When I was young, I chose to be Mulan for Halloween three years in a row. I had her traditional dress and even the cherry blossom hair clip she wore in the movie. I remember my mother asking me in my third year if I was sure I didn’t want to be something else for Halloween this time, as she looked at the dress that had become battered after years of wear and tear. We were driving in the car, my brother, mom, and me. I must have been in third grade. I looked at my thick, long black hair, olive skin, and brown eyes; a complete contrast to my American family made up of blond, fair, and blue. I remember looking at her, sighing, but confidently saying, “Mom, I’m going to be Mulan for Halloween, but I don’t want to be Princess Mulan. I want to be hero Mulan.”
Mulan, to my adolescent mind, represented strength, ferocity, and rebelliousness. She deliberately disobeyed not only her father’s wishes, but the patriarchal regime in which she lived in to go on and save China from the Hun’s invasion. She proved to me that women could be just as strong, if not stronger, than men when we really put our minds and attitudes after it. Sure, she fell in love with a man, but for once that didn’t absorb her entire storyline. Mulan was brave, took risks, listened to her heart, and lived to serve others. To save her disabled father from enlistment, she ran off and impersonated a man to take his place. Although she struggled through training to keep up with her male counterparts, she ultimately banded with the team and proved that with hard work, she could be just as good as the rest of them. With songs like “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” and “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” the sexist stereotypes Mulan had to face were clear. Despite getting caught and thrown out, left to dishonor her family name forever, she didn’t give up. Instead, she proved to China that women could be smart, brave, strong, courageous, graceful and the hero of their own story. Mulan was both beautiful and strong, smart and compassionate. Was this what it took to be Asian, to bring honor through heroism and wit? To my adolescent eyes, it was. I saw myself represented in the character of Mulan. She was more than just a pretty princess who sang and waited for her prince.
Looking back through the rear-view mirror, my mother asked what I meant when I said I wanted to be “hero Mulan.” I promptly answered her. “I need to cut my hair, like Mulan does with her sword. Long hair is for princesses. I don’t want to be a princess.”
It was never an unknown thing that I was adopted. There was never a family meeting where my parents sat me down and said, “Lan, we have something to tell you,” like how it’s portrayed in movies. I had always known that I was born in Vietnam and was adopted at two years old. I proudly told people who asked about my ethnicity that I was Vietnamese, but I never really had any other information to give them. It wouldn’t be until I grew older that the full extent of not knowing my culture would really sink in.
After my Mulan stage passed, I was on to cartoons and kid shows that played on Saturday mornings. My brother and I would race downstairs and wrestle over the remote to see who could choose their show first. My brother never stood a chance to my unfair moves and therefore would succumb to whatever show I wanted to watch. Back then, I was not only faster than him, but stronger and smarter as well; always able to out wrestle him for the remote. I turned on the only show I knew my mother would not let me watch, The Winx Club, and for good reasons too. You know, the same reasons she didn’t like me playing with Barbies either—they set terrible expectations in regard to body image. But my favorite character from this show was Musa.
She was the music fairy and could sing and play almost any instrument imaginable. Of course she could—she was the Asian fairy. Musa had short hair with bangs and dressed like a tomboy. Well, a skimpy tomboy. Never mind what her body shape did to my self-esteem and knowledge about what girls my age should look and dress like. Her signature color was red. Red like a Chinese dragon and her hair was jet black, just like mine. In all truths, she wasn’t my favorite Winx member, but I felt drawn to her because she was the only Asian character on the show. Except, she wasn’t the same color as me. My dark, olive skin was a stark contrast to her pale, white. Yet, she was supposed to be Asian-American too. It was at this point I was beginning to realize there was a difference between being Asian and Asian-American.
I remember at age ten, a substitute teacher in 4th grade asked me where I was from. I told her Auburn. She asked me where my family was from. I told her California. She asked me what my heritage was. I paused, trying to find the definition in my mind. And then I realized what she was really asking. I told her I was born in Vietnam. This seemed to be the answer she was looking for and I could see the face of unsettlement that I was far too familiar with. I quickly added, but I was adopted and have lived in America since I was two. There it was. That click. The look of relief as if now we had something in common that was acceptable.
This triggered a change. When people now asked me my ethnicity, I would say that I was born in Vietnam, but would quickly add that I’ve lived in America all my life. This seemed to warrant a look of relief in people, something I didn’t understand as a child, but something I knew seemed to ease people’s minds. Make them more comfortable.
Now my identity was Asian-American, and according to Musa, this meant dressing and acting, well, American. Throughout the seasons, there was never any reference to her Asian culture. She never wore anything to signify her Asian heritage. In fact, the only giveaway was her black hair and her almond shaped eyes, the same eyes I had.
I looked at this Asian character and understood that to be accepted as an Asian in America, it meant becoming more American. This time, my short black hair wasn’t enough. I went to the bathroom and cut myself some bangs. There. Asian-American.
My parents tried their hardest to keep my Vietnamese heritage very much a part of me. We celebrated Tết, Vietnamese Lunar New Years, every year for a while. My mother would buy red envelopes and put a dollar coin in them as they do in Vietnam. It’s supposed to bring you luck and good fortune in the coming year. I wish I could say more about these celebrations, but that was pretty much the extent. They didn’t last for more than a couple of years, put to rest by both my parents’ and my disinterest. My parents never cooked Vietnamese food; they didn’t know how. I never learned the language, much to the disappointment and disapproval of every nail tech I’ve encountered at the nail salon. I had become so detached from being Asian that the only reminder I had was that I did not look like my white friends. But as I went through school, I became more and more displaced with my identity. I started to feel that I did not fit in with either the Americans or the Asians.
The Suite Life of Zack and Cody was one of the only shows my brother and I agreed on when we came downstairs for cartoons. Once again, I was elated that I saw an Asian actress on screen, and as a main cast member, nonetheless. London Tipton was far from a role model though. The daughter of a wealthy hotel owner, London’s whole plot line was being rich and dumb. I didn’t understand it back then that London and Maddie were supposed to be satires of the “smart Asian, dumb blonde” stereotypes, but that didn’t matter anyway. London’s character could have been played by any ethnicity and her character story would have remained the same; rich and dumb. It was as if the writers forgot that her character was portrayed by an Asian actress. Her clothes, mannerisms, and hairstyles never once reflected anything but American culture and style.
At this same time, I was becoming aware of another type of Asian-Americans: Rich Asians. I was introduced to this notion both on-screen and in real life that wealthy Asians were the only Asians that could make it, way before the movie Crazy Rich Asians was released. Growing up I had Asian friends whose families made it big and that was their identity. It seemed like the world was accepting of them because they had the universal signifier that deemed them respect: money. But I didn’t have that. For most of my life my family was very much low-middle class. Yet I looked at London Tipton and I saw that it didn’t matter what her character was like or how smart she was because she was rich. So maybe she was born somewhere in Asia? Or maybe she grew up in America like me? But maybe none of that matters, because when you’re in America, you are just American. And maybe then you don’t acknowledge that other part, that other identity. I didn’t understand this concept as a child. My mind only knew what it saw, and what I saw was that if you were rich, it didn’t matter where you came from.
I looked at London’s clothes and the way she carried herself. I could try to do that too. Her thick long hair was always in these beautiful curls. The same curls my white friends had. I could do that too, to some extent. So, I confided in my mom that I wanted a perm. I had decided that my straight hair was no longer accepted. I needed curly hair like the rest of them.
I think everyone has a horror story about the first time they dyed their hair, before YouTube existed and taught us any better. I was 12 when I first asked my mother if I could dye my hair, but was met with a swift no. Nevertheless, on my 13th birthday she surprised me with an appointment at her hair salon. When the lady asked what I wanted, I showed her a picture I had printed from the school library. Wendy Wu, from the movie Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior. The modern-day Mulan, this character was the epitome of what I wanted to be as an Asian-American. She was popular, beautiful and running to be homecoming queen at her high school. She even had a perfectly handsome white boyfriend. In the movie, she is quick to dismiss the Asian stories her mother and grandmother would try to tell her about her culture, labeling them as “boring.” Why should she care? They lived in California now.
