Autistic Genius

Being alone was one of the bitterest disappointments of my young life. People made fun of my stilted manner, my pedantic speech, and my detachment from other people.

I walked through the scenes of my life like an outside observer, stepping carefully over the rubble and staying out of trouble. There was very little happiness in my world. Luckily, I had a natural gift for understanding machines and making things work. But people were a complete mystery to me.

– Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening

Smoking Guitar John E. Robison Designed for KISS. Pinterest.

You may have brought John Elder Robison into your home in the 70s if you watched TV or played with an electronic toy. His was the brilliant mind behind the guitars that breathed fire and launched rockets and drove the KISS fans wild from the stage. The sound equipment he built for Pink Floyd’s sound company played before millions across North America. But he left the world of rock and roll thinking himself a fraud and failure, unable to see his value in the social fabric because he couldn’t read social cues. John didn’t know he was successful because he didn’t feel successful. So he moved into the corporate world, engineering electronic toys and games for Milton Bradley until he climbed the ladder where at the peak he found himself managing engineers, and social skills became more important than technical expertise. Although he remained troubled by people’s response to the differences that were evident in him, John didn’t know he was autistic for 40 years until he picked up Asperger’s Syndrome by Tony Attwood. Nor does he consider himself a genius, but Malcolm Gladwell will disagree because by the time John was 20 years old, he had spent well over 10,000 hours studying music and taking apart electronics, beginning with repair and eventually creating circuits of his own design. John made full use of the laser focus and prodigious capacity for knowledge that was characteristic of Aspergians alongside his commitment to hard work to carve for himself a fulfilling life. His first book, New York Times bestseller Look Me in the Eye, opens the door into the mind of autistic children and those who seem disconnected from the world. I was deeply touched by the testimony that takes us past the struggles of the autistic to the hopes of connection and belonging that embody the human spirit. Our celebrated guest, who has appeared on the Today Show and given countless interviews and talks throughout the country, has graciously taken the time to share some of his discoveries and triumphs with us.

Can you take us through the various points of your journey where you successfully applied your gifts in the face of obstacles?

With a drunk, violent father and a mother who was often manic and sometimes out-and-out crazy, my home life was chaotic and unpleasant. Teachers sometimes saw flashes of exceptionality in me, but that was overshadowed by the many deficiencies kids and adults loved to point out. With no support at school, I dropped out at 15 by which point my parents were in states of collapse, both of them having been committed to the state hospital numerous times.

There were no disability supports for kids back then, at least ones like me. I still managed to have a lot of fun as an emergent adult, playing music, riding my motorcycle, and tinkering with cars and machines. Musicians and car enthusiasts welcomed me because I could do things they valued. Knowing my social limitations, I realized I would never be the guy on stage playing the guitar or the driver racing a rally car to victory. But I could be the guy behind the scenes with the technical skills to help make those things happen. I also became good at fixing cars and between those things, I made enough money to get my own apartment.

I am really lucky to have the ability to fix and create things that others value. Repairing a car or a broken electronic device is a skill that is useful everywhere. Creating stories also has universal value. At first, I wrote reports and proposals for clients. Then I wrote articles in car magazines. After learning about my autism, I decided to write a book and then wrote three more. Now I am back to writing car articles and stories on neurodiversity while running a business that restores, sells, and services high-end cars.

My parents had their share of problems, but despite alcoholism and mental illness they were both successful teachers. I think they would be proud to see that I’ve followed in their footsteps. I enjoy learning and sharing my ideas as the neurodiversity scholar at William and Mary and the neurodiversity advisor for Landmark College. I get to speak on autism and neurodiversity at other colleges every year. As my father did as a professor of philosophy, I grapple with difficult ethical issues in various settings like government autism committees.

Creating pictures, also something I enjoy, too has helped me find success. I earned the down payment on the garage complex of my car company from concert and carnival photo royalties. Today I am proud to see hundreds of musicians and circus performers using my images, which have been widely published, from the pages of the Wall Street Journal to billboards along the highway.

