent forms. As of next Friday, I will be my sister’s legal guardian. As of today, I’m already a full-time mom to a teenager. In the past week, I’ve taken my “daughter” to the dentist, cooked a dozen pescatarian dinners, helped her with her math homework. I’m doing her summer reading for Honors English with her, so we can discuss the novels together. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had. Last night, Billy Bob already had to remind me: “I’m not going to be here forever, you know?” I know. But four years is enough memories to last a lifetime.

Girls just want to have fun.

Girls just want to have fun.

Why I’m Not Having a Wedding

My dream wedding venue, despite that it has no trees and is only accessible by helicopter...

My dream wedding venue, despite that it has no trees and is only accessible by helicopter…

This isn’t about how I have something against weddings, or the institution of marriage. In fact, I very much plan on getting married. Recently, a close friend and her boyfriend have been at a crossroads — she wants to get married and he doesn’t. While giving them advice about their relationship, I’ve found myself really thinking about marriage and what it means. In the past, when I was young and idealistic and enjoyed writing essays on Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality, I liked to tell people that marriage was meaningless. It was a piece of paper, and it represented nothing. Instead, it was the bond between two people, choosing to be together, but not forced to be, that was truly beautiful. Over time, my view on marriage changed. As a law clerk at an immigration legal aid center, I saw how much marriage meant to the government. Just to apply for naturalization, we had to list all of the applicant’s prior spouses, including their birthdays and dates of marriage and immigration statuses. My clients would never remember, obviously. They would have to call up their ex that they hadn’t spoken to in years before they could apply. Not to mention, if you were married, your spouse could be automatically attached to every kind of application for immigration status. Often, our Latin American clients liked to refer to their long-time boyfriends as “mi esposo” or “mi marido”, and we would have to ask them to clarify: ¿están casados o no? Are you married? Though clearly not to them, to the government, there was a huge difference.

So I told my friend that marriage means something. Whether it is antiquated or not, it means something to the government and it means something to our society. The LGBTQ community didn’t fight so hard for marriage just for a piece of paper. The legal benefits of marriage are many, though almost all of them you can achieve through roundabout ways. Personally, I believe that the most important benefit of marriage is societal respect. The words boyfriend, fiancé, and husband have very different connotations. You can move across the country for your fiancée or your wife, but girlfriend? That sounds ill-fated. You can take time off work to care for your fiancé or husband, but your boyfriend? He should be able to take care of himself. Marriage legitimizes your union to the public; it’s something that almost everyone can respect.

Anyway, I’ve gone off on a long tangent. Back to weddings. Yes, when I was a kid, I always thought I would have a big, beautiful wedding. When I started dating my first boyfriend in high school, I fantasized about that wedding. I wanted a big tree, with lights strung up, and I was going to walk down the aisle to Book of Love by the Magnetic Fields. My first dance was going to be Leanne Rimes’ Unchained Melody. And then, because I have a morbid sense of humor, I wanted Creep by Radiohead. And You Know I’m No Good by Amy Winehouse. I’ve always found the saddest songs the most romantic. More recently, I’ve added details to my dream wedding, like riding down the aisle on horseback, against the backdrop of the Canada’s Torngat Mountains, while the first snow fell.

And now? I’ve realized that I don’t want any of it. What happened, you might ask? Moving in to my first house happened. Well, technically I haven’t moved in to it yet, but I’ve been virtually moving in from 1,000 miles away, which is infinitely more stressful. I want my first house to be perfect in every way; I want every corner to give me a little joy when I pass by. For the past few weeks, I’ve been stalking Amazon, Zulily, Craigslist, and estate auctions for the best deals for everything ranging from custom-made club chairs to steam mops. I learned what valances are and how many panels of curtains you need for different sized windows. I bought diffusers and essential oils and two bird feeders for Blueberry. Most of these things I bought were 30-50% off. The few pieces of furniture we picked up from the auction are more than 80% off their original retail prices. Dan is obsessed with his Italian leather recliner. I’ve told him that it’s gonna have to go in the basement, but for now he’s put it in the living room and has been enjoying it in all its glory. The fabric on our club chairs is softer than a baby’s bum. We have crepe makers and Korean stone bowls and a fire pit. How could I be anything but insanely happy?

The beginnings of our library/piano room. Don't worry -- those valances are coming off.

The beginnings of our library/piano room. Don’t worry — those valances are coming off.

Let me tell you why — I can’t get over the one thing I lost. I had my eye on a stunning distressed white solid wood table at the auction. Full retail price would be in the thousands. The final bid was $225. And I lost that motherfucker because I entered my credit card information wrong! Since then, I’ve been devastated. I really needed that table to come home with us, not only because it was the best deal we could have gotten, and I can’t find any table that I like better than that, but because holy crap I need this process to be over. That would have been by far the heaviest piece of furniture in our place, and it would have gone a long way towards making me feel like we’re almost done. Instead, there’s still an empty space in the dining room where that table should be. The only other tables I like as much as that one are custom-made and cost around $1000. Dan says we should just get one, but I don’t know if I can spend that kind of money. That’s what all of this comes down to, money. Well, not really money, but feeling like I don’t deserve to spend money on myself. I never let myself buy anything at close to full retail price, even when I could easily afford it. When I get something more than 50% off, I feel better, because technically I saved more than I spent, which means that I almost didn’t buy anything for myself.