Her life turns upside down when a monk, Shen, comes to ask for Wendy’s help in defeating the evil spirit Yan Lo. Wendy finds out that she is a reincarnated Yin Warrior whose destiny is to defeat Yan Lo after his thousand-year slumber. Of course, Wendy wants nothing to do with her Chinese destiny, she’s too busy baking cupcakes to promote her homecoming queen campaign. Eventually she gets on board with her destiny and learns the tradition of her ancestors and goes on to defeat the evil spirit.
I suppose that means she accepted her culture in the end. That part really wasn’t clear. What was clear was the confusion I had of how to fuse Asian and American culture. Wendy is the typical teenager obsessed with boys, makeup, and coffee—which is fine. However, the movie instills a message that you can only be one culture or the other at a time. Shen is seen as weird and bizarre to Wendy’s friends when he is in his traditional attire and sports a man bun. In fact, he’s only allowed to keep his hair so that he might “fit in better.” Shen’s only accepted and viewed as “hot” from Wendy’s friends when he gets a makeover from Wendy—which consists of “regular” American clothes and a new, shorter hairdo. Now all of a sudden, he’s popular and he’s a new, hot commodity.
So, I sat in the hairdresser’s chair with my lesson of conformity and asked for blonde highlights. Five hours later, I walked outside with my brand-new bumblebee-striped hair, thinking fully well that I had mastered what it meant to be Asian-American. Conformity.
Unfortunately, looking back, the Asian role models I had didn’t do me any service. I was inundated with more and more American definitions of what it meant to be Asian. As I grew up, I started to understand that these definitions were no more than stereotypes portrayed in Western media and expected of in Western society. Rich Asian. Smart Asian. Bad driver. Math genius. Rice lover. Tiger mom. Musical prodigy.
In 2016, Canwen Xu gave a TedTalk titled “I Am Not Your Asian Stereotype.” In it she too talks about the struggles of growing up Asian-American in a place where diversity was not rich. She stated, “As a child [she] quickly began to realize that [she] had two options: conform to the stereotype that was expected of [her] or conform to the whiteness that surrounded [her], there was no in between.” She, like me, began to realize that most people aren’t truly racist, they’re just uncomfortable with different. She, like me, couldn’t get away from the labels of what American culture thought was the norm of someone from an Asian descent.
All of a sudden, I wasn’t a good student because I worked hard, I was a good student because I was Asian. I wasn’t playing the clarinet because I wanted to, I played the clarinet because I was Asian. But what happens when your only identity is your race? I tried to distance myself as much as possible. Changing my clothes, dying my hair, whatever I could do to reject the differences that people only saw. I even considered changing my name once to something that was “easier to pronounce.” And then, without realization, white became my norm too.
I now know that I’m not just the stereotypes American culture likes to put in their films. I’m a culmination of so many more aspects. I am smart, but I’m not math smart. I am a great driver, and I hate rice. And my music teacher can attest that I was no musical prodigy. But just as I started to become confident about my identity, accepting that I am more than conforming to American stereotypes, something dawned on me. How am I supposed to represent myself as a true Asian-American woman when the representations that are shown through the media portray such a Westernized version of Asian culture? How was I supposed to learn about my ethnicity and where I come from if the information I always receive is skewed? Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou, authors of The Asian-American Achievement Paradox, talk a lot about the idea of Asians being the “model minority” in Western society. Society sees us as hardworking, smart, and diverse, but first we must reject our culture to fit in with the rest. They use us for diversity points, but don’t want us to truly be diverse. But where does that leave a 21-year-old woman looking for her culture? How do I begin to tackle not wanting to conform, but also understand that some conformity is okay, natural even?
I’m sorry to say the answer isn’t at the end of this essay because I’m still looking for it myself. But maybe the first step is to stop seeing everything as Asian or American, or Asian-American. The truth is, I am both cultures. And so will my children, my grandchildren and so forth. Instead of teaching them and teaching myself how to act or to dress, or to look or how to fit into one culture or the other, we should be accepting of the fact that it’s never going to be split fifty-fifty. I shouldn’t have to apologize to my Asian culture for dying my naturally thick black hair, just as I shouldn’t have to apologize to the Western stereotype for being really bad at math. The blend of Asian-American isn’t ditching one for the other, but it can start with rejecting the expectations we “think” are the right ways of representation.
But maybe there’s some hope. This year, Disney is releasing a live action movie adaptation of Mulan. I have very mixed feelings about this. My inner Disney child is utterly upset and disgusted at the absence of critical characters like Mushu, General Shang, Yao and Ling, that have been replaced by a new sorceress and villains and other unknown characters—not to mention the lack of singing. But on the other hand, I look at the cast that Disney has chosen, and I see a cast that, for the first time, is culturally accurate in their representation. The actors and actresses are actually from China, imagine that! They fall a bit short as the director is a woman from New Zealand, but hey, at least they tried.
I sit and I watch the trailer of a movie claiming to be the story of Mulan that looks nothing like the story of Mulan I grew up adoring. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe this is Disney’s chance to tell a story that is culturally accurate. To stray away from what Western society wants to see of Asian culture and show us what it actually is. To depict an authentic story that derives from an authentic Asian perspective. Maybe this is a movie I can proudly show my children one day, point to the screen, and tell them that this is a part of Asian culture that needs to be shown more. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.
I don’t dress up as Mulan for Halloween anymore, and I don’t think I ever will again. But I will never stop looking for the “me” in films and media. I will never stop noticing the stereotypes people expect of me and I will never stop experiencing the uncomfortableness of others; the stares, the shifts, the tripping over their own tongue as they try to pronounce my “foreign” name.
Good. Let them keep tripping
To whom it may concern,
We are not human.
Our constructs of race, sex, religion, general background, sexual preference, they define us. We have fought wars over religion we still do. Everyone wants to be right in a world full of wrong. Truth is, we are all wrong. We see color and religions. We see sins. We pass laws to say that we can’t separate others, but we make laws that say we must have a ratio of members different from each other. A recipe of races. Why does this matter? It’s because we made it matter. We have decided to separate ourselves, to make ourselves unique. And while yes, we are unique, we hate others for being unique. And therefore:
We are not human.
Why do we separate ourselves, why do we stand and fight to be different? Take away the color, take away the names, take away the religion, then what are we? Are we nothing? Are we bland? Are we lacking substance? No, if we understood, truly understood. Beneath the beliefs, the want to be different, the want to be right:
We are human.
We as humans want to survive, we choose to fight the hardships and be better. We choose to rise to comfort because any farther then we’d be subject of hateful envy. You see, we are raised pessimistic, the reality being that we envy and are jealous. I understand, ; for that, we are only human. It is when we deprive others of their humanity that we have lost ours. That man sitting near you, he is your brother.
Look past the tattoos, the piercings, the religious items, the clothes, look past everything. We are bound by spirit, a bond that every human should feel. Ask his story, he may tell you, and if he doesn’t, do not judge, for he is human too. Everyone looks different on the outside, but our story is the same. We all feel hatred, happiness, sadness, grief, and wonder. We all know what it's like to have someone leave. We all know what it’s like to have someone come into our life. We all know what it is like to not feel enough.
We are human.
Before we look at someone and judge, look past the outside, look past the evils, look past the things that make them different from you. Lay down your arms, drop your walls, and talk to each other. Everyone has a story; nobody truly knows each other.
We are human. That is reason enough.
With honor, love, and acceptance,
Why permit an army of leprous, prosperity-sucking, progress-blasting Asiatics befoul our thoroughfares, degrade the city, repel immigration, drive out our people, break up our homes, take employment from our countrymen, corrupt the morals of our youth, establish opium joints, buy or steal the babe of poverty or slave, and taint with their brothels the lives of our young men?...If no other method of keeping them at a distance from our people can be found, let the citizens furnish them with lots on the waterfront, three fathoms below low tide.