Patch.com

What compelled you to reach for success over against your difficult upbringing and social disability?

Looking back at what I’ve achieved, I guess one thing is how important it was to me that I produce good work. The absence of security in my childhood also gave me a very strong drive to make it. I made myself successful as I learned how to minimize my disabilities to the point of acceptability and how to build up my gifts and find people like those musicians who could appreciate what I could do and whose minds were flexible enough to excuse what I couldn’t do.

I believe knowledge of autism at an earlier age would have changed the course of my life. Without the understanding of what made me different, I grew up thinking I was a second-rate human being. Today, with a large number of extremely successful clients in the auto restoration field, I look at myself and them and see how much social disability had held me back. At the same time, I see how far logic, reasoning power, and technical skill have brought me. These things gave me a strong desire to prove I was good and drove me to my various accomplishments.

You’ve cited studies that measured the internal physiological response of autistic people in the face of emotional prompts like watching someone get poked or hurt. Turns out autistic people sustain a stronger response of empathy than nonautistic folks for longer, at that. Could you talk about autistic people’s capacity to love?

Autistic people have the same capacity for love or any other emotion as anyone else. We just don’t always show our emotions in the expected ways, or to the expected degrees. And our emotional responses may not be the same as those of a person who is not autistic for a given triggering event.

How did you manage discouragement?

I just kept working. I failed at things, lost jobs, made and lost friends, but through it all I just kept going because I had no other choice. The weight of that mantle of sadness was very heavy for a long, long time. It’s much less so today. I have always wrestled with anxiety and depression.

Who inspired you in your journey?

In whatever field I worked there were always older engineers and technicians who seemed to be better at everything I could do. They challenged me to improve my skills. Looking back, I am not so sure they could actually do everything better than me, but being older they certainly possessed more wisdom and experience, and many had families and lives outside work, which I hoped to have one day (and eventually did).

For the longest time I internalized my failure in school and saw myself as just a high school dropout, an uneducated failure. I wish I had models who succeeded outside the mainstream but self-educated people are rare today, although they were quite common before the rise of “big education” in the 20th century.

I may look and act pretty strange at times, but deep down I just want to be loved and understood for who and what I am. I want to be accepted as part of society, not an outcast or outsider. I don’t want to be a genius or a freak or something on display. I wish for empathy and compassion from those around me, and I appreciate sincerity, clarity, and logicality in other people.

– Look Me in the Eye

Don’t Wait For Your Life

It saddens me greatly that I have only one life in which to read and write. All those books I will not have opened, the ignorance I will take with me to my final bed. And of course, the books I will have left unwritten. And yet, I’ve been given, this year, pages to add to the annals of community, and to culture and art at large.

You know how writers start a blog in the dubious hope of being discovered out here (by a publisher)? Well, one found me. I responded to the encouragement to submit, and the narrative The Measure of a Woman made its way into the 2018 New York’s Emerging Writers anthology. I put in under New York for the relevance to my mother’s early immigrant years there. The editors will offer a solo book deal to the author who draws the best reader feedback, so imagine how much I will appreciate anyone who takes a moment to put up a good word for me on that Amazon page. You can take to the bank this public assurance that I will remember you when I’m rich and famous, ’til I wake from that dream. Here are examples of comments that their readers have dropped on a previous series.

In the summer, I then reached out to WestCoast Magazines, a publication that serves the affluent families and businesses in this part of Southern California. After reading my work, the CEO gave me the run of her upcoming feature, each hard print issue drawing 100,000 views. Don’t bother tapping in if you’re not within distance, but I will say the article explains the distinctives of public, private, charter, and home schools to help families navigate choices and to build bridges across the school sectors. Unwittingly, I made some important contacts in the research, and now am on board with a large reputable school district to teach its students poetry and its teachers how to write. For starters, I was asked to share some poems at the district poetry showcase last week, where my husband and son also got to do a steel drum duet. (Yes, that is really my husband out of costume.) A few things have evolved for me simultaneously in all this.

