What do you do with your privilege? What do you do despite your privilege?

There’s been a lot of talk of privilege recently. I see it on my Facebook feed. I read about it in the news. I overhear discussions about it at the grocery store. Heterosexual white men have privilege. Millenials have privilege. The Kardashians have privilege. 3rd wave feminists have privilege. Donald Trump has privilege. I have privilege. What does it all mean?

I can tell you about my privilege. As a Chinese-American woman in a male-dominated field of study, maybe my privilege may not be not obvious. But I am privileged because my parents decided to immigrate to the US, and I was born a citizen in a free country with a high standard of living. Additionally, I grew up in Ithaca, NY, which is rich with culture and opportunity like no other place in the world. Though my parents are not wealthy and lived a frugal lifestyle, I never lacked food or comforts. I worked hard in school, but I can’t pretend that the fact that both of my parents were Cornell employees didn’t impact my admissions there. I’ve only ever lived in safe neighborhoods, and am in generally good health. Though I am a minority (Asian), even that comes with its own version of privilege. I hate the stereotype of Asians as being the “model minority” but I don’t worry about being racially profiled by law enforcement. Strangers rarely look upon me with suspicion and cross to the opposite side of the road when they pass me at night.

I am always aware of my struggles, but I try to be aware of my privilege as well. I remind myself how fortunate I am to be where I am, and reflect upon where I fit in in my society. When I encounter people who are more disadvantaged than I, I acknowledge that they may have had to work harder than I to make it to where they are. But I don’t need to give them differential treatment. I don’t try to be oversensitive or cloyingly politically correct. I just try and conduct myself with self-awareness and with respect.

We often criticize people of privilege because they speak with ignorance, with lack of understanding of others’ situation. But that doesn’t mean that any statement made by any white, heterosexual male should be automatically dismissed. Not even if that statement is about race, or gender, or sexual orientation. A person needs to be realistic in acknowledging the role of their privilege in their achievements, and often these two things are so intertwined that they cannot be separated into what a person has achieved and what they have inherited. But privilege does not make someone “good” or “bad.” How much privilege you have does not correlate with the validity of your opinions or your worth as a person. Not only those who are underprivileged ever struggle. I believe that for those who have been fortunate enough to inherit, the real testament to character is how they choose to wield their influence and power.

A lot of people who dislike Hillary Clinton choose to criticize her privilege. How she comes from a political dynasty and is the embodiment of white feminism. I won’t argue against those statements, but I do argue that those facts do not preclude her from being a great president. I think Hillary has shown self-awareness of her privilege, and shows very little self entitlement that doesn’t come from her own hard work and personal achievements. Since she was a law student in her 20s, Hillary has fought for civil rights and women’s rights. She has a strong record of fighting for and serving disadvantaged people. To me, this is a shining example of how a person can use their privilege to do good.

However, not all liberals are free from abusing their privilege. I’d like to draw attention to the recent comments made by actress Susan Sarandon during an interview with MSNBC on whether she would vote for Hillary Clinton if she were to become the Democratic nominee:

SARANDON: I think Bernie probably would encourage people because he doesn’t have any ego. I think a lot of people are, sorry, I can’t bring myself to do that.

HAYES: How about you personally?

SARANDON: I don’t know. I’m going to see what happens.

HAYES: Really?

SARANDON: Really.

HAYES: I cannot believe as you’re watching the, if Donald Trump…

SARANDON: Some people feel Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately if he gets in then things will really, you know, explode.

HAYES: You’re saying the Leninist model of…

SARANDON: Some people feel that.

NY Times columnist Charles M. Blow recently wrote a wonderful piece addressing “Bernie or Bust” supporters, and criticizing Sarandon’s comments as “smack[ing] of petulance and privilege.” Elections are often won or lost by small margins, the presidency is not a game, and this is no time to risk losing the election to a Republican. He goes onto summarize the very real consequences of electing a Republican president, especially ones as extreme and/or unqualified as Trump and Cruz. One commenter summarized:

A Republican wins, and I and millions of other Americans lose our health insurance. The Supreme Court will go hard-right conservative for decades, obstructing any reform in my lifetime and maybe in yours. Your vote is too important to use as a symbolic statement in an election with such dire consequences for flesh and blood people.

