Birdless sky swells grey blue against trees that stand like brushes stiff in the cold The penultimate breath of a new earth The dark disappears in a steadfast philanthropy of color: red, orange, rose blush up from the land over lakes and hills and roof slats to tell the inhabitants Night has not prevailed. Earth e x h a l e s as the Sun spills her promise.
What is it about the year-end? Makes us face our fears and disappointments, and count our hopes again like pieces of treasure in the palm? The seasons herald change as they fall into one another but the calendar shows us we don’t cycle in place. We wheel forward. Birthdays, anniversaries, “three years since” are private touchstones across memory and longing and the new year, a giant communal marker of time, leaves no one unaffected. The Eve is a live wire between the past and future and with the turn of the year, we cross a mental threshold.
For some of us it’s simple math, only so many grains of sand left in the hourglass. We seek to balance the equation, weigh our dreams against the run of time. But it’s more than a race with the clock. No matter our age or station or story, the height of the new year holds out a second chance. We hope for better, of our life and of our self, because to be human is to grow. In character, strength, achievement there is room for more and we seize fresh opportunity. So we turn our feet toward our dreams, reset our compass to the hope of this winter sun.
under a scant sun
winter throws his brume
of snow. fields lie
vanquished in lambent
splendor and robed in frost,
in mute glory
under his imperial breath
creation covets the hearth
her haven, barren slumber:
a bold consummation
of autumn’s bounty
the earth waits, a sleeping beauty
’til spring breaks
upon the white spell and
redeems her joy.
Last week my father told me that his local Safeway had closed down, soon to be replaced with a Whole Foods. Normally this news would’ve tickled me – I’m a Whole Foods addict – but I was inexplicably sad. He now scans the weekly store flyers and shops the best deals.
Why did this conversation leave me feeling so tender, so emotional? I realized it was the first time I thought, I want to be like that. Like my father. Careful, methodical. Good with money.
The money story has always been big for me. As a small child I constantly compared myself to others – me often holding the short end of the stick. Everyone else got the best toys, the best food (hot dogs and sugary cereals), the best clothes. I got a dad who seemed to say ‘no’ to everything.
It made me angry. It made me sad. It made me feel like there was something wrong with me. The really cool things were reserved for other people, and I didn’t belong in that world. I let my money stories form the reality that is my life now. I rebelled against my father’s practical ways, to the point where I’m in major financial debt. I’ve been on a hamster wheel, running to catch up to some elusive ‘there’. And the older I get, the further away ‘there’ seems.
But I’m getting that no one is responsible for this, but me.
I’m the one who’s chosen to interpret my life events as I have. I’m the one who’s assigned deep meaning to old memories…and this meaning no longer serves. For years, I viewed my dad in a certain way because I’d trained myself to see only what supported my stories.
Yeah yeah, he put food on the table and clothed me. Yeah yeah, he was expelled from his homeland of Uganda and lost everything he owned. Yeah yeah, his own father didn’t talk about money.
So what? He should have known better. Been more successful. Given me more. Showed me how to manage my finances.
These past few months have been transformative. I’ve really felt the emotional impact of my judgment and resentment. And I don’t want to carry them anymore. I know we’re not supposed to be ashamed of ourselves; shame is so disempowering. But I am ashamed of how I’ve held others responsible for the situations I’ve created. I’m now seeing the power I have to choose and to create differently.
My financial situation is a reflection of my inner state. The more I willingly, authentically release blame, the more I find space in my heart, and in my finances. Blame doesn’t have my money in a chokehold anymore. There is room for me to move, to grow, to be free, and to allow the possibility for new, loving relationships with those most dear to me.
Aleya at alohaleya
A vine of dreams:
luscious grapes resign all fear
They bruise underfoot
barrels brim in earnest dark
and time turns into wine.
“Change is the only constant in life.” ~ Heraclitus
Change. It happens every day to each and every one of us. People we know change, situations change, life changes. But what happens when, without warning, you are the one who changes?
In the fall of 2008, I was diagnosed with a chronic medical condition called Meniere’s Disease. I could no longer perform at the job I loved, drive a vehicle, or make plans without planning to cancel them. The diagnosis not only changed my life, it changed who I was. It took a long time before I could accept the changes I needed to make in my life. But it took longer to accept the changes that were happening inside of me.
My memory was something I had always prided myself in. I could remember dates, phone numbers, names, places. Imagine my horror in returning to work after several months, walking into the office and struggling to place a co-worker’s name. It was humiliating. I could no longer concentrate for longer than a few minutes and became easily distracted. Where I once felt able to handle any conversation, I now struggled to keep it flowing. I missed important appointments I’d noted by memory only to have it fail time and time again. For the first time in my life, I had to use a scheduler. I also needed to use reminder alarms to check the scheduler on a daily basis.
I looked in the mirror and recognised the face, but no longer knew that person. The person who had been there was gone. It felt like I had been shut out from my own self. Why was this happening? Why was my own mind alienating me? The feelings of intense frustration, anger and helplessness were overwhelming. It was difficult enough to live with other people looking at me differently, but to have my own consciousness do this to me? It was the worst form of betrayal I had ever felt.
It wasn’t easy to get to know the new me. In fact, I didn’t like her at all. Mentally, I felt dumb and slow. Emotionally, I was angry and bitter. The new me was a very unhappy person. I was miserable much of the time despite the brave face I put on. I was also in denial that this was even happening. I spent a good deal of time angry with myself. Why couldn’t I remember like I used to? Why did I need someone to explain things to me? I asked myself again and again why I was making myself feel different.