Camera-shy (more like vehemently averse), I had always preferred to be read, not seen. And I honor the written poem because the way it looks on the page matters to me. Add to this the jarring thought that in performing a poem, I myself visually become part of the piece. Just as I had talked myself into going for it, I learned of a sudden passing of someone I had known in high school. Her lights went out after 45 brief years in a brain aneurysm. She was my age. In the face of the sure limit on my own time, I decided to forge ahead into the world of Spoken Word. Perhaps it’s as simple as middle-age bungee jumping. But I want to create in new ways, while I can. It turns out that some of my posts – prose and poetry – work well in speech. And so in an earnest defense against dementia and related demise of brain cells, I have been memorizing my work, and performed – not recited – it at the showcase last week in an electric evening with a great turnout. Entering my zone while connecting with the audience was an amazing experience that pushed me beyond the comfortable ride of rolling out words in print.

Connecting with readers virtually is a special privilege, but engaging an audience face to face – offering my physical and emotional self – is a challenge, thrill, and power all its own. Blogging has taught me to write not like I’m educated but like I’m human, to step closer to the reader. Similarly, performing literally brings me in front of people to ask them to let me in. Perhaps a student of color, along the way, will find her own voice from watching the way I modulate and present mine. Of course I wrangled with the question of whether I was good enough, but was invited back for a literacy conference next month and a poetry festival in March. Einstein said imagination is more important than knowledge, and I think this is so because knowledge brings us to just the knowing, but imagination allows us to keep discovering, as the arts enable us to do – not with the fastidiousness of a scientist or scholar, but in wonder. The turn in my journey isn’t only about fuller living and the evolution of an artist but also a modeling for my son. I want to help nurture his own proficiency in presentation and performance because if you can look a crowd in the eye and tell a story or share your conviction, you can influence a great many people in today’s world. DIY YouTubes and the variants of TED talks that are shaping our culture say it all. I applied and was accepted as a speaker at an annual state homeschool conference a few months ago. It both empowered and concerned me to see the homeschooling parents take to my workshop like water. They were so appreciative the response made me want to go to the public school teachers. Writers who teach are busy with aspiring writers at conferences and special programs. They are not in the schools. I am excited to be guiding teachers so they can build their own skill set along with their students’.

Pixabay/Qimono

I laugh some moments, marveling that I can make up stuff and convince people to buy my wares. But I embrace the deeper lesson that opportunity isn’t so much something that shows up, as something to create. Don’t wait for your life. The doors I tried this year have swung open, but I first had to imagine and believe people would make space for me, should make space for me, and then knock. Only one life, friends. To dream, think, pursue, make, and because we have not only hands and brain, but also spirit, to do it in community. You bet I had the little Naysayer on my shoulder to deal with. But you’re too old to be doing Spoken Word. Talk to me when Sarah Jones stops doing whatever strikes her fancy on that stage. Your material isn’t angry enough, hip enough. As long as I’m asked back, I will stake my place among the ten thousand voices of poetry. There are better writers. Always. But they didn’t call the district superintendent. It’s one thing for finances, health, or death to get the better of me, but I will not live beneath my ability out of self-scripted fear. Do my job where I am? I am letting life and joy follow where I go.

Sometimes They Love You, Sometimes They Don’t

I would rather be read than seen, but delivering my poem on that stage to an audience serious about art and beauty was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. I have watched my favorite poets online reading from their book at gatherings the way I’ve appreciated figure-skating on the Olympics channel. Very cool, and fat chance that’ll ever be me. But there I stood – while part of a collection – sharing my words out of a book. I was just a blade of grass, but had left the desert.

Beautiful cover, isn’t it? The SDPA is out on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and in all the San Diego public and university libraries in California. The 13th edition contains poetry from emerging and established artists in the region and from an international poetry contest. Honorees from the competition had to have made the final lists of two judges. To be able to read my work among distinguished guests including the Poet Laureate of San Diego, and receive the feedback I did were no small affirmations.

People back home were so happy for me. It felt like I was finally getting somewhere – not I the mother or educator, but the writer who no longer remembered what she looked like apart from the mirror. And then life spun its crazy turns.