Some Americans will be able to afford healthcare even if Obamacare was repealed. Some Americans will make a living wage even if unions lost power and collapsed. Some Americans will never have to experience discrimination for the color of their skin or their sexual orientation. Some Americans will never need an abortion. Some Americans will never be at risk for deportation and will never worry that their family members will be deported. Some people have the privilege not to care. But these are very real and very hard battles that are being fought right now in the Supreme Court and in our top levels of government. Many (innumerable) Americans do not have the luxury of waiting out a Trump or Cruz presidency, anticipating a big Republican collapse or a political revolution that may or may not come. And those that do should realize that the consequences of their actions reach far beyond themselves.

I think it’s about time that everyone takes a long, introspective look. What privilege we do or don’t inherit is rarely of our choosing – but what we can choose, is what to do with our privilege, and what to do despite it.

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I believe in Ithaca, its mayor, and its people

Recently Ithaca has come to the attention of major media outlets such as the NY Times, NPR, and the Guardian for a radical proposal – to establish the first “supervised injection facility” in the US, a place where people can go to legally inject heroin under medical supervision.

In recent years, the numbers of heroin users and heroin deaths have increased in Ithaca, as they have in much of upstate NY and the rest of the country. The number of overdoses has generated a tragic public health crisis, inciting the local government to try a more drastic approach in combating drug abuse. Ithaca has always been politically liberal and progressive town, with a focus on drug prevention and treatment rather than criminal punishment.  The city has established rehabilitation centers, a well-maintained homeless shelter, and a needle exchange program. However, these programs currently in place have proven to be insufficient to fight the heroin epidemic.

Recently, Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick announced The Ithaca Plan. The comprehensive Plan begins with acknowledging that current and past approaches to tackle drug use are insufficient, and that new perspective is needed:

While new practices are adopted to reduce the negative health and social consequences of drug use, older practices criminalizing drug use remain … Too often, our past approaches have failed to recognize that fundamentally, the community prevalence of health problems, such as problem drug use, and social problems, such as participation in the illegal drug economy, reflect deeper issues related to social and economic opportunity and racial inequality.

The Plan outlines specific aspects of prevention, treatment, and law enforcement that are lacking (affordability of treatment, comprehensive drug education, perceived racial profiling, etc.), and proposes new measures to improve education, treatment, community development, and public safety among other fields. One of the many proposed suggestions is the supervised injection facility.

The goal of such a facility would be to reduce the transmission of blood borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis by providing clean needles, and to reduce the number of overdoses and overdose deaths, especially in public place such as parking lots and public bathrooms. Nurses and social workers would be present to provide information on treatment and rehabilitation options as well.

Such facilities have existed in Vancouver as well as European countries including Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands with some degrees of success. The NY Times article reports,

In Vancouver, fatal overdoses dropped 35 percent in the community surrounding its main injection site in the two years after it opened in 2003 and fell 9 percent citywide … According to Donald MacPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, the addicts who have availed themselves of the program are 30 percent more likely to get treatment and other health services than those who do not.

Additionally, I think that Svante Myrick provides the ideal leadership to make this work. First, Myrick enjoys popular support in Ithaca. He is very visible, high energy, and optimistic. People like him and trust him. In the past I’ve written about following him on social media. It’s hard not to like the mayor who posts on Facebook, offering himself and his roommates’ help shoveling residents’ driveways the day after a blizzard. Or the mayor who has an LED sign in his office that in real time transmits text messages from his constituents.

Myrick also has an incredibly inspiring personal story. His father was a crack addict who eventually abandoned his family, and he spent time during his childhood in a homeless shelter. Myrick worked multiple jobs to pay for his college education at Cornell, and at 24 became the youngest elected and first black mayor of Ithaca. He has valuable perspective in understanding the problems Ithaca faces.

There is much opposition to the Plan, especially the supervised injection facility, with the local police chief unable to condone illegal drug use – even under supervision, and one Cornell Law School professor calling it a “government-run heroin shooting gallery.”

I have always believed in and loved Ithaca. Ithacans form an incredibly diverse and supportive community, and I think these qualities will are important for the success of any programs to combat drug abuse. I hope that The Ithaca Plan comes to fruition and that it can serve as an example to the rest of this country.

