Saturday, September 15, 2007

fdisk /dev/life

(Apologies in advance to any readers and to hell with the rest of the productivity I was supposed to have tonight. It's going to be a rant, or I'm going to explode.)

It is 11:54 pm. I'm sitting on the toilet seat of a hotel room in Mountain View with my laptop on my knees. Every few minutes I reach up to turn the timer that keeps the light (and fan) on so it won't cut me off in the dark mid-sentence. I'm trying to work. It won't matter after 2.5 hours because that's how much longer my battery lasts, and there aren't any outlets in here. It won't matter after another day, because my mom's going to join us in this hotel room, and then I won't be able to sneak away to work in the bathroom.

I'm tired. I'm grouchy. I'm terrified of the amount of catching-up I have to do. I'm struggling to find a way to simultaneously be a good daughter and a happy, productive person. I'm trying to partition my life again - here are the things I'm supposed to do, to be "Good Girl" (that's actually the translation of my Chinese name) during the day, and Mel during the night when everyone's sleeping. Spending my own time late at night has been my solution around the demands of others for years; I started sneaking into the bathroom while my parents slept so I could read math books when I was 11. It's how I became an insomniac. It's the reason I pull allnighters. The night is mine, so I take it, because it's often all I've got. (The bathroom timer shuts off. I turn the light on again.)

According to a book by Howard Gardner (whose title I've forgotten) that was on my aunt's shelf, the Chinese way of thinking about teaching is not huge on experimentation. The point of education isn't to learn how to figure out things. The point of education is to learn how to do it perfectly, where "perfectly" is defined as "whatever your elders handed down." Match this standard. Match this standard. Match this standard, you punk, don't try to make your own. it got hammered into my head hard in ways I've just barely begun to realize.

In retrospect, the only reason I've been able to do amazing things in the past is because I was fast enough at doing all the things other people wanted me to do (like algebra homework or watching kids) that I had free time in the margins to fit in things I wanted to do, like read math books that had no relation to what we were studying in class. I wonder how many other kids could have had fun reading math books, but had to spend too much time doing their algebra homework and ran out of time for reading. I wonder how many people could do wonderful things if they weren't forced to meet a lot of other obligations, play a lot of other roles.

I had a great childhood. Lots of opportunities. A fantastic, close extended family network. Good schools. Concerned parents who really wanted me to do well. All the same, I was (and still am) jealous of the kids who didn't have to cram things secretly into the margins. Had parents who didn't define "do well" as rigidly. Who let them bike more than a block away, cross the street alone at 16, left them to their own devices. I disagree with my parents on this - doing things like that is not a mark of not caring about your kids. In America, it's the way you help them grow up. You're raising a little cowboy. They're supposed to go venturing out into the unknown on their own account.

In college when the things other people asked me to do took up enough time that I didn't have free margins, I learned (a little, but not very well) how to make other people want me to do the things I wanted to do, and it was great. Not perfect. I almost flunked out because I didn't learn how to do it well enough. But better, much better, than anything else I'd ever had before; nobody had ever asked me what I'd wanted to do before, and I remember being utterly astonished by it - "you want me to tell you what I want to do? You mean I can do it? I'm supposed to?" It took me about two years to believe it.

At the beginning of this summer - glorious summer! - I owned all my time for the first time in my life. It was the most fulfilling and productive period I've ever had. I was working on something of my choosing at all times. Nobody had a sword to hold over my head. And then the slow creep began; I was out from under the protective title of "student," which had given me freedom for the past 7 years. Back then, I could sweep random projects under the "but I'm pursuing X degree and this is how we do it!" rug. Now I'm being treated according to "adult child with no real job" protocol, which means I'm back to having to play a role set by someone else, live a schedule set by someone else, ask permission (not forgiveness) for everything. I want to decide what I eat, when I sleep, whether I answer the phone. I've gotten "too Americanized," says the Asian family I'm struggling to fit back into. It's tough to simultaneously be an American adult and a good Asian child. I'm really, really bad at being a good Chinese kid.

I read a book about Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, living in a crummy little apartment the year after she graduated from college, starting a movement she cared about, and it made me want to cry. I want an unstable life in a lousy apartment working inane hours for a cause I'm passionate about. (The bathroom timer shuts off again. I turn the light on. Again.) I had that a little at the start of summer and I want it again; I want to grab a 10-gallon hat and blaze new trails roughly instead of following old ones perfectly. I want to move without eons of history and the voices of a collective family tree dragging behind me. I want a "get out of filial piety free" card because I can't bring myself to just up and run.

I don't want to play a role. I want the person I'm supposed to be to be the same as the one I want to be. I want to be able to stop thinking and fussing and making entirely too big a deal about this, and I want to stop feeling torn, want to stop having to steal my nights for being myself. I want to love - not resent - my family, appreciate them, honor them, make them happy... while disagreeing with a decent portion of the things their culture has carried into my life. I want to be one person and have everyone be okay with the person I end up being. I should stop complaining about being two people, and start being one, and doing what I want to do - but how much of my happiness is tied to my family's happiness? How much is who I am being part of that group, its heritage and traditions and values - and how much is... well, what else is there?

Enough. I'm going to fall asleep with happy things in mind. The twisted white trees in Monterrey are among the most lovely things I've ever seen, and a simple floured and pan-fried fish filet is hot and delicious, tasting faintly like the sea. A jovial old man who produces theatre and builds sets in a tiny town for the love of it; lurching through the air in the back of a 4-person Cessna dreaming of when I'll be able to get my own pilot's license, noodle soup too scorching to sip without vigorous fanning of each spoonful. It's been a good trip. It's been a good trip. It's been a good trip.

5 comments:

Andy said...

Hi Mel,
You told me to stop lurking on your blog and leave a comment. So here I am.


It seems like the more you think you know someone the more you find out how much you don't know.

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