I refrain from the details, partly to keep the bleeding in check. But long sad story short, I found myself misrepresented sorely in the eyes of someone in authority at the hands of someone I had liked and trusted. The roughest of the ride behind me, I stand, shaken but more secure. I was able to move away from the anxious indignation, so bound up in the ego, to the stuff of real consequence: trust in God’s redemptive plans. I am a note in His symphony – a reminder both humbling and exalting. There is much more to my life than…me, or what people think.

The self-help gurus tell me I can be anything, do anything, and success is to be found in strength. In the quietest, deepest places, I know real growth comes by loss. If I am to offer up my God anything, I need to have something to give up. What can I surrender when the sun smiles upon me, when readers throw bouquets of praise, when my child is winning awards? Without struggle, there is no conquering.

#MeToo, Sex, and the Arts

It was an introductory class in the marketing of websites under a company I was with in 2003. Relatively new to Southern California, I drove beyond the comfort zone of my city past the county line to train with the specialist. Tall and thin, the man looked to be in his 30s and welcomed his guests as we signed in at the foyer. About twenty of us filled his living room. His last name was Thompson.

I had some questions after the session. Almost everyone had left and his wife came downstairs. I remember being a little surprised at the sight of the Taiwanese woman, in part for her short, compact frame, in part for the accent, as they somehow didn’t add up to someone I’d pictured for the spouse. At some point the one or two other women who mingled had left and the three of us talked in the kitchen. While Thompson shared a bit about his life and their trip to Taiwan some years before, his wife reached for some duck eggs. He paused to grimace and wrinkle his nose, making fun of her fondness for them. I thought it rude of him to do that – in front of company – no less. One felt no love lost between the couple as she rolled her eyes and shuffled back upstairs with her meal. And she obviously couldn’t care less about leaving him alone with a woman. He wanted to show me some artwork of his. When I obliged, he sidled up to me on the island, leaning in close so that we touched as he turned the pages of a small album. He had talent, from the looks of the female breast sketched so meticulously. I made myself scarce.

Since he was the only website trainer within distance, I had to email him the technical questions I still had so I could do the work I paid to train for. He said he would have to show me on my computer, in my home, in the evening. Had I given the impression that I was stupid? Just what did he think I would do with him – or worse, what did he hope, without consent, to do to me? Distraught, I shared the email with a male friend. Since Thompson was a private contractor, not an employee at the company, he wasn’t under official supervision and therefore not accountable to authority in any strict, legal sense. While it remained within my rights to pursue this particular line of work, it fell to me to pass it over if I wished to preserve my sense of safety. As I searched my inbox for the hair-raising email to share with you, I slowly remembered wishing to rid myself of his greasy handprints and deleting it. Wanting every bit of him out from under my skin, I also tossed the closing thread in which I’d told him how uncomfortable he made me and in which he dissembled like a snake, claiming no unworthy intentions.

So of course I am gratified to watch the Harvey Weinsteins earn their due. It’s been said of Weinstein that it wasn’t about sex but power. I say, more pointedly, sexual harassment and abuse are about boundaries and how one feels entitled to help oneself to someone’s space. The predator remains deaf to all words (No) and feelings but his (or her) own. Does the Holocaust ring a bell? Of course the face of it, the expression of the narcissistic compulsion, looks different. But at root, any kind of blind, forceful imposition is like another. What we have is basic disregard for human dignity.

I could go on about other instances in which I have felt demeaned or exploited, but I fear it would get very repetitive. Then again, that’s part of the point. I never talked about these things publicly because, as a woman, it has always felt like I may as well have been talking about the weather. Stories like these have never been taken seriously. Women are shamed, told they are uptight, nasty, bitter, can’t take a joke, are too sensitive. And the men? Well, if they’re lucky, they might get elected President.