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Random recalled memory

It’s one of the last days of Cornell’s freshman orientation week. I’m burned out from the previous days of binge drinking. It’s about 11pm, and I’m returning alone from the cinema where I had just seen a free screening of a Marilyn Monroe film – I forget which one. It’s pouring outside and I’ve got my umbrella, but my Birkenstocks are soaked. I’m walking behind a guy, a stranger, hunched in his drenched hoodie with the hood popped up. I walk behind him for about 50 meters until we’re halfway across the Arts Quad. I jog a few paces to catch up to him and ask him if he’d like to share my umbrella. He looks at me and says sure. For the next 3 minutes we walk alongside each other in silence. Eventually, we pass Louie’s Lunch truck, and he says, “I live that way,” pointing to our left. “Ok,” I reply, “I live that way,” pointing to our right. “Thanks,” he says and we part ways.

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It matters that Hillary is a woman.

I support Hillary Clinton because she is a woman. Gender is not the sole reason I support her (I certainly would not vote for Sarah Palin or Carly Fionina), but I won’t pretend that Hillary’s gender doesn’t matter to me*.

I don’t believe that voting explicitly for a [qualified] female candidate makes me sexist. Not any more than supporting affirmative action to increase institutional racial diversity makes me racist. Nor am I under any illusion that electing a female president will solve all of this country’s gender issues. While electing Barack Obama did not make America a “post-racial utopia,” the symbolism of the first black president has undeniably changed the way this nation thinks and talks about race. I believe that electing the first female president will do the same for issues of gender inequality. Electing a President Hillary Clinton would make history in a very significant way. I believe a female president has the potential to inspire a generation of girls and young women who would open their textbooks and see that despite hundreds of years of history, a Y chromosome is NOT a requirement to become elected to the highest office in the nation.

I also support Hillary because she has a strength that is unique to women of her achievement and position. The kind of strength that allows one to maintain her principles with dignity and poise in a world of old white men, many of who are uncomfortable with the idea of women in power and see her as a threat to the status quo. Just watch footage from the Benghazi hearings. Numerous media outlets have written about the unique struggles and inherent disadvantage of “running while female,” how women must “prove themselves extra-competent in order to be understood as basically competent.”

There’s been some talk about how a female candidate could never be as scruffy as Bernie Sanders, as uncombed and unkempt. A woman could never be as grumpy as Bernie, as left-leaning as Bernie, as uncooperative with party machinery as Bernie. And that stuff is true enough. But the bigger truth is that what Bernie does, to great acclaim, that Hillary Clinton could never do is make big promises of institutional overthrow, tug on our imaginative heartstrings by laying out a future that might not be grounded in reality, and urge a revolution. Here is a truth about America: No one likes a woman who yells loudly about revolution.

I believe that the simple fact that Hillary has made it this far – where even her adversaries are forced to take her seriously, or resort to to dismissing her with sexism and baseless attacks – adds to her qualifications.

I don’t believe Hillary Clinton is perfect or that she hasn’t made mistakes – far from it. Like many others, I acknowledge that there are other female Democrats (Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand among others) who would be qualified to run for president. And I wish that they had challenged her, but at least in this election cycle it hasn’t happened.

As a Democrat and a feminist, I support Hillary Clinton because she is qualified and because she is a woman. I wouldn’t go as far as to say not to support Hilary is un-feminist, but as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently said at a rally for Hilary, “there’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other.”

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Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and Cory Booker at a rally for Hillary

*I also believe Hillary has great experience, vision, and well thought out policies. I have plenty of specific policy-related reasons for supporting Hillary as well. Ask me if you care to know.

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When were you going to tell me?

As I boarded the bus departing Ithaca last Saturday, my mother called after me, “Why do you always leave so soon? … Don’t forget to call home often! Call me if anything happens. Have a safe trip!” I rolled my eyes and looked up the bus driver who gave me a sympathetic smile as I maneuvered my bags down the narrow bus aisle.

“Yeah, ok,” I replied to my mom without looking back. “I love you, but you’re such a hypocrite,” I wanted to turn back and tell her. But instead, I threw by bags down and settled into my seat.

I’ve written about my relationship with my parents before (read here and here), but there is one pattern in my mother’s behavior that has particularly grown to bother me in recent years.