—The Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, quoting an unnamed journalist discussing the problem of the Chinese in Tacoma, August, 1885.
Through the blurred lens of the fifty-cent point-of-view telescope, the trees across Commencement Bay resembled a Renoir landscape more than an actual panorama— burnt orange and yellow waves of muted trees crash into swirling reds and many shades of green. It is late fall, and I have driven twenty minutes up SR 509 to Saltwater State Park as I do every couple weeks. This spectacular stretch of beach lies just beyond where Commencement Bay fades into the open waters of the Puget Sound. I walk along the back half of the beach covered in driftwood, past McSorley Creek where salmon spawn until November. I examine a large fallen leaf maple lying on the sand, its roots twisting like spiders toward the chilly, cloud-heavy sky. It’s covered with dark-green seaweed and shiny black mollusks, the wood smooth from many seasons of sun and tide. Two seagulls in the distance race between the water and another piece of driftwood, chasing each other back and forth over the green-blue bay horizon. As I watch them, I take in a deep breath of salt, plankton and cedar. Looking northwest, the Olympic Mountains recede under layers of swampy, dark nimbostratus clouds and higher up, white swirling cirrus give way to the late afternoon sun.
Looking south, just behind the hills of Browns Point, is Tacoma, Washington. The City of Destiny—given this name upon being selected as the terminus for Northern Pacific’s transcontinental rail line—is a city of 215,000 halfway between Seattle and the state capital Olympia, Washington. The bluffs hide the downtown urban core and the Foss Waterway, a finger of the bay which divides nature and the Port of Tacoma. Huge red cranes and dull-grey tankers line the banks of the Foss, and further down are the pulp mills and factories, only a few of which are still operational. In 1981, the Thea Foss Waterway was declared a federal Superfund site. Fish were found with strange lesions and tumors in their livers. After three decades of cleanup efforts, it is a national model for environmental healing, a reconciliation with nature, if you will. Condominiums and trendy restaurants dot the west side of the waterway, facing Mount Rainier. Fishermen pull red and stone crabs from the waterway for their dinners. Schools of minnows glisten as they move through the waterway up toward the greater Commencement Bay. Students from the University of Washington Tacoma descend the modernist steps—past the hundreds of glass sculptures that line the Chihuly Glass bridge—to have lunch with friends by the almost pastoral urban waterway.
Only a few miles away is the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC). The NWDC is not any different from most prisons. Its gray, unassuming exterior hides and silences the terrified people within. With manicured lawns and flags flying above what looks like a benign government structure, the prison was built on the edge of toxic lands east of downtown Tacoma. Few Tacomans know where it is, what it is, or what it represents.
The NWDC opened its doors in the spring of 2004. It was designed to hold a maximum of 500 immigrant detainees, but for much of its history, the NWDC has held over 1,500 people. The Department of Homeland Security pays a for-profit corporation for up to 1,500 beds, creating a structural incentive to arrest and detain undocumented immigrants and detain them for as long as possible.
At the junction between where Commencement Way joins the Foss is the Tacoma Chinese Reconciliation Park. I first visited it in 2011 when it had been open only for a couple of months. The park is only a few minute drive from my North Tacoma home. I head north on Alder, take a right and drive down hilly North 30th Street, through Old Tacoma, not far from where the Chinese lived in the 1880s. The view is spectacular—as it is on any cloud-free day. The northern Cascade Mountain range fades into Mount Rainier, a 14,000 foot, perpetually snow-covered volcano that appears almost perfectly symmetrical from a distance, hovering just south and east of the city. When my mom first visited us here, and caught a glimpse of Rainier on the drive back from the airport, she gasped when she saw it: “That’s not real, is it?”
The park was still under construction when I discovered it, but the walkway and most of the sculptures, along with the placards telling the story of the Chinese in Tacoma, were all in place. I walked the gravel and stone path with dark red stones boundaries. A large stucco and wood welcoming sign with an overhanging roof of ornately carved, Chinese slate tile read: Your Journey to Reconciliation Begins Here. I walked closer, and read the text on the first museum quality placard:
Toward healing our community from this act, the park’s peaceful Chinese landscape is meant to promote a deep sense of peace, healing and reconciliation.
The next placard’s large caption read: Toward Gold Mountain. Gold Mountain, or Gam Saan, the near-mythical America, the fantasy and myth of which glossed the lips of famine-sickened Chinese laborers in their home country. The United Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads were desperate for low-wage laborers to build the First Transcontinental Railroad, 1,900 miles of continuous track from Council Bluffs, Iowa to the Pacific in the 1860s. Hyperbole about the opportunities in the expanding young nation, not only on the railroads, but in mines and tunnel-blasting crews, were used in propaganda fliers by unscrupulous recruiters and smugglers who packed Chinese so tightly into ship for the two month voyage that many of them suffocated to death or died from starvation.
The next placard on my walk explored the complex story of the Chinese in America during the following two decades, a story characterized by hardship and resilience, but also hate and intolerance. In 1882, recession and xenophobia culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of laborers from China. On the next placard read: Expulsion of the Chinese from Tacoma on November 3, 1885.
I walked toward the ting, the fire-red, Chinese pagoda-like structure at the back of the park. A hundred yards behind it were train tracks, and above that, a 1940s concrete overpass. Next to the northbound rails on a detached strip of track is parked a maroon BNSF boxcar with a stenciled white skeleton almost like a Day of The Dead figure, though a bit more modernist and playful than haunting. As I approach the ting, I see workmen repairing it. I watched them for a few minutes as I struggled to make sense of the narratives that I read on the placards, the stories of the Chinese and the citizens of Tacoma, the place I have called home for five years, the place I intend to call my final home. They worked carefully, filling holes in the wood, and adding a layer of paint to the impressive thirty by forty foot wood structure supported by eight granite columns, each weighing 3,000 pounds.
In the front of the pavilion stand two stone lions, each carved from a single piece of granite. Within each of their mouths, behind a row of menacing teeth, lie a large white and black, spotted granite ball, small enough to be able to roll around the lions’ mouths, but too large to be removed. The guardian lions were carved by an artisan from Tacoma’s Chinese sister city in Fuzhou, China—which commissioned and funded both the ting and the massive stone cats.
Guardian lion statues—one female and one male made from bronze, granite or stone— have been used to ward off evil and protect temples, imperial tombs, government buildings, and the homes of the wealthy in China since the Han dynasty, dating back to 200 BC. The male statue, nearly always with his mouth wide open, is responsible for protecting the structure itself. Around the neck of this one, a stone necklace and carved coins with painted Chinese letters—the only color on either of the two statues. The lioness has her mouth closed with her paw resting gently on her cub, as is tradition: the small cub looking like an angry lapdog or gremlin hybrid. The youngling is tasked with guarding the contents and lives within the structures they guard. Similar statues also guard the entrances of nearly every Chinatown around the world where a Chinese diaspora can be found.
One of the workmen notices me watching. He calls down.
“Chinese wood does not seem to do well around here,” he says.
It is not only Chinese wood that has suffered in the damp Pacific Northwest air, but also Chinese bodies as well.
Anti-Chinese crusaders throughout the West had become increasingly frenzied and emboldened: whites in the Sierra Nevada Mountains beat and killed Chinese gold-panners working rivers already bereft of gold. In Rock Spring, Wyoming, a mob of armed, mostly Irish coal miners marched into Chinatown and burned it to the ground. Fifty Chinese who fled into the hills froze and died. Throughout the West, Chinese were driven from their homes. Chinatowns were looted and destroyed. Yet nothing matched the scope and scale of what happened in Tacoma, one of the largest and most prosperous towns in the Pacific Northwest, the city that beat out Seattle and Portland to become the thriving terminus of the transcontinental railroad.