In her book on anorexia, Peggy Claude-Pierre wrote about her own daughter’s experience with the disease. One of the most painful scenes to read was the one where she drove her daughter for hours and to a dozen grocery stores in search of the “perfect” banana. To her daughter, the perfect banana was the one that was bruised, black, nearly rotten. To her daughter, that was the only banana she was good enough to eat. This anecdote resonated with me. Though I’ve never withheld food from myself, I’ve withheld almost any kind of guilty pleasure. My version of that disgusting banana is 80% off furniture. Buying all of these things that I love hurts me, because ultimately it’s an act of love towards myself. I’m creating the home that I’ve always wanted and never had, full of everything that will make me happy. And I still don’t believe that I deserve it. I still don’t believe that I deserve to love myself in that way. So I’m coping by holding myself to the highest standard — buying the “perfect” things at the “perfect” price. When I fall short of that standard, I torture myself.

I don’t know if there’s anything more self-loving than throwing yourself a wedding. As far as I know, there are no 80% off wedding invitations, photographers, florists, venues. If I had to have a wedding, I would probably buy someone else’s wedding from them for a discount and give up my big tree, my Torngat Mountains, my snow. I would stress over every expense the way I am now for our house. I would blame myself for not being “perfect”. And then, what would be the point? I’d much rather take a helicopter to the Torngat Mountains with Dan, 420 miles away from the nearest road, and see if our love can survive a complete lack of civilization.

The Girl I Used to Be

This is the house I will call home in a few short months.

This is the house I will call home in a few short months.

WTF is adulthood? This question has been on my mind probably since I graduated college, but lately it’s become more and more apparent that I’m losing the struggle against adulthood. That sets off all kinds of alarms in my head. The reality is that, for most of my life, 22 years precisely, I was not an adult. The life skills that people tend to correlate with adulthood — paying bills on time, texting back your friends, washing your sheets, paying for parking — I lacked miserably as a teenager and college student. For years, I avoided getting a credit card for the sole reason that it made me nervous. Thanks to my hesitance, Dan now has a better credit score than me. That and he had 7 more years to accumulate good credit, so I’m pretty sure I win in the end. I’m still bad at texting back my friends. Washing sheets was not something my family did regularly growing up, and I still don’t know how often an “adult” is supposed to do that. Now, I draw the line when the sheets have been exposed to someone’s — human or cat — bodily fluids. In high school, I liked to arrive at school two minutes before class started, so I would park in the visitor’s lot and dash to the auditorium. Every once in a while, I would get ticketed, but it was worth the ten more minutes of sleep to me. Even now, I never pay meter parking on the street where my therapist’s office is because 1) I never have coins and 2) I’ve never gotten ticketed.

I guess what I’m really saying is that I’m irresponsible. But it’s more than irresponsibility. It’s hard for me to keep enough tissue, toilet paper, lotion, etc. around the apartment. This whole year, I’m proud to say that yesterday was the first time I completely ran out of tissue. This morning, I had to use a tampon as a cotton ball, which is what I typically use tissue for because purchasing cotton balls is way above my skill level. This year is also the first time I’ve started getting good about taking out the trash. Even then, it takes me several days to take out the trash. First, I have to notice that it’s getting full. Second, in a peak of mental strength, I gather up the drawstrings and set the bag outside my door. Third, on a day when I’m not rushing to class, I’ll take the trash down to the dumpster on my way out the apartment.

It might surprise you that my apartment is always clean. I can’t stand having tissue paper or dirty plates lying around. When the floors start getting dirty and I can feel lint sticking to my bare feet, I have to sweep it. I don’t mind having books, notebooks, shoes scattered around, but I contain them to various corners. The litter box gets cleaned every day because Blueberry deserves to poo in peace. This cleaning habit is also a recent development, though. The first time I even owned a mop was when I moved in to my own apartment after graduating. You don’t want to know how disgusting our apartment was my junior year when we didn’t clean the floors at all for a whole year. I’ll give you a hint: four girls, hair.

I dressed up as an adult so that the realtor would believe that I'm the kind of person who leases a house.

I dressed up as an adult so that the realtor would believe that I’m the kind of person who leases a house.

Given my history, other things might surprise you. The past few weeks, I’ve gotten myself a job, found an apartment in Omaha, applied for rental furniture, drove out to Norwalk to sign a lease on a house for next year, set up my own health insurance for the first time, found out what my credit score was, bought Blueberry an airline-approved carrier, figured out how to certify her as an emotional support animal, and hand-washed all my bras. These things are all good, things that I want, but I can’t help but feel that they’re not me. I can’t help but feel that I’m falling down a slippery slope of adulthood, and the next thing I know I’ll have a mortgage and a husband and commingled finances. You might ask what’s wrong with those things. There’s nothing wrong with them — they are what I want for myself, eventually. But I can’t help but feel that by getting everything I’ve ever wanted, I’m betraying the girl I was for 22 years. It’s hard to move on, because the truth is that I feel so sorry for her.

She was irresponsible because she’d never been taught differently, because she was experiencing the onset of mental illness, because she was in so much pain. Let me say something to you that I’ve never been able to say before: I love her. I love her because she never gave up, she never stopped trying, she made it possible for her to finally cease being. But my heart breaks for her, that she will never be able to experience the happiness that I will have. I almost don’t want to be happy, because I feel so guilty. It’s not fair that she had to suffer so much. I hate that I have to leave her behind now, to move onto what she wanted so badly for me. I’m afraid that she will be forgotten. I want her to know that I haven’t forgotten her, and I will never forget her. Now, as I walk slowly down the path of adulthood, I’m stopping to cry, to grieve her. Maybe when I get up again, then I will get around to being happy.

Goodbye, 18-year-old me.

Goodbye, 18-year-old me.