My hope is that Hollywood makes itself an example and decides to enact real change, change that would allow women of all ages and ethnicities the freedom to tell their stories—to write them and direct them and trust that people care. I hope that young women will one day no longer feel that they have to work twice as hard for less money and recognition, backward and in heels. ~ Molly Ringwald, The New Yorker

Unfortunately, Molly, in a business where your physical features are your résumé, you will always have the Weinsteins who can’t keep themselves from the cookie jar.

So why are women in particular prone to this dishonor? At a most basic level, we are obviously physically more vulnerable than the men. Please, I have met my share of UFC women with more brawn than the guys bench pressing but clearly they don’t outnumber the male race on any given day. The relative weakness of women is not a value judgment but a part of the attraction, no? I imagine if I had the mass of the Hulk, I wouldn’t have had to worry about Thompson. The feminist outrage against sexual harassment and abuse is in itself a confirmation of our vulnerability even as we claim our power. And so trailing the storm over women’s rights as it rounds the corner into the world of art where LGBT champions are staking their place, I find myself wondering if we are about to topple 5000 years of appreciation for the female form right alongside the Weinsteins. Rightly so, the feminist dam has burst in the world of the visual, performance, and written arts over the century. But what of poetry today that embraces homemaking or the woman’s body as a vessel for receiving a man? The plain logic of our physical design has become a regressive notion. Is the pleasure we afford men an archaic vice in public discourse? In a poem about myself as wife and mother, I’ve said:

I would become
food, grass, lake, playground

Are such pictures no longer politically correct? Yes, women have lain as doormats in their homes for thousands of years but many have done so willingly, offering themselves as gifts to their family. In the war cry for our rights, women may forget our license to give ourselves up for the taking. Where there is love, that is a power and beauty. Will we someday ban Pride and Prejudice in the schools? After all, it perpetuates skewed, patriarchal ideals of femininity. In all the sophistication of hard-won feminist ideals, I fear we will lose sight of the timeless discussion on the vulnerabilities and liabilities of womanhood and gender.

Remember, an open mic allows for all voices.

War and Peace

I can barely open the door before it throws itself in my face, rattling against its frame. I rein in my voice like I’m working a pulley, and talk to the door.

“I said hurry and eat, brush, and go to bed. I’m leaving the house.” I can’t help flipping the pitch at the tail: “You happy?!” Sharon Olds can keep me company over fish tacos. I make a note to grab my beloved copy, as my head makes it into his room on the last try.

He releases his weight on the other side and flops on the bed. “You wanna leave? FINE!”

“I’ve done nothing wrong. I just pointed out that you need to be more responsible when I’m not here. You can’t not eat all evening and then stuff your head in the fridge just before bed. You don’t want indigestion again. But you need something to be able to sleep now.”

The words walk out of his mouth almost staccato, measured. The boy who still feeds and cuddles with his stuffed tiger cub suddenly sounds sixteen. “Mom, I didn’t have an appetite. I don’t need to eat now. It’s no big deal.”

“Do you know why I’m going?” The words are rocks, breaking apart. The tears burn. “I’m leaving because you hate me. I love you and you don’t want to be near me and I don’t want you to go to bed hungry.” Anger, love. One and the same passion. I storm down the stairs and he stands above me, hands on the banister.

“I don’t hate you!” he yells.

“Of course you do. Your actions say you do. You said I make you sick.”

Somebody come collect the boy’s jaw off the floor. His brows furrow, furious with indignation. “I never said that!”

“Yes, you did. And you blame me for everything.” For the backpack that throws up its contents on the floor, for the headphones you can’t find. For being your mother. “I’m going,” I turn, desperate for tissue, and he calls out, “Wait…I have to give you something.” He disappears into his room and as I blow my nose in the kitchen, I feel something hard closing into my free hand. A ruby out of his treasure box, plastic and pretty the way it gleams, his most prized keepsake. It looks like the rock candy I licked down to a mound at his age. Something to remember him by.

He thought I was leaving for the long haul.

He’s gone upstairs. And my stomach is arguing and turning. It won’t survive a wait for tacos, so I scout the fridge when I realize he’s back, pausing behind me a moment like a long comma. He drops a piece of paper to the floor and finally goes to bed.