The first incident was in 2010. I was a sophomore in college when my father was hospitalized for an emergency. As I was not living at home, I did not witness the incident and only learned that something was wrong  when my mother called me to ask me if I had a spare copy of the house keys. She explained that she was at the hospital, she had locked herself out of the house by accident, and my younger brother wasn’t answering her calls. Confused, I answered no and asked her if everything was ok. She quickly dismissed my concern and reassured me it was. Not reassured, I called my brother, who alerted me he had just learned that my father had been taken to the hospital in an ambulance and that my mother was with him.

Later that night, after confirming that my father would be ok, my concern and anxiety for him turned to anger towards my mother. Why hadn’t she told me as soon as it happened? Why did she lie to me on the phone? When I confronted her, her replies were dismissive. I was at school and she didn’t want to distract me from my studies. It turned out not to be an emergency – everything was ok. There was nothing I could have done and she didn’t want to make me worry unnecessarily.

I grew even angrier. He was my father and I had a right to know. I was nineteen – an adult now – and she didn’t need to protect me like a child. Would she have hid this from me forever if I had not found out from my brother? I felt betrayed, as if she didn’t trust me – or trust that I could handle the truth.

Over the next five years she continued to downplay incidents. When my father was hospitalized under the same circumstances again, almost exactly three years later, it took a confused text from my brother (“mom said dad’s in the hospital again, do you know what happened?”) and a game of phone tag with my mother before I finally got the truth. She reassured me my father was fine. She didn’t want me to worry and didn’t want me to interrupt my grad classes and make the trip home (I did anyways). Nearly two years ago, she called to tell me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and would get a mastectomy the following week. She promised she would be ok and that I didn’t need to make a trip home for her operation (again, of course I went home). Each time I berated her attempts to shield me from worry and “unnecessary life interruptions” and urged her to tell me as soon as things happened.

A little over a month ago, I received a late-night call from my father. “Your mom found out last week she has a tumor in her uterus. They don’t know yet if it’s cancer, but she needs surgery to remove it.” I thanked him for telling me, and promised I would call her soon. As soon as I hung up, I started to cry angrily into my pillow. Of course she didn’t tell me again. Of course I had to find out from someone else. Why would I have expected any different?

It was 1am, but I needed to talk to someone so I called one of my friends living on the west coast. He listened patiently as I cried into the phone, and then told me exactly what I needed to hear. “Eva, I’m so sorry, that sucks. But really think for a second. You can understand why she doesn’t tell you, right?” His parents were Korean, and in this respect just like mine – the worse a situation was, the more covered up it was and the less it was discussed. Our parents truly thought that they were doing right by protecting us from unnecessarily worrying about a situation we could not change. It was simply not in their culture to share, but to brave on in solitude. “If anything happened to my parents, I’d probably find out only after they died.” I laughed like it was a joke, even though we both knew it wasn’t. He made me promise that when I did call my mother that I wouldn’t lose my temper and yell at her.

A week ago, I received a holiday card from one of my best friends in college. Over the past year or so, he had stopped responding to my texts and calls. The card included a few words updating me on his life, and ended with an apology for being ” a shitty friend and bad at keeping in touch.” The thing is – I don’t think of him as a shitty friend. Yes, I missed hearing about his life and hearing the sound of his voice, but he had been really important to me in college and I’ll always remember that.

As I struggled with family emergencies and other personal hardships, throughout college I was incredibly fortunate to have a few good friends who I could rely on. Friends who were patient listeners and non-judgmental confidants. Friends who gave sympathy but never pity, and were able to dole out no-bullshit advice and tell me to shut up when I was whining. While my mother may have spent her entire life safeguarding her emotions and maintaining a solitary front in the face of adversity, I never had to carry my emotional burdens alone if I didn’t want to.

I do understand why my mother chooses not to tell my brother and I when confronted with difficult situations, but I still don’t think she is right. I don’t know if she will ever be able to lean on me and to share in the way that I want, but at least I am grateful that I have people who I trust and who I can count on. Who I can call at any hour of night to share my burdens and my problems, and whose burdens I am always glad to share as well.

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Because compassion is not a finite resource

Earlier this weekend, writer, professor, social activist, and feminist Roxane Gay wrote an Op-Ed for the NYT titled “Of Lions and Men: Mourning Samuel DuBose and Cecil the Lion.” I enormously respect her message, and it is an important one that has been echoed by many recently – yet I found some of her more peripheral statements to be especially eloquent and meaningful to me.