Vitriol and rage filled the Alpha Opera House in Tacoma on February 21st, 1885. Nearly 1,000 people, or half of the voting citizens (white men) of the town of 6,000 gathered to discuss what was to be done with the Chinese. At a smaller, more secret meeting on October 3rd , the major formed a committee to oversee the previous meetings, as something had to be done about the Chinese menace in Tacoma.
Those at that clandestine meeting had decided that the 800 Chinese citizens of Tacoma— many of whom had been living and working, and even praying in Christian churches, side by side with white residents for nearly a decade—would have to abandon the city by 1:30 in the afternoon of November 3rd. An anointed “Committee of Fifteen” was charged with informing the Chinese residents of their fate.
Over the next few weeks, all but 150 Chinese residents fled Tacoma to Port Townsend and Seattle—other towns also in the Washington Territories—as well as Canada, San Francisco and even Portland, where anti-Chinese mobs had recently threatened the lives of their Chinese communities. Those who remained had hoped to hold on—that goodness and justice would prevail, that their shops and stores, businesses and homes, all that they owned in the world, would be protected, would be saved. They petitioned officials in the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, who pleaded with the Governor of the Washington Territories, along with federal officials, to protect the rights and safety of the Chinese residents of Tacoma, who lived legally and peacefully in the city.
The hoped-for response never arrived.
Even though they had yet to open, at 9:30 in the morning on November 3rd a coordinated cacophony of steam whistles from the paper mills and foundries and shops cut through a wet, haunting stillness—for a moment, the city appeared deserted. However, within minutes of the haunting shrill, saloons that never closed were suddenly latched shut. Businesses that normally would have been open already remained closed. As planned, nearly five hundred white men armed with clubs and guns gathered near the Chinese quarter and began to march through the streets. Pounding on the doors and shouting racist demands, they ordered Chinese to leave by 1:30 that afternoon.
Those that defied and asserted their rights were dragged from their homes, their windows were smashed, and their doors destroyed. Many of the Chinatown’s homes were vandalized and looted. Over the next several hours, all but a few of the 150 Chinese men, women, and children were rounded up and forced to march in the cold and driving rain that began in the early afternoon. Crying and desperate, they marched for hours on muddy, unpaved streets and roads, carrying all that remained of what they had owned, the little that was not taken by the white men—family photos and keepsakes, legal documents, jewelry and religious relics that the looters had missed, and woks and wooden spoons. They marched south until they arrived, seven painful miles later, at a small, semi-rural train station normally used for animals and freight. Once Chinatown had been emptied, their homes were torched and burned to the ground, beginning the erasure of the existence of the Chinese of Tacoma.
They arrived at the disconsolate, rural station, terrified, exhausted, and now homeless. Those that could not fit inside the small train station sheltered in a nearby storage shed throughout the night as they waited for the morning trains. Some could afford the $6 ticket to Portland; those who could not fund their own banishment piled into a passing freight train hours later. Those who could not fit into the freight car or feared for their lives, began the 140-mile trek to Portland. Many were seen walking the desolate tracks for days.
The first I remembered ever hearing about Tacoma was about twenty-five years ago from Sheldon, a friend of a friend. Over a couple of pints of English bitter at McGillin’s Old Ale House, a pub from the 1860s tucked into Drury Alley in downtown Philadelphia, he told me about property his family owned on nearby Vashon Island. The homestead— in the family for three generations— rested on the bluff high above the bay, just northwest of Tacoma.
Sheldon and his father stood close together on a small hill a few blocks from their home. They liked to throw a baseball around together at the small grass park just at the base of the hill, and afterwards would walk up the hill and look out together, trying to find evidence of the city. Sheldon recalled an early fall day, just toward the end of baseball season. They gazed through the ever-lingering haze that made Tacoma one of the most polluted cities during the middle decades of the twentieth century. He recalled:
“I remember looking out toward the brown-orange glow. I must have been seven or eight at the time, my Dad standing by me, both of us looking across the water. I asked him why we never stopped in Tacoma, which we had to drive through frequently on the way to visit family in Federal Way, about ten miles north. Dad took a breath—my measured and slightly religious father who never cursed and rarely had anything unpleasant to say—and said flatly, ‘cause it’s a shithole son. An absolute shithole.’”
And it is true that for more than half a century Tacoma was far less than a desirable city. Of course, I could selectively aggregate its best points and paint another picture, but by the time the eighties rolled around, Tacoma suffered from just about every problem that afflicted urban American.
Photographs of the town show a blighted, urban mess. The now renovated warehouses and factories that house the University of Washington Tacoma were dilapidated shells filled with garbage. Students learn where once sickly forests grew inside the buildings, right up from the filth, and addicts and the homeless lived in something like a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Methamphetamine dealing and use was rampant, and addicted near-zombies and sex workers roamed the downtown at all hours of the day and night. The police had pretty much given up on downtown, focusing their energy on other areas of the city.
And if these problems were not enough, consider the “Tacoma Aroma,” the near constant stench that has been described as “thrice cooked eggs” or “sulfur-ass death.” The aroma—a combination of sulfur emanating from the Simpson Tacoma Kraft pulp mill, toxic sediment raising from the beds of the Commencement Bay, an oil refinery, and a rendering plant— was frequently given as a reason why investors and developers ignored the city, while residents of tough, working class Tacoma merely viewed it as an unfortunate part of existence.
In 1916, Historian Herbert Hunt, in Tacoma: Its History and Its Builders both chronicles and reflects the xenophobic tenor of the late 1880s and the antipathy of many of the white citizens of Tacoma toward the Chinese, a sentiment that was growing nationally.
In Tacoma, idle men who wanted work reviled and hated the yellow competitor who had employment when he wanted it, because he labored for a less wage and was more servile. Yet, even among the whites who wanted work, there was developing an inclination to regard as menial anything that a Chinaman could do. Honest labor, in short, was losing its dignity. White women disliked to take employment as maids, because it put them in a class with the Chinese. A servant class, or menial class, was being developed, and this was the real serious aspect of the Chinese problem, and it could be cured only by ousting the Chinese. The cure came with a drastic remedy.
The abuses against the Chinese Tacomans can only be conceptualized as relics of history if they are framed as isolated narratives that do not represent historical trends. However, the extreme racism, nativism, and willingness to dehumanize others is hardly a relic of a bygone century.
In two edited books colleagues and I published with Oxford University and Columbia University Presses on the criminalization of immigration, we explore the lived experiences of those to whom we refer as the “Immigrant Other”. The chapters of Detaining the Immigrant Other: Global and Transnational Issues and The Immigrant Other: Lived Experiences in a Transnational World, interrogate how undocumented immigrants are marginalized, or “othered,” in over twenty countries around the world. Too frequently, history and even current discussions are written from the vantage point of those in power. We sought to honor and reposition the experiences of immigrants who we believe to be heroes. We insisted that the scholar who wrote in individual chapters engage in the difficult task of demonstrating the agency of the immigrants who make the painful decision to cross borders, yet to position this agency within the complex sociocultural contexts of colonialism, neoimpressionism, neoliberalism and corporate capitalism—forces that severely restrict their range of options. The power and constraints placed upon them by their forces make them all the more heroic.
The histories of the Chinese in America rarely present their own lived experience of marginalization. Very few first-person accounts of those who were driven out of Tacoma were recorded. Instead, white journalists and historians reflected the prevailing nativist attitudes of the day. The Chinese were viewed as subhuman creatures who were destroying the economic and moral fabric of the newly patchworked northwest territories instead of as highly productive community members subjected to abuse, hate crimes, and human rights violations. Newspaper articles that described how the Chinese were marched through the foul rain— away from homes they would never again see, from lives they worked for years to create—were almost always from the vantage point of those that expelled them.