My eyes are sore and tender as the tears swell. Isn’t this the home we seek of our journey? We roll the dice, kick it up on the boardwalk and go back three spaces – even go bankrupt. We hope we don’t perish in jail. We make our way along the edge of our wins and the losses, biding our autonomy. But at striving’s end, all we want is to lay it down, to say and hear I want you. I need you. Please stay.

The Tyranny of Feelings

As passionate as I can be about things, I’ve only just begun to connect with the spectrum of emotions I had buried all my life under the stoicism.

When you reflect on your day as you turn out the lights, you are in fact revisiting how you felt about it, not what you thought about it. I’m seeing that feelings can be so prevailing they can redefine reality. You got word of a promotion – objectively, great news. But if it fills you with anxiety, that will translate a different news like maybe you’re really not competent enough. What if your spouse has little regard for you? His contempt will redefine what is true within the world you share. The final arbiter of our perception is emotion, not cognition.

Chief Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her early days as District Attorney couldn’t figure out where she’d gone wrong in one case. She replayed her presentation for a mentor who “identified the problem instantly: I was appealing to logic, not morality…since it is painful to most jurors to vote ‘guilty’ and send a human being to jail, you couldn’t simply reason with them to do it; you had to make them feel the necessity…put them in the shoes of the accused or the victim: make them feel the cold blade held against their necks, or the pang of unappreciated devotion that might drive someone to steal from a former employer…It was in effect to see that mastery of the law’s cold abstractions was actually incomplete without an understanding of how they affected individual lives.” My Beloved World

In the case of jurors, it is emotion that forges belief which determines conviction and behavior. Because when Sotomayor was arguing her case, she wasn’t feeding algorithms of reason into a machine for a logical verdict. She was appealing to people, people who were filtering the story through their own past, hopes, and fears as surely as they were supposed to aim for impartiality.

Yeonmi Park, who managed a harrowing escape out of North Korea, knows all about the power of feelings:

“In school, we sang a song about Kim Jong Il and how he worked so hard to give our laborers on-the-spot instruction as he traveled around the country, sleeping in his car and eating only small meals of rice balls [a lie]. “Please, please, Dear Leader, take good rest for us!” we sang through our tears. “We are all crying for you.” This worship of the Kims was reinforced in documentaries, movies, and shows broadcast by the single, state-run television station. Whenever the Leaders’ smiling pictures appeared on the screen, stirring sentimental music would build in the background. It made me so emotional every time.

Jang Jin Sung, a famous North Korea defector and former poet laureate who worked in North Korea’s propaganda bureau, calls this phenomenon ’emotional dictatorship’. In North Korea, it’s not enough for the government to control where you go, what you learn, where you work, and what you say. They need to control you through your emotions, making you a slave to the state by destroying your individuality, and your ability to react to situations based on your own experience of the world.” In Order to Live

The government wasn’t satisfied with subjugation of the mind. It wanted the heart because then the leaders had the whole person. And notice that you can create emotion – for someone you haven’t even met and for what is not real. This gives me hope that we can also deconstruct it, not remain enslaved to it.

I’ve always held to an Absolute Truth, ground harder than the sand mound of feelings, that can save us from ourselves. But I am seeing that where I’ve lived is really in the place of emotion, not of beliefs or facts. I have found anger much easier to access than sorrow. Anger allows me to borrow strength from the sheer force of it, as delusional as the sense of power may be, but what do you do with the sadness of inflicted pain except suffer its vulnerability and helplessness? It just hurts too much. Fear is another big one, and has accounted for a lot of my actions over the years. Now naming is one thing, freeing oneself of it another. And so to face these darker sides of my psyche, I’ve had to enter their deeper waters. Following memory as far back as it would take me, I’ve relived the traumas of childhood that gave way to resentment and fear. But for the first time, I was led to think about my mother, how indignant, fearful, and powerless she must have felt in the face of her husband’s offenses while she was pregnant with me – all that despair I felt in the womb, the energy that pieced me together. I don’t like victim talk, but making sense of my context and beginnings has given me greater compassion for myself. I’ve also known that we hold grief and anxiety in our lungs and while I’ve made the connection easily in others, did not see until recently the chronic bronchitis I had as a child in this startling light.