Often, when I write about race or gender, people offer apologies.

They say, I apologize for my fellow white people.
They say, I apologize for my fellow men.

I understand this desire to say, “We are not all like that,” or, “I wish the world were a better place.”

Sometimes, saying sorry is, at least, saying something. It is acknowledging wrongs that need to be addressed.

These apologies, however, also place an emotional burden on the recipient. You ask the marginalized to participate in the caretaking of your emotions. You ask them to do the emotional labor of helping you face the world as it truly is.

In these words, Gay was able to articulate a discomfort that I have always felt upon hearing others apologize on behalf of their race/gender/social class. A feeling that I have had to dismiss or that even later led to guilt because I could never explicitly justify what made me feel so uncomfortable about what was a sincere apology.

Even worse are the discussions in which I have expressed frustrations about personal struggles I have faced growing up as the daughter of conservative and patriarchal Chinese immigrants, or as a female in a male-dominated field, or as someone who feels fierce loyalty to their LGBTQ friends, when my conversation partner has felt the need to address that while they may be any combination of white, or male, or heterosexual, or from a privileged economic background (which is 100% ok! Many of my friends fall into these categories!), they personally do not fit the negative stereotypes of “their label” and that they are open-minded and sympathetic. I am literally NEVER blaming that particular person for my past problems, and that they get defensive only makes us both uncomfortable. I wonder if they’re missing the point.

When you hear, “black lives matter,” don’t instinctively respond that all lives matter, as if one statement negates the other. Instead, try to understand why people of color might be compelled to remind the world that their lives have value.

When others share their reality, don’t immediately dismiss them because their reality is dissimilar to yours, or because their reality makes you uncomfortable and forces you to see things you prefer to ignore.

Avoid creating a hierarchy of human suffering as if compassion were a finite resource. Don’t assume that if one person says, “These are the ways I am marginalized,” they are suggesting you know nothing of pain and want.

I agree with Roxane Gay that it can be difficult to have discussions about race or gender, and it can be difficult to empathize with those who are different from us. But we can always make the active choice to listen and empathize. Compassion is not a finite resource.

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Worried about worrying

I was sitting in a booth in a sparsely populated bar (or what qualifies for one here in Princeton) last Wednesday, when during a lull of conversation, the friend sitting across from me made eye contact and asked, “Are you happy?” Caught off guard, I paused for a moment before slowly replying, “I think that my default mood tends to be a bit lower than most people’s, so I don’t know how to answer that.”*

I think the appropriate answer would have been a resounding “yes.” The four of us were coming to the end of the period in January known to Princeton second-year graduate students as “Generals week(s).” Generals referring to the benchmark exams all graduate students take in their second year, in which they present their research plans and progress in front of a committee of professors who will decide whether the student is adequately prepared to be formally acknowledged as a “PhD candidate,” whether they require further preparation, or even if they might be better off leaving the program. Two of us had passed our Generals exams, and the other two had finished the exam and were waiting on their results. The occasion was celebratory – we had just finished what was recognized as one of the most stressful events in a PhD – yet the mood seemed almost sombre.

“It was pretty anti-climatic.” “It went alright.” “My committee didn’t ask me about anything I actually studied.” “It doesn’t matter how you did – you passed.” “What do I do now? What am I supposed to worry about now that Generals is over?”

That was the lingering thought. Now what? The poser of the initial question continued (I’m paraphrasing here), “I don’t think people living in the first-world worry any less than people living in the third-world. They’re just different worries. Instead of ‘Will my family have anything to eat tonight?’ it’s ‘Is so-and-so cheating on me?’ Even when we have everything we need, we invent things to worry about.” Which sounds oh so entitled, but not entirely untrue.

In the past few years, I’ve grown accustomed to functioning very well under pressure. Given a certain crisis, or expectations and deadlines for a certain task, I work more efficiently, and find it easier to be more mentally and emotionally focused. Ironically, now that my life is absent of major personal or academic crises, I find myself more restless and unfocused. It’s not the lack of tasks to do, but perhaps the lesser gravitas of those tasks. Or perhaps the vacuum that’s left when encouragement and support from peers tends to diminish as you lose those causes to support. Last night I drunkenly penned a birthday message to a best friend of mine, telling him I loved him and missed him, and expressing hopes that we could talk soon, even if he just wanted to rant about his daily life to me. Perhaps I just want to donate a bit of worry to someone else’s life for now.