On May 13, 2018 Marco Antonio Muñoz died by suicide in his jail cell in Starr County Jail in Rio Grande City, Texas. However, he did not hang himself from the ceiling, as is the more typically used method of disconsolate prisoners and detainees—this was a special padded cell that would not allow for such an approach. Marco was so tortured from being violently separated from his family, and so afraid to return to Honduras where families’ lives were in danger, he tied his shirt around his neck, fastened it to a drainage pipe on the floor, and thrashed around until he suffocated to death.
His senseless death mirrors the savagery and cruelty of the Trump administration’s policies on undocumented immigrants. Starting in October of 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Deferred Act For Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program would be rescinded. DACA has allowed nearly 800,000 young adults who arrived in the country without administrative authorization to obtain temporary (renewable every two years) legal status. DACAs were allowed to work legally, obtain drivers licenses and were required to pay income tax, provided they kept free of most legal infractions. However, what DACA most significantly did was end the terror that many families felt each day, wondering if their family members would be banished to a country that many of them do not even remember.
Imagine, if you can, the stress and psychological strain of this kind of uncertainty. Imagine what it would be like to have to start anew in a country that is not emotionally your own—you may not even speak the language—because of the status of your paperwork.
In June of this year, in an action that violates several international laws and human rights treaties, Sessions announced that the United States would no longer process refugee applications for those who are victims of “private crimes”—in other words, those who have fled their countries due to violence. This same week, Sessions announced a new “zero tolerance” of those who try to cross the border without authorization, threatening to criminally charge vulnerable immigrants and many refugees. President Trump subsequently threatened to take the judiciary out of the process, and allow immigration officials to turn potential refugees away at the border.
The Northwest Detention Center occupies part of the industrial area of Tacoma’s tide flats, situated between railroad tracks and a local propane distributor. It was built on the soil of a former toxic waste dump and Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup site. This land, according to the preliminary environmental impact statement by the Environmental Protection Agency, was believed to be so toxic that the agency worried about future liability and litigation. The inexpensive, available land was close to the urban core of the city yet, in an area where few residents would ever need to go—perfect attributes for a detention center— was so polluted that the federal government could easily be found culpable if inmates developed cancers and other health concerns.
The Northwest Detention Center is currently owned by The Geo Group, a for-profit, publicly traded corporation that operates 95 correctional and detention facilities globally, totaling 72,000 beds and employing 18,000 staff. Annual reports show that corrections and detention account for approximately two-thirds of Geo’s 1.5 billion dollars of revenue. Criminalizing immigration is big business. When the detention center is full and the company meets other contractual requirements, Geo grosses approximately $119,000 per day at the Northwest Detention Center.
The NWDC detains people from over 80 countries and the average length of stay is about 35 days. Less than ten percent of the detainees are level three offenders, or those who have committed any kind of violent crime. Most were found incidentally, for traffic stops or other minor offenses, and are now incarcerated.
For profit-detention of any time is ethically dubious at best, yet for-profit immigrant detention may be the most profound human rights violation perpetrated within and by the United States. The practice of othering undocumented immigrants— ascribing blame for problems that they had no hand in creating, dehumanizing them as a means of denying them constitutionally guaranteed rights, criminalizing their very existence, detaining their bodies and deporting them regardless of the potential consequences to their safety— has normalized the violation of the core values of our country.
It has been over one hundred and twenty-five years since the Chinese were uprooted from their homes and forced to leave Tacoma, but for other vulnerable immigrants today, life is equally as tenuous. The poorest of the poor, powerless over the forces of globalization—which serves as a global economic sponge, drying up jobs in one area and flooding another with bodies hoping to survive—are often forced to roam, city to city, province to province, and country to country, in order to survive. Few truly wish to leave their ancestral homelands unless they are desperate, subjected to violence, or lose their capacity to make a living. The loss of home is one of the greatest wounds a human being can possess—the grief of the migrant and refugee are emotional scars that most attempt to avoid. The poor separate from families they love, cross thousands of dangerous miles across contested lands, are often beaten and abused along the way, and ultimately cross borders in order to survive.
As the crow flies, just over two miles of once toxic Tacoma air separates the Northwest Detention Center and the Chinese Reconciliation Park. It is true that over a century separates the events that etch significance onto these two spaces. Yet, these differences are largely superficial. Those who contend that historical oppressions do not relate to present expressions serve as a justification for a nativist, xenophobic, racist sentiments that have existed in the United States since its inception.
I include myself when I assert that the city of Tacoma and its residents, by allowing the Northwest Detention Center to exist within our city limits, are complicit in the same acts of xenophobia, racism and oppression that our park hopes to reconcile. However, there does exist significant activism and resistance to the Northwest Detention Center and the general criminalization of immigration; dozens of advocates and protesters are now camped in front the NWDC, protesting the separation of children from their families at the border.
It was the type of late spring day that makes the dark, rainy winters worth it—clear skies and in the high sixties. Late at night on May 2, 2016, vandals bashed in the mouths of the granite lions that guard the pavilion-centerpiece of the Chinese Reconciliation Park. They stole the granite balls that rested within the mouths of the lions—balls that were not inserted by the artist but as with the entire statue, carved from the single block of granite. Every time I go to the park now, I reflect on the sad irony of the lions— with their bashed in nubs of crooked teeth, their heads
tilted as if confused, I wonder why they guard the front of such a city, why their faces were desecrated and abused, why they are completed to stand in silence, part of a reconciliation that largely remains unstated.
It is, after all, far easier to engage in a symbolic reconciliation of a distant past than to take responsibility for our present, one in which similar atrocities occur to a new immigrant other only two miles from that very space of attempted reconciliation. The very mission of the park’s Foundation—to promote peace, harmony and understanding in Tacoma’s multicultural community— recognizes that reconciling the past extends to the present.
Many of us were the first “others” on this land. Native tribes had lived and fished for centuries in the verdant hills and valleys that make up Tacoma and the surrounding communities. At first, the Puyallup were not concerned with the few white settlers who arrived in 1854 on their ancestral lands. Indeed, theirs was a sharing nature—known to themselves as the spuyaləpabš, meaning "generous and welcoming behavior to all people (friends and strangers) who enter our lands." White traders and settlers slowly took over lands that were sacred to the various native peoples who lived in the shadows of Mt. Tahoma, later renamed Mt. Rainier. They soon became “the other” on their own lands, forced to leave through lies and violence. It was the first, but not the last time nonwhites would be driven off these lands.
The question is, do we deserve reconciliation? Do we deserve the park? Perhaps we should send the lions somewhere safe, for healing, until the time when we deserve them.
When I arrived at the hospital, I spotted my mom’s car instantly. It was just a maroon Ford Escape, nothing special. However, she covered and filled it with some of the things that she loved. She had put Seahawks and 12th Man decals on the back windows. As I got closer, I spotted the beads around the rearview mirror and stuffed animals and other toys that she had displayed on the dash and console.
“Less is more,” I used to tell her. I didn’t realize that it was just a visible symbol of how much joy she took from everything.
I remember when she got the car. She was so excited. She was enthusiastic about every car she ever got for as long as I can remember, and her slightly used Ford Escape was no different.
“I found it online,” she told me on the phone. “It has very low miles and comes with a warranty. Dave and I are driving to Eugene to pick it up.”
“Eugene?! You couldn’t find a car in the entire state of Washington?”
“I want this one,” she said flatly. And that was that. You couldn’t argue with her once she set her mind on something.
I remember the first time she picked me up from the Seattle ferry in it. She was beaming as she pointed out all the features. Many of them were features that her old Ford Explorer had had, but I listened silently because she was so happy.
When I visited last fall, she was too sick to drive. It was weird having my stepdad drive me to the back to the ferry after the visit. It felt surreal. It wasn’t his car, and it felt wrong seeing him drive it, like some dystopian dream. It was a preview of the night he took me to the ferry after my mom passed away.
My friend, Troy, drove me to the hospital from the airport. It was good to have some support besides my stepdad. When the elevator opened, my stepdad was sitting in the chair across from the elevator. He looked broken. I started to sense then just how bad things were.