When I was a kid, I didn’t salt my food. I felt guilty for the flavor, and so denied myself the pleasure. That went for the lettuce as well. No dressing. I took the asceticism to a whole other level in my adult years and only the other day recognized that I had actually invited much of the insane suffering in my life. I had to keep suffering because that is what Korean women do. It is how we show love, it is our lot. And our lot is where we are safe. It is all I saw of my mother, that for me to do and be otherwise would be not only criminal (how dare I enjoy my life?), but something alien and therefore…scary. Oh, how I LOVED my Bible passages on perseverance in affliction, on the cross I was to carry! Some years ago, I took a few lessons in the Alexander Technique, a mindful movement therapy. The instructor taught me how to lie down, really lie down. At one point I couldn’t help laughing out loud on the table. The deep, simple rest felt so good. At 30, I didn’t know I could rest like that, had been holding myself up in bed all those years. I now stand on unchartered terrain, a long but sure road where I am giving myself permission to stop hurting and to take my power back. I have died a hundred deaths. Surely that means a resurrection. Pleasure, comfort, (gasp) joy are within sight. At least I enjoy them every time here with you.

I had learned in my own depression how big an emotion can be, how it can be more real than facts. And I have found that that experience has allowed me to experience positive emotion in a more intense and more focused way. The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality. I think that while I hated being depressed and would hate to be depressed again, I found a way to love my depression. I love it because it has forced me to find and cling to joy. I love it because each day I decide, sometimes gamely and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to cleave to the reasons for living. And that, I think, is a highly privileged rapture. Psychologist Andrew Solomon, PhD.

My Race, Coast to Coast: Part 1

I designed this series because I thought it’d be interesting to glimpse stories from around the globe. But I found myself feeling almost apologetic writing my own; I didn’t consider my tale really worth telling. Then I warmed to the rich potential this project held out as a forum for safe, honest talk about our biases and personal struggles.

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 prefer Asian-American or Korean-American. I grew into the American part with time so in looking back on my childhood, I speak of myself as a Korean kid but it bugs me to have to check “Asian” on forms. Tip-toeing on politically correct ground, we don’t call black people Africans in the States but acknowledge their American status. I don’t know why Asian-Americans are not accorded the same respect. Actually, I do know. We are not vocal about 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 live in California. My family joined the biggest tide of emigration that brought South Koreans to America in the 70s. After the formative years in New York City, I went to Pennsylvania for college. I ended up nesting there until the move across the country 13 years ago. Given the diversity in major American cities I didn’t notice significant cultural differences between them, at least ethnically.

3) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

My childhood in NYC was your unoriginal melting pot. From neighborhood to school and city, we had white, Hispanic, Black, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, and of course many Koreans. Out of my motley neighborhood, I entered the most homogenous class at P.S. 89 when I started my school career in first grade; only as an adult did I realize how unusual the roomful of Korean kids was, under the tutelage of the only Korean teacher in all of NYC at the time. (I won’t get into whether she would’ve insisted on the -American.) Mrs. Cho was Korean and “Americanized”, one fully immersed in her culture but comfortable and proficient with the mores of this country. Because I was still clinging to my native language at seven, Mrs. Cho sent me out for a season of English as a Second Language services.

I was at ease with fellow Korean immigrants but as you’d expect, there was plenty of race consciousness on everyone’s part. I didn’t escape being called chink in elementary and walking home one time, was slurred with a kick for good measure. This, by two white girls I saw all the time whose parents, I now remember, were European immigrants. It was older black or Hispanic kids who wrested your bike from you and made off with it on our street – not older Asian kids. The Mexicans didn’t blare mariachi with the Chinese. Life was what it was. It would’ve been weird for the neighborhood to go all white. I wouldn’t call what we lived with tension so much as it was subtle racial abrasion. But for the most part there was peace. We had subcommunities in high school too, though there were the kids who mingled. The magnet school I went to was over 50% Asian-American, the majority being Korean. So I obviously didn’t have much occasion to feel left out the first two decades of my life.