*In retrospect, this was a pretty stupid thing to say. I have no idea of comparing my emotional states to others’. I guess I meant that I’ve always perceived myself to be more morbid in personality than most others around me, something which I have come to terms with.

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Diamonds and Rust

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“Cool girl”

Late to join the bandwagon, but this heavily-discussed passage from Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl is worth reading.

“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”

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As discussed by: TIME Magazine,  Buzzfeed, The Telegraph, Jezebel.

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Private confessions in public

Yesterday, my mother was baptized. As I couldn’t be present at her baptism and the preceding testimony, I pressed her to tell me what she was going to say. This afternoon, she emailed me an English-translated transcript of the speech she gave.

Her baptism testimony was the most communicative I’ve ever heard her in 22 years. Standing before the large congregation comprising the local Chinese Christian church, she spoke openly and honestly about the past 30 years of her life in the United States. She spoke about her strained relationship my father after he fell ill with Parkinson’s disease and became physically disabled. She spoke about the terror she felt after her breast cancer diagnosis (her own father passed away from cancer decades earlier). She spoke about the weariness and weakness brought on by healing complications and necessary second, third, and fourth surgeries in the same year. And she spoke about her unwillingness to burden her children with what she felt to be her own problems. But she also spoke about the support of the church community, and the gratitude she felt. She spoke about the consolation she found in prayer, and the strength she found in finding God.

These things she had never said directly to me or my brother. For over two decades I’ve had to decipher whether “I’m tired” simply meant that she was tired, or that she was depressed but unable (or unwilling) to say so directly. Superficial arguments always ran much deeper, and bad news was delivered when she could no longer hide an emergency. But that speech was written with an openness and a vulnerability that I had never heard, that I found almost hard to believe.

So my first reaction to her words was that of skepticism. Especially about the God part. When my father was baptized less than two years ago, I looked upon his decision with the same cynicism. Part of me wanted to blame his “Parkinson’s brain,” the idea that his disease would eventually take hold of his rational faculties. Don’t get me wrong; I was glad that he had become a Christian, that he had beliefs to share and a community to share them with. But both he and my mother had spent most of their lives dismissing and even scorning religion. God doesn’t exist. What proof is there? Faith is blindness.

But this time, I could not blame my mother’s conversion on a mind-altering disease. And I also could not deny that she had changed for the better. That she had become happier, and her relationship with my father more harmonious. Could it be that her brush with mortality caused her to reassess her priorities? Maybe. Could it be attributed to one of her surgeries which helped resolve problems of chronic and debilitating pain? Probably. That going to church and bible study gave her a community to belong to and a support system? Yes, certainly. But perhaps she did also gain faith. Was that so impossible or so wrong? When I discussed this with my brother, he argued that the motives behind a good deed do not negate the goodness of the deed. And perhaps that’s true, and perhaps that’s enough.

But one more thing that strikes me is the public nature of her testimony. Dozens of people – an entire church congregation – heard her testimony. They listened to her stories. They received her confessions. They heard her promises. And in some way, they will hold her to her words. Perhaps these words were meant for my brother and I – the private conversation she could never have with us – but not for us alone. They were private words that had to be spoken in public.

I spoke with my mother briefly on Sunday evening, and she said she was surprised at how many people cried, how many people were moved by her story. When I, again, told this to my brother, he said he wasn’t surprised.

I think there’s something to be said about the public confessions of private matters. Narcissism aside, there is something deeply cathartic about confession. I am glad that my mother found a forum in which she felt comfortable expressing herself. Some words are more easily spoken to the world than to an individual. There is also something brave about presenting yourself honestly to others, for them to understand you, and to judge you, and perhaps to hold you accountable for your words.

Note: I realize that another barrier to communication between my parents and my brother and I is a language barrier. Even given the circumstances and the desire, without a translator at home, my mother probably couldn’t have communicated these thoughts in an eloquent and unbroken way as she did in her native tongue. It’s a struggle I’m sure is familiar to the children of many immigrant parents.

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