“Her organs are beginning to fail,” he said to me after a bear hug that lasted longer than I would normally have wanted.
I looked at him with a blank expression. I heard what he said, but it didn’t seem possible. Ever since he first called me and told me that I needed to get up to Washington, I didn’t believe it. I needed to talk to a doctor myself. I had refused to believe that my mom could die.
“Do you want me to go in with you, Gabe?” Troy asked me.
I kind of did, but I said no. I’ve never dealt well with emotions, and it was something I preferred to do in private, whenever possible.
“No. But thank you. I’ll walk out with you to get my bag.”
On the walk back in, I passed my mom’s car again. I felt a pain deep inside. It was like my heart suddenly vanished, leaving a hole where it used to be.
When I got into her room, the reality finally set it. There was my mom, still fighting. She didn’t look like herself, yet I still saw her inside the profoundly sick woman sprawled on the bed.
I knew precisely how the conversation would go.
“Hi Mom. I’m here.”
She nodded her head. We grasped hands and she moved her thumb over my hand as we locked eyes. I had held her hand so many times over my life, and even though it was now swollen due to her kidneys failing, somehow it looked and felt like I had always known it.
Listen, kiddo. In case I don’t make it, you need to listen to me.
Kiddo, I’m serious. I need you to take care of yourself. You and Joe, take care of each other. Be good to each other.
My mom always called him Joe, even though I told her that he preferred Joseph. She had picked it up when Joseph and I were still kids. She had always been supportive of my relationship with Joseph, even when he and I were high school seniors. In fact, one of my favorite pictures of me and my mom was taken by Joseph when I was 17.
It was after an awards ceremony where I received a small scholarship. Joseph and I were going to hangout after, but she wanted a picture because she was so proud. I was still mostly in the JC Penny suit that my mom had bought the previous year for my junior homecoming.
“Here, Joe. Will you take a picture of us?” she asked, handing him the camera.
“Sure, stand over there,” he said, directing us in front of the door.
Among the beeping and ticking and hissing of the large ICU bay, I squeezed my mom’s hand.
I will, Mom. We will.
And try to get along with Dave. She loved Dave a lot. I’m guessing she figured that he would naturally try to get along with me, and that I needed to be goaded into doing the same. She always tried to get us to be closer.
When my mom and Dave started dating, I was difficult. I was 17 going on 18, and I genuinely wanted my mom to be happy, but I also had my own teen desires driving me a little mad.
My mom had told me that Dave was from Ohio and that he worked for the Navy shipyard. She showed me his picture, and I thought he looked like a bit of a hick.
I set up a test to see how cool he’d be.
“Alright, I’ll meet him. Let’s get dinner at Hamburger Mary’s.” Hamburger Mary’s was a gay restaurant and bar in San Diego at the time. My mom and I had been to the restaurant together a few times. By the time we went there with Dave, I had already sneaked into the dance club section with some friends.
“I like it,” I said. “Besides, if he’s going to be dating someone with a gay son, I’d like to see how he reacts.”
“I’m sure he’ll be fine with it, kiddo. I told him you’re gay and he said, ‘So, what’s wrong with that?’”
She was right, of course. She was always right. Dave ended up being cooler with my sexuality than my father. A lot cooler.
In the ICU, I could see that she was getting tired. Her eyes looked at me, but they seemed to be losing focus, as if she was staring through my forehead.
Try not to be sad, kiddo. When grandma died, I thought that I was going to die. I still miss her every day. But what’s meant to be is meant to be.
When my grandma passed away, my mom was a mess. I missed her too, but I had to keep myself together for my mom. I ended up taking care of all the arrangements because my mom couldn’t.
At my grandma’s funeral service, I finally lost it. Near the end, I started sobbing uncontrollably.
“Oh, kiddo. It will be ok. Everything is going to be ok.” My mom held me. “Grandma wouldn’t want you to be sad.” She had put herself together to comfort me.
I don’t really remember the rest of that day. I think that we had dinner together after the funeral. I just remember that my mom was worried about me as we walked out of the small church.
As I looked down at my mom in her hospital bed, I felt so sad. It killed me to see her so sick and suffering. Her skin was becoming yellow with jaundice. My mom had always taken so much pride in her appearance. She was always so put together. I know she would have hated letting herself be seen like this.
She had been miserable when her hair started to fall out from the chemo, and she didn’t want to wear a wig. Instead, she opted for hats, scarves, and, apparently, a hat with fake hair, which was better in her mind than an actual wig. I never got to see her hair hat on her head
About halfway through her first round of chemo, she called me, excited.
“Hey kiddo!” Unless she was mad at me, this was always the way she greeted me. “Guess what?!”
“My hair is starting to grow back!”
“Yeah. It’s got a long way to go, and it’s not even. But that’s a good sign, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Mom, I think it is.”
I looked out the ICU window at a hawk flying over some trees in the distance. Maybe the world will end before she dies, I thought. I could imagine in my head the blinding flash of a massive hydrogen bomb ending the world before my mom left it. It would also end her pain instantaneously instead of drawing it out like this. Not to mention mine.
I’m so proud of you. I want you to keep doing well in school. I’ll be at your graduation in spirit.
At that, I suddenly regretted taking such a long gap between undergrad and grad school. I deprived her of seeing her only child achieve this milestone.
Her eyes were closed now.
Always remember how much I love you.
“I love you, Mom.” I was trying to be strong for her, but giant tears were breaching my eyelids.
She was asleep. I would spend the next two days keeping vigil at her side. She never regained consciousness. She would periodically squeeze my hand as I recounted some of our favorite memories. I’ll never know if it was because she understood me, or if it was random hand movements.
About an hour before her last breath, she stopped squeezing my hand. I was still holding her hand when she passed from this world to whatever may be next. Almost instantly, her face seemed to transform from the pained jaundice I had come to know the past two days to a blank, gray visage. I tried to close her mouth, but I couldn’t easily do it, so I stopped. I didn’t want to apply too much pressure because I didn’t want to hurt either of us.
I sat stunned as two RNs verified that she was gone. After the hyped tension of the previous two days, I felt empty. Dead. Going through the motions of a human that had things to do.
Later, I took the ferry to Seattle. My mom loved taking the ferry. I’ll never forget the first time we rode from across the sound from Bremerton together. As we rounded Bainbridge Island, she shouted, “Look kiddo! You can see the Space Needle!”
“I see it, Mom.” I was a hard to amuse 21-year-old.
“Let’s go up to the galley deck,” she said. “We can get a hot chocolate and look at the boats on the sound. Maybe we’ll see an orca!”
On the way up, she noticed some gulls gliding beside the ferry. “Look, kiddo! Look at the birds! They learned they don’t need to flap if they stay beside the ferry.”
She took so much joy in everything. I never noticed when she was alive. I thought she was being silly, sappy, sentimental. I also thought that I was going to have her around for decades more, not simply years, months, weeks, or especially days.
When I got off the ferry in Seattle the night she passed, everything felt wrong. It didn’t seem like Seattle without her, even though we hadn’t been into the city together in years.
Still, Seattle would always be her city even though she was raised in San Diego. She loved the Pike Place Market and the Seahawks. She loved the old brick buildings and the soaring, shiny skyscrapers. She loved the weird ballpark with a rolling roof and the antique monorail that only went one place. What was the point of it all without the joy it brought her?
My mom called me when she checked into the hospital a week before she died.
“I’ll be ok, kiddo,” she told me. “I will talk to you tomorrow.” She lied.
“I’ll talk to you soon,” I said. I also lied. I wouldn’t say anything to her until she was on death’s door when I arrived at the hospital two days before the end.
My mom didn’t get to speak real last words to me. She didn’t have to. In spite of what an absolute shit I could be, I think that she and I were about as close as a mother and child could be. I knew what she would have said if she hadn’t had a ventilator tube in her throat when I arrived. I knew what was conveyed when she nodded as I said, “Mom, I’m here.” I knew what she would have said as she rubbed her thumb across my hand. I knew the last most important things she would have conveyed as her eyes lost focus and she drifted into sleep. It is both a comfort and a curse to know all this.