4) 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. It could be a scene with strangers, the park, school, work. Could have been subtle feelings you recognized or a blatant attack of bigotry. If it was a season or chapter in your life, tell us the impact it had on your sense of self, confidence, or emotional development. Can you share a bit about the fear, loneliness, longing for acceptance?

Straight out of college, I ended up one of three Korean-American teachers in a Philadelphia school. But the diversity of the city represented in staff and students kept me from thinking twice about myself as a minority. On a field trip one day with my class, I was struck seeing a line of golden-haired children from another school. It was the first time I really noticed I was Asian – and this, in my early 20s. It vaguely crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be as comfortable teaching that class.

Two years later I transfered to a neighboring district where I felt the keen finger of self-consciousness as never before. White upper-middle class suburb, old money. In the meetings that prefaced the start of school, I found myself one of two Korean-American teachers among the 100 in the entire district. My African-American principal was a colored minority. Ten percent of the students in my school were Asian and as few black. In other words, I felt very Asian surrounded by staff, parents, and students. The Korean kids lit up and greeted me when I passed by even if they were not on my roll. As the Gifted and Talented Education instructor, I was a status symbol and my principal said it was important that those children see themselves in me. Despite the politeness of many teachers, I did feel awkwardly different among them. When a group of us went out to try some Korean food, I saw for the first time the profound, basic relationship of food to culture. Those who passed nervously on the invitation gave away their indifference to the Korean culture, and to me.

Others were outright mean (on things not having to do with food), even conspired to get me, with things eventually coming to a dramatic head. Though it’s hard to say, the malice didn’t seem fueled by racism as it was by the position I held. Suffice it to say I was a walking omen of more paperwork for the classroom teachers. Anyone who stepped into my position was doomed because, servicing the high achievers in the whole school, I worked with everyone and no one. As a specialist, I had no colleagues by grade to team with. The cultural distinction felt sharper for the rejection.

My sense of self remained unshaken. It never has been. I enjoyed deep friendships with teachers who shared my faith and also knew the kindness of those who didn’t – some black, some white. I’m not sure how I handled that sense of separation from the masses. I kept my head high, even managed to break through some walls and feel accepted by some cliques though I refrained from trying too hard. I also refused to stoop to the level of my enemies. Not one retort, confrontation, or curse escaped my lips though I can’t count the times I came hairline close. I had dirt on them, too. But this way, I had won. No one could accuse me of a bad word. And in time, they were served their due. I have never looked back on those few years with anything but a dull negativity. As trying as it was, I now feel it was good for me to have experienced the cold heat of exclusion. The real world isn’t a bubble and if you insist on staying in one, it’ll burst on you. I’d say it’s important for those who usually sit among the white majority to have to work through this sense of isolation at some point, too. Of course I don’t mean we should perpetuate hatefulness across racial lines. But some discomfort out of complacency challenges us to grow.

Continued in Part 2.

Dear Mr. President-Elect

“Remember you can’t eat money…You control both houses of Congress now, but you don’t control the hearts and minds and souls of the American people…”

Green Life Blue Water

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Dear Mr. President Elect

My Greek immigrant grandparents arrived in this country sometime in the early 1920’s from Istanbul when it was still Constantinople, and while no one talks about it, I’m fairly sure they didn’t just leave, but escaped. Ethnic cleansing is nothing new across the globe: WWII Germany; Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990’s; Syria today. For my grandparents, it was the problem of the Armenian extinction. About 1 million Armenians and half a million Greeks were killed between 1915 and 1923, but the number is sketchy because to this day, Turkey denies it even happened. (For a great book on the topic, read Black Dog of Fate, by Balakian.)

What was once the Ottoman Empire — the most culturally ambitious and religiously inclusive place the world had known, a stunning experiment of cooperation and trust — was losing ground as parts of it claimed independence, and…

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