I Don’t Know How

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At the mere age of 7, I remember helping my dad troubleshoot something on our prehistoric PC. You know, the kind where the screen was like a bulbous space helmet that took up over half of the width of the table it sat on. There was something wrong with installing a program and I remember clicking a few of buttons that popped up and ta-da! Resolved. All those months of playing free PC games, Tetris, and MS paint had paid off in precociously impresive computer skillz.

Don’t get me wrong. I am actually an inherently clumsy person. I’m not great at puzzles or fixing electronics. My approach is to just start doing stuff until I eventually click the right button. Better yet ask enough people until I find someone who knows how to fix it. And then if that doesn’t work, well, then nix it and get a new one.

The problem is, you can do that kind of thing for Macs and curtain rods, printers and bicycles, but there is no right button or right person who has the solution to system failures and societal brokenness.

And that’s frustrating.

I’m sitting in a living room of a Burmese family – father, mother, aunt, two kids and good friend they call Auntie. Auntie has two teenage boys and is struggling to find work. The expression on her face is sullen and worn, like someone who has been fighting to keep it together for many weeks and months. These Burmese are of the Karen ethnicity; in my observations they are one of the worst off refugees in the U.S. because of their lack of education, job skills, and cultural awareness from their previous situations (namely poor, agricultural villages in Burma and then even  poorer refugee camps in Thailand). What a shock it must be to come to Rhode Island, full of hope for a job, for a better life, and then find that it’s cold, busy, diverse, and so many are struggling for that same economic stability and integration.

And just an hour ago I was at the mall, looking at on-sale clothing and contemplating if I should buy a sweater or a pair of shoes. I ended up going with nothing. And just before I was thinking if I want to work on the East or West coast. And then I complain.  It’s really unfair isn’t it. I have these choices and opportunities to shop and choose because, although my parents were themselves like refugees who fled communist China, they had the unmistakable luxury of learning English and acquiring American-compatible education that boosted their upward mobility like so many other Eastern Asians you see in this country. My father and pretty much most of my Asian friends’ parents, earned jobs in the technology and engineering sector. White collar jobs that nerdy, diligent people like the Asians fit so perfectly.

But what about people like Auntie? My cop out answer would be – well we need Socialism! Ok, that’s not ever going to happen or be the silver bullet. In this capitalistic society that rewards skill, innovation and the bottom line, how is a low-skill, English deficient ethnic female ever going to make it? How do we do it?

I don’t know how.

Experienced folks in the refugee resettlement game say it’s just a reality that the first generation will take the biggest hit and that it’s certain their children will be better off. But where is the dignity in that for Auntie? Living day after day, scraping together welfare checks and public assistance with the uncertain hope that her two teenage boys might have it better for her. I think she deserves more. But I don’t know how to fix her problem.

It’s difficult for me to just stand by idling and hope the solution will manifest itself somewhere, somehow. While there isn’t a button for this, maybe the way to get closer to fixing the problem isn’t so different from how I fixed my dad’s computer program when I was 7 – just try everything (in as appropriate and sensitive fashion possible) until  a suitable solution pops up and to collaborate with others to get there.

Is it better to try and fail than to not try at all? Is it better to give a shot and miss the hoop than just stare at the ball? Is mediocrity better than barren hopelessness?

These are  questions that require a lot of faith and patience to answer.

they will not be buried together

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what is a person when she’s but a hollow shell,

eroded psyches, decaying limbs

sixteen years of dissipating dignity.

the nerves broke down, until there was nothing.

if there was love, we couldn’t see it.

if there was hope, just a glimmer in the eye. 

just an aggregate of cells functioning as they should. 

they will not be buried together,

holy matrimony was just a poetic sounding phrase.

dry, hollow bones an ocean apart

dry, hollow hearts once so full of despair.

but perhaps it already was that way long ago before they passed.

only distance in life and in death they knew. 

The war

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The toughest, most gruesome war is the one with yourself. Feelings like knives; dagger thoughts; poisonous self-loathing and doubt sickens the countenance until hope and joy are but a comedic punch line – a mirage in a desert of harsh realness that you are you and you can’t run from yourself.

Why do we get so angry? Why are there some days that feel like living is a chore and my mind, my heart, my body are infected by some dehydration and atrophy? Am I so stubborn and prideful that any suggestion at improvement, concern, or difference strikes a sour nerve of irritation and bitterness? Am I so petty that even a small challenge or inconvenience creates a storm of unabated ill-humor?

Why is it so hard for her to understand me? Aren’t mothers supposed to be intuitive? Patient and caring? Aren’t they supposed to want to ask questions to seek understanding and dialogue?

Why do we do things that we don’t want to do, that we know are wrong. Why do these cycles become familiar friends – you know, the one where you do something wrong, look back and regret it, promise to not do it again, and then find yourself back at the start? Do my feet fail so easily? Do my very own hands, my eyes, my mouth, my head really escape my control? My own hands. My own feet. Sometimes, I don’t even know them, that they are mine.