Is life a precious gift, or a long and cruel torture on the way to oblivion? I definitely feel called by the siren song of the futility of it all. I resist the urge to steer my ship to the rocks because it would betray the last words my mom said to me. But goddamn, what the actual fuck?
My mother thinks space is blasphemous. There’s no good to the outside except trouble. It’s haram (a sin). What we don’t know is bad for us. Space is outside of what God gave us, so even thinking about what could be out there is dangerous. To my mom, the planets don’t exist and the idea of other beings is also crazy talk. We joke about her being a flat earther, but my mom holds these values because of fear. Sometimes, the outside she talks about can be as bad as she describes.
“Ma jirto” (It doesn’t exist).
Uranus was discovered in 1701. It is the coldest planet in the entire solar system. Uranus’s moons are all named after William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope characters. Titania is the moon named after my favorite character in the play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Aquarius, my sign, rules over the planet Uranus. In astrology, it is the symbol of change, new possibilities, and freedom. The planet symbolizes unconventional thinking and freedom of expression. I like the planet because it’s entirely blue— my favorite color. Even though I know this much about the planet, there are about a hundred other things I don’t know. My mom fears what we don’t know, and I don’t blame her. Being a black woman and escaping war in Somalia to this country can make you want to limit your curiosity in fear of being hurt again. What we don’t know has the power to harm us. My sisters and I think my mom is just a scaredy-cat, but over the years we realized the unknown she fears is valid.
“Anything I tried to know, tried to harm me.”
I don’t have much connection to Islam. Yes, I wear a hijab, but that’s because I don’t like doing my hair and I’m lazy. It’s like a bonnet I can wear when I’m out. I don’t fast because as I got older, it got harder. I don’t pray unless I’m begging God to help me pass a class. I like henna, but only if it’s around Eid. I don’t like the idea of the Hajj, being controlled by money hungry Arabs who take advantage of poor Africans and South Asians. When my mom would say certain things are bad, I didn’t really see the need to care. I didn’t listen to what she said was a sin. When my mother said things like space isn’t real, I used to blame it with her obsession with religion. I didn’t think that it came from her own fears, her own experiences, and life. What I didn’t realize was that even if we were practicing a different faith, my mother would still have her same beliefs.
“Allah is absolute.”
The universe is infinite. There are so many things we don’t know that we can embrace. There is more to this universe than we can even comprehend. Despite that, we fear it and we disregard it. We don’t talk about the good that may come from it. Instead, we’re consumed by the bad— what might go wrong and what might be too risky.
After all my siblings and I grew up, my mom didn’t want to work again. She didn’t see a reason to because she was so used to being at home all the time. She also thought that no good would come out of working again. By that time, it had been about seven or eight years since she joined the workforce. Her prior jobs included cleaning and janitorial jobs. Even though my mom decided that working was useless, she was genuinely scared. Obviously, she didn’t want to do her old jobs again, but what could she do?
“It seems like I can’t gaar (reach) anything.”
Change is an inevitable part of human life. You are bound to encounter something new in your life. Regardless, there are ways to prepare for it. You can study it and you can make sure it doesn’t leave a negative impact on you. But most change is good for you. Perhaps the biggest change my mother went through was moving to an entirely different country from Somalia with nothing but the clothes on her back. My parents stayed in a camp until they were sponsored by my mom’s distant cousin. To this day, my parents aren’t proud of how long they stayed in the Dadaab refugee camp, but I think it’s one of the bravest things a person can do. To take a chance even when you don’t know if the outcome is good or bad.
“We didn’t even know if we’d get picked.”
You learn from what is different and seemingly far-fetched. It’s natural to learn from something completely different to you, and having it better you in the end. For example, the discovery of super-Earth, Kepler-62f, one of the three super-Earths found in 2018, is a planet similar to that of our earth. Although it is 1,200 light years away, Space.com says it’s possibly habitable. It has a rocky landscape, like Earth, and is cooler than our planet. Planets just like ours are orbiting all around us, and by distance they can seem far away, however, the discovery of these planets can help prepare us for something bigger.
“What’s out there that works for me?”
My mom decided to go for daycare. Neither my dad or my siblings and I wanted her to work long hours cleaning again now that she was older, she had to do something less strenuous. When she suggested having a daycare in our house, we were kind of mad. First of all, we didn’t want strange kids in the house. Second, we’d have to be cooped up in our rooms or out of the house while she worked. But despite all that, we embraced all this change because my mom did.
When she was preparing for her “grand opening,” she was nervous. She wanted to back out at least twice. My mom wanted to convince us that this was no use.
“I don’t want to anymore.”
“It’s too much.”
“I like how life was before.”
Obviously, my mom ended up going for the job anyway, but it was a struggle for her to accept this new part of her life. When I think of her almost giving up a job, I think of her space comments. I tell her, “Hoyo, space is endless, is this the end for you?” And then she just says space isn’t real and focuses on work again.
The hardest part of the process, was the paperwork for my mom. English isn’t her native language, so she was slow with turning in the papers to her future boss. She was used to doing hard labor, but this was harder to her. There was something inside my mom that wanted her to go for the job and not let her thoughts take over. Despite all her doubts and concerns that brought her down, every time she would get back up. She would ask for help and try to fix whatever mistakes she made. I remember when she was giving herself a pep talk to me:
“New things can bring good things, like money.”
Islam’s teaching on space is limited; we use the moon to figure out dates for Eid. Essentially, the moon is our calendar as well, but throughout the Quran, there isn't any mention of other planets. However, the Quran does encourage Muslims to explore and accept. I don’t read it much nowadays, but a verse from my favorite chapter states that God says, “O company of jinn and mankind, if you are able to pass beyond the regions of the heavens and the earth, then pass. You will not pass except by authority,” Ar-Rahman (55:33). Even though the other planets are not mentioned, the idea of a faraway place beyond earth is. My mom didn’t listen to this teaching because she taught herself to be afraid. It didn’t have to be what was taught, but what was experienced, to make my mom pull away from trying new things. Despite what the absolute ruler in her life says, she could not see how it could be beneficial to her in any way. Regardless of what our faith says, my mother was inexplicably afraid of the moving universe around her.
“It’s not me, it’s how I was raised.”
I like how my mom is a Cancer— it makes sense why she’s indecisive and always suspicious of things. The reason it took my mom to start working so long is because she didn’t know if it was the right thing to do. By working, she thought she would be causing another problem for the family. My youngest sister is ten years younger than me, so she was still young. My mom couldn’t decide if she was old enough for her to go to work, or if I was old enough to take care of her. She didn’t know if she was going to give Luuley enough attention, like she did to the rest of us when she wasn’t working. Despite that, my sister ended up proving to my mom that getting a job and working for herself is the best she can do for her.
“You can get more money to buy me toys.”
The idea of parallel universes makes me wonder what different versions of ourselves would be like. What if we didn’t have the same parents? Friends? What if our personalities were completely different and we were more athletic, outgoing etc.? Sometimes we want to be born with the change we want to see in ourselves, rather than work towards it. Space.com also states “There are infinitely many "parallel universes": cosmic patches exactly the same as ours, as well as patches that differ by just one particle's position, patches that differ by two particles' positions, and so on.” The littlest things we do, make new possibilities in other universes. In another universe, my mom probably wouldn’t be as indecisive as she was when getting back to work. Maybe she wouldn’t go back to work, and if she did, she probably wouldn’t even work in daycare. Maybe she would try other things. Maybe she’d still be the same.
“I want to try even if I don’t want to.”