It took me several years to realize the answer. I was making myself feel different because I was different. I had to accept that. For my own sanity, I needed to accept that. I was no longer the person I was before my illness. It wasn’t my fault. Why was I blaming myself for something I’d had no control over?
I needed to learn to love myself again, and I began to do just that. Taking it moment by moment, I became mindful of my thoughts. I ensured that my thoughts remained on a positive track and I would no longer do any mental or emotional self-harm.
I can now say I am in love with myself again. There are still tough moments. But it is, and always will be, a process.
I invite you to read more of my struggle with Meniere’s Disease in the post How Living With A Chronic Illness Improved My Life.
1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.
I was born in Australia to very traditional Chinese-Malaysian parents. The word “Malaysian” refers to a nationality. There are predominantly three races living in Malaysia – Chinese, Malay and Indian. A very long time ago, the Chinese came and settled in Malaysia. My grandparents – and many generations before them – were born in Malaysia. My relatives and extended family don’t know where our ancestors originated. We don’t talk about Chinese history but the history of Malaysia. We’ve always considered ourselves Chinese people living in Malaysia. We don’t identify with China the country but with Chinese culture. Chinese Malaysian is similar to the term, say, Korean American.
When I was growing up in Melbourne, I always heard my parents speak Cantonese to one another. But when they spoke to my kiddy-self and chided me for running under the blazing sun and turning “ugly black”, it was always in English – with Cantonese words here and there. We celebrate the Chinese New Year every year. I always come home to rice and noodles on the table. In short, “Chineseness” has always been a part of my life. I would be naked without it.
2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.
I lived in Melbourne until I was six. Then my family moved to Malaysia and later Singapore when I was ten. Throughout school in these countries, my classmates clamoured to sit with me during recess and went, “Mabel is from Australia. Australian! She is my friend!”. They thought I ate fish and chips and went to the beach all the time, which was far from the truth. It was as if being Australian came with “white privileges”, that being Aussie was “classy”. The Malaysian/Singaporean accent rubbed off on me a fair bit. I returned to Melbourne for university. Australians pointed out my accent, asking me “Where are you from?” every odd week. Thus, I’ve always felt too Asian to be Australian and too Australian to be Asian.
3) Is “Asian Australian” a fairly common designation?
Very common designation used of someone who holds Australian citizenship and is of Chinese/Vietnamese/Korean/Thai/etc. descent. I have met a lot of people who identify with this label.
4) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?
My preschool classmates Down Under were mostly Caucasian. There were a few Caucasians and Eurasians amongst the countless Asians I went to school with in Malaysia and Singapore. My first language is English and I think and speak in this language. I talked with all my friends in English. Although I know basic Cantonese and am fluent in Malay, rarely did we talk to one another in these languages.
5) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language. Can you share a bit about the fear, loneliness, longing for acceptance?
I was about six in preschool. One afternoon, I was sitting in class across one of my blonde, blue-eyed classmates who was a head taller than me. I always admired her – outgoing, confident and sporty. All the things I was Asian-stereotypically not good at but wanted to be. She looked at me condescendingly, brows furrowed, eyes narrowed. So fiercely, in fact, I was startled, thinking I had done something wrong. She demanded, “Why is your hair brown?”. I felt very small at that moment. I wanted to cry. Maybe this is why I sometimes still feel shy speaking to Caucasians today.
6) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?
I’ve always found it easier talking to those of Asian descent. Maybe there’s an underlying assumption that we’ll understand each other easily for the shared cultural values. That’s not to say I don’t like talking with people of other races. I do. When I meet someone, what they have to say about the topic of conversation piques my interest – given they’re from a different background, usually their opinions will differ from mine.
7) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?
Of course there’s my family, and my closest friends are of Asian descent, those who have predominantly lived in Asia and/or Australia. Not too sure why this is so. Perhaps I’ve shied from others because of racism towards Asian Australians, which I’ve discussed here.
8) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest? Think about the groups you are part of: writers, homeschoolers, mothers, hobbyist, artists, colleagues, church. Would you rather spend time with those who share your cultural food, tradition, and values or those who share your interest or mission? Where do you feel the greatest ease and connection?
Similar racial values or shared interests don’t usually play a part in encouraging me to feel a sense of connection to a group. I don’t see how we can’t feel a sense of belonging and feel comfortable if we’re with people who respect who we are, our values and what we do. I connect most easily with those who don’t judge me, say, based on my speech or dress. It’s their nonjudgmental attitude that makes me want to spend time with them. I like hanging with those who have strong opinions too and feel there’s something worth learning from determined minds.
9) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?
At university and work, I mingle with people of different cultural backgrounds pretty much every day. Very frequently I’ve met classmates and colleagues who aren’t from around Australia but grew up in Asia with their first language being, say, Chinese or Vietnamese. I never had trouble conversing with them in English, though I admit there are times when I can’t understand some of their English-mangled sentences. When this happens, I politely ask them to repeat what they say and usually get their point. When I don’t, I change the subject as seamlessly as I can so that the conversation keeps going.
10) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?
As an introvert, I have fearfully kept my mouth shut in front of Caucasian after experiencing racism in Melbourne. After six years back here, I realised part of the problem was because I held the impression Caucasians frowned upon my culture and who I am – a minority, an Asian Australian. A silly, narrow-minded thought; surely not everyone is like that. Today, I’ve learnt to love who I am and am more confident talking to people.
11) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?
I thought responses to these questions would come easily. I was quite wrong. It was a struggle to put reflections of my past into words. Race is a sensitive issue. This exercise reminded me we’re all culturally different, a beautiful thing. We should never judge others but embrace who we are as individuals.
Mabel at Mabel Kwong on multiculturalism.