Where can I find respite from these battles. Who can I turn to? Will there ever be freedom? Can I surrender to stop the war?

to be continued in my prayers and thoughts.

California nostalgia

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It’s a gray summer morning,

The kind where the fog tightly hugs the yellowing mountains.

I open the backdoor and stick my head out, letting the

dry air fill my lungs- I can almost breathe in the fog.

I’m walking now on childhood trails,

Wearing the same shoes I’ve had for who knows how long.

Dry, grassy odors of wild fennel and brush

take me through time, to

juice boxes and Care Bear shirts.

He would hold my hand as we’d pick

which trail to tackle this time, his hair

blacker and fuller then, his stride

was strong and sure. He was

the tallest person in the world to me.

He still blasts Chopin and Rachmaninoff, this time

with devices that have an Apple on it.

I’m in the backseat of their sedan, how many times

have I spaced out into the passing scenery here?

Countless, I practically grew up back here.

The sheep, the grazing cows, on these pastured hills,

on the one hour drive to the city never get old.

It’s the quiet, sleepy nightfall of our valley,

The fog has long since burned away by a mellow, early summer sun.

All that’s left is a quiet chirping melody of a songbird family, or

a couple passing cars returning to their rest in their homes.

Chills of nostalgia, memories like

fireflies glowing before me, more of them than ever before,

and growing still.

I reach out my hand to grasp them,

and they reveal to me that I am different, yet the same.

I catch the one I’m looking for — my innocent, childlike wonder,

and take it with me to sleep.

California Dissonance

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I am from California. I say “hella” (or “hecka” when I am filtering myself), have friends who wear flip flops year round, and was trained since grade-school to be a master of earthquake safety.

There is so much to say about what California means to me. It is home, family, childhood, and growing up. It’s once upon a time when my sisters and I played hide and go seek and watched TV shows like Star Trek and Married With Children while we ate gummy bears.  It’s the dry summer heat that turns the green mountains golden and opening the windows at night to let a sweet, cool breeze come in.

It’s mom, dad, and me eating dinner together every night with the TV in the background, talking about what we’d make for lunch the next day. It’s the 25 minute drive to get to anywhere worth going from my suburban neighborhood and the 2 hours drive after a weekend home to college, through long, flat stretches of road and land, peppered with farm stands, strip malls, and mega suburbs. The dry air, the weather, legit asian food, asian people, the stars, the fruit.

In California, we are all so… Californian. We stuck around and it was rare to leave. In college, friends from Nevada were considered semi-exotic. The folks that went out of state to the Ivy Leagues were out of their minds. Going home during breaks meant hanging out with a sizeable number of friends who also lived in the area. It was a cushy web that guaranteed someone you knew would always be close.

I have California pride – spades of it, in fact. California is beautiful, diverse, and has everything a person could ever want, but the question of permanence makes me feel uneasy. How to describe this feeling?  It’s a bit of restlessness and boredom that blends in with sentiment, a heavy heart for family and close college friends, and fondness for the unique culture of my home state. I often feel California calling me home, yet there is no yearning to return. I want to call this feeling the “California Dissonance.”

2 years into my move, it’s still amazing to me that my spontaneous decision (literally, it only took me 5 minutes to decide) to move to Rhode Island has exploded into an unending fireworks of excitement, experiences and growth. I am so lucky to have been able to find a reminiscent milieu I had experienced in Davis– the pace of life, the community, the nearness of everyone and everything — over 3,000 miles away where I am now in the smallest state. I am kind of in love with this way of life I’m living now – the uncertainties, my ever-changing dreams and shifting imagination, the whimsy. For some people, that would drive them crazy. But for me? Whoooooosh! Everyday is an adventure!

As for the California Dissonance? I am just praying that when I do go home, my cup is full of joy and overflowing with gratitude. It’s so easy to get frustrated by the restlessness, the slowness, and the distance from everything. But it is in California where I get to spend precious time with my family and my best friends from college. I also get to eat all sorts of yummy things that branch out beyond my typical (but still tasty) fare of kale, bread, rice, and eggs.

California is my past, and it plays a small supporting role in my present. It may very well be my future, but whatever the case, it will always be a part of me. I know that for this undefined moment in time, I am wrapped up in and very much in love with where I am now. Like, hella for reals yo.

 

My Days with the Burmese Part 2: It sounds like Moose Paw

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“Okay I think this is the one,” I say to my friend J as I drive up to a house on Pennsylvania Street matching the number I have written down. The windows are all dark – not promising. We park, get out of the car, and go up to the door and knock. We wait. There’s no answer.

“That’s so weird. I could’ve sworn this is the address she gave us.”

What entailed was a wild goose chase for our friend Moo Say Paw for at least a couple months. Where could she be? The folks in the Burmese Community are very good at keeping track of one another, frequently making visits to each others houses, etc, so it was unusual that many of them didn’t know her address.

Moo Say Paw’s story is a bit complicated and includes details I and other Americans who are involved in the Burmese community don’t even quite grasp.  At the tender age of 19, she was already married to her husband (24 years of age) whom she met at a refugee camp in Thailand. When the young couple arrived to America, they stayed in a cramped apartment on the southside of town with her auntie, uncle, and their 4 girls. Relational issues between him and her aunt/uncle forced him to move out of the house, causing the couple to live separately for a few months.

We first met Moo Say Paw at this very house and were struck at how she was the only one who was literate in Karen (a dialect of the Burmese language). She had a great command of saying “hi”, “thank you” and “bye” and giggling profusely whenever we would make any other attempt for conversation. I kept thinking how sweet and cute she was. When we first met her I had trouble remembering her name, until J pointed out that it sounded like “moose paw”

However, issues eventually escalated and bled into Moo Say Paw’s relationship with that household, and she was quickly relocated to live with her husband. To this day we’re not really sure exactly what happened, who is in the right or wrong. But I guess these things really shouldn’t matter to me as it’s not really about picking sides, right?

Hence, wild goose chase. We had no idea where she moved to. After a few failed attempts at finding her (we somehow got the address wrong 3 times) we finally found the right person to ask – a former Burmese pastor who had just moved to the area with his family who had a strong command of English. “Oh Moo Say Paw? She’s on Benedict Street!”

The first time we saw her at her new place was a magical moment. We were so ecstatic to see each other. When we went inside, we were struck by how quiet their apartment was. We had been so used to hearing the chorus of little voices, scampering feet, crying and giggling when we usually visited the Burmese, that it felt unusually peaceful.

Moo Say Paw started apologizing about the messy house and that she couldn’t cook well, when all of the sudden J and I realized in sudden wonder that her English had improved dramatically. We were having a conversation! This Moo Say Paw, 2 months since we’ve last seen her, was a great departure from from her former shy, unwillingness to even try speaking to us.

As I think about Moo Say Paw, I think about the delicate balance between child and adult. I’ve noticed amongst the Burmese that adults talk to the younger generation as peers, rather than children. This is a great contrast to American culture, which draws very obvious distinctions between ages (the spheres of conversation & daily life between adults and children are kept very separate). Another striking feature of Burmese culture is the young age they marry and start having children.

I kept thinking how young Moo Say Paw was — I had 5 years on this girl (or maybe I should just say woman) — and here she was, starting a whole new life in a foreign town in such a wacky state of the USA as a refugee with her husband. What was I doing when I was her age? I was living an utterly normal life of college classes, getting fro-yo with friends, with the sporadic, awkward and shallow romantic encounter with the opposite gender.

Although their unstable life situation forced them to move once and disconnect their phone a couple times, J and I went to see Moo Say Paw every week after that. We ate, we laughed, we talked — we were 3 young women who loved spending time with one another and there wasn’t anything more wonderful than that.

The end to this story is one that is bittersweet. After about 4 weekly visits, all of the sudden it was very hard to get a hold of her. The complication is multi-layered: usually we go to her apartment at an agreed time and she would be waiting for us at the door (the door bell didn’t work and she was on the 3rd floor). This time, she wasn’t there. We waited for 15-20 minutes and tried everything from yelling her name very loudly to calling her incessantly. This happened once in the past when her phone had been disconnected, but then we thought “why the hell not, let’s call!”  — and she answered! This time, her phone WAS connected and she wasn’t picking up. Very strange. We wondered if something happened. We wondered if she was withdrawing on purpose or if it was just circumstantial. We wondered if this had anything to do with an incident her husband was involved in that created ripples in the Burmese community. We wondered if it was something we did.

It was 3 weeks that passed before we saw her again. This time, she and her husband had moved into a Burmese friend’s house. And she had big news – she was pregnant and they were getting ready to move to the Mid-west to be with her uncle and her parents who were coming to the U.S. soon. The news was a bittersweet surprise – new life two-fold (in baby form and moving to pursue a fresh start and be with beloved family). She definitely looked like she was suffering from some intense pregnancy nausea and discomfort, though her husband couldn’t have looked happier. In fact, I don’t remember him ever being so expressive and chatty.

We kept our visit short to let her rest and asked if she could call us before she moves next week. A part of us had a feeling that this might be the last time we’d see her. A part of me was worried that her new role as mother would hinder her progress and momentum learning English and finding a job, which were big priorities of hers (many of the Burmese women stop going to classes and never really integrate themselves in the culture because they stay home to take care of their kids).

What this has taught me was how little we are in control. I’ve also learned about the purity of just laughing, talking and being together without an agenda or relationship complex of “refugee vs. non-refugee.” The time with Moo Say Paw, though short, was precious and powerful. Her english grew exponentially, and somehow our Karen grew a bit too. A part of me grows sentimental and wishes she could’ve stayed. How awesome would that be to get to know her over the years, watch her and her family grow, and just be in relationship with one another.

We can only hope that the seeds of friendship endure even when we are not present in each others lives, growing deep encouragement and joy.