My mom began working to open her daycare step by step. She assigned all of us little assignments to help her out and make sure everything came together in time for her inspection. All of us had to do background checks, TB tests, finger prints— the whole gimmick. I remember when I put “Iman” down and not my legal name, and when my sister spelled her name wrong on accident. My mom was so stressed, but despite those setbacks she never got mad at us for messing up. Even though she gave up a few times before, this time she did whatever she could to keep the process moving forward. It took as long as a month for everything to get processed and then approved. Afterwards would be the house inspection, which would end up being the hardest part of this process for my mom.
“How will we pass this part?”
A black hole, essentially is when all life ceases to exist. According to NASA Science, Einstein’s theory concluded that when a star dies, it leaves a giant black essence, and if it’s larger than the sun by three times, gravity submerges all matter around and thus produces the black hole. Sometimes black holes can lead to different universes, but it is widely seen as a pathway to instant death for humans. I used to think of it as waste dump, as BBC Earth says, “a great amount of matter packed into a very small area.”
When I saw shows on TV, it made it seem like all your problems could instantly disappear in that hole. You could disappear, and dying wouldn’t even be that painful, and maybe, just maybe, you could end up in a different life. My thoughts concluded that escaping reality was never the answer. Whatever problems you leave unfinished in this life follow you to your next. Disappearing or being sucked into a black hole wouldn’t save you from what was coming.
“Either be visible or be absent.”
My mother and I aren’t really close. I mean, she tells me everything, but I don’t tell her much about me. Our relationship is one sided. She just doesn’t know me. You could ask my mom what my favorite color is and she wouldn’t be able to answer it. But you can ask her what she’s done for me. Now there’s a lot there. I used to feel guilty about that; but I don’t anymore. How can you feel guilty about something you had no control over? Maybe when I’m older and have more control, I can get to know her, and she can get to know me. I’d be open to it. I long for it. As of now, she’s just a person who runs a daycare in the house, and thinks space is blasphemous.
For days my mom cleaned the house inside out. The inspection would be random; I remember she said the inspector could come any day throughout that entire week, including weekends, and at any time— be it at 10 p.m. or 5 a.m. We helped, of course, organizing where the toys would be, deciding how the set up would look, judging if it was aesthetically pleasing, among many other things. We helped by making sure all the paperwork was intact and organized under a filing bin. We made business cards and a website for her too. When the inspection finally rolled around, my mom did well overall, but she was still missing some important pieces. She couldn’t be booked to start her daycare yet. My mom failed twice, and each time really broke her. She didn’t think she’d be up for this job if little inspections got to her. She wondered if she would try again, or if she was right from the beginning.
“It doesn’t want me.”
When my parents first came to America they went to Safeway. My mother’s cousin told them of a miracle happening. He said this was important, and that it was going to be the best day of their lives. Seeing a cart for the first time, they stuffed it with all the food they could and tried to leave. When everything started beeping and security was alerted, my parents said they thought everything was free. In Somalia, you say what you need, then pay before getting it. Security laughed, and let them go instead of calling the police. This is one of the few instances where my mom allowed herself to mess up, and did so, without consequence from anyone else. She learned, and will never forget this mistake. To them it’s just a distance memory— the trials of living here for the first time. They didn’t think about the what if’s or the negatives. Instead, they focused on things to do and to learn. It’s a shame that my mother is the complete opposite now.
Rarely do I ever witness the side of her that’s fearless.
“We don’t change, we’re just the same.”
My mom eventually passed her inspection. Now she has about five kids she takes care of. She has a lot of pride in working from home and being close to us. I still help with the technical stuff, like which certifications expire and the classes she should be taking to get other certificates. My mom has daycare until late afternoon, so the rest of us stay upstairs until they leave. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s one that helps my mom work without worrying about her own kids. Having her own business helped her change by becoming more decisive and realistic about things. She doesn’t stop herself from trying new things in her daycare; like new rules or clients. She still has relevant fears, but that doesn’t affect how she does her job. My mom still thinks space isn’t real, but she does believe that we may be wrong about what we are accustomed to believing.
“No, ma jirto.”
For me, it usually starts with a tickle. An annoying tickle, right at the back of my throat. That seems to be how colds or the flu start for all the women in my family. Then I feel progressively worse as the day goes on: fatigue, headache, body aches (always my lower back and my right knee). I should have known I was going to get sick too, since I’d seen adults walking around the mall without covering their coughs. What I couldn’t have known was just how sick I was going to get. There wasn’t enough Nyquil in the world to help me sleep through the hacking cough, runny nose, watery eyes, night sweats and pain wreaking havoc on my body, each symptom worsening over a period of five or six days.
Had I known just how sick I was going to be, I wouldn’t have attended the first two days of classes. I wouldn’t wish that flu on my worst enemy, let alone a classmate or an instructor. I seem to be in the minority, though.
According to The New York Times, 39% of Americans admitted to going to work when sick. Millennials are 76% more likely to work when sick than those age thirty-five or older (Victor). I wonder why this is though, since medical providers, most employers (and teachers), and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) all advise staying home when sick. Common sense tells us to stay home when we don’t feel well. Not only do we need rest in order to heal, but going places spreads germs to others. On the surface, it appears as though people can’t afford to miss work— be it a monetary loss or fear of a failing grade.
On day five of what I have come to call The Flu from Hell, my right ear started to hurt and became plugged to the point that I could barely hear on that side. My dad is deaf in one ear, so I don’t mess around with ear pain, and I made my boyfriend drive me to urgent care. My demands were met with protest, as he had just emerged victorious from a battle with a similar hellish flu, and he was of the opinion that I just needed to “tough it out.”
What, exactly, does “tough it out” mean? Suffer needlessly? Put on a brave face? Smile through the pain and look pretty? I was not about to do any of those things. I was exhausted, cranky, and looked like a potato wearing baggy clothes. It could be that the idea of “toughing it out” is internalized in us as Americans.
What’s more patriotic than suffering for one’s paycheck?
I continued to assert that I did need to be seen and was soon on my way to a walk-in clinic. I had reached a point where death could have come knocking and I would have gone willingly rather than feel the way I did for another day.
I had spent the better part of five days in a constant Nyquil-induced stupor, and still hadn’t managed to sleep through a night (even when I took Ambien on top of that sweet cherry cough syrup). I spent those agonizing nights snatching sleep and sweating the sheets, but still shivering. There was no comfort—only sweltering or frozen. My throat was raw from coughing, and even though I could feel gunk rumbling around in my chest, I couldn’t manage to get it out. What miraculous acts of healing would the doctor perform?
In 2016, Washington voters passed a new law regarding mandatory sick leave for most employees working in the state. The new law requires that all employers grant workers one (1) hour of paid sick leave for every forty (40) hours worked (“Paid Sick Leave”). Guidelines for how long a worker must be employed before taking this earned sick time are not established. This new policy was implemented in January of 2018. This means that until two years ago, state-wide regulations regarding sick leave were not in place, and employers could deny paid sick leave to their employees.
A week or so after I finished the antibiotics I was given for the flu turned sinus-and-ear-infection, my mom called and said I needed to take my eighty-three-year-old grandmother to urgent care for symptoms similar to what had me wish a meteor would take me out. This was alarming to me, and not just because my grandma is elderly. She is also immunocompromised due to being treated for sepsis two years ago. Her doctors told her that it would take years for her immune system to build itself back up, and that it likely would never be as strong as it once was.
Several of my friends are teachers, and I recently asked one of them about working when sick. She said teachers and support staff feel pressured by the administrators to go to work when they’re sick. Several of her colleagues have had “conversations” with admin, even when they’ve had sick days to use. Not only do students “learn better” from their regular teachers, but there is a shortage of substitute teachers, and an absence may need to be covered by colleagues during their lunch or planning hours. All of this combined has created a culture of guilt for educators who fall ill.
This is not an uncommon story among workers in all fields throughout the country. Another friend worked in claims for one of the largest insurance companies in the country. While she worked there, she never took sick time because she would have been penalized for using her sick time (her “dependability percentage” would have gone down). She says the policy has since changed, but the company still overworks its employees. My boyfriend was also penalized by his former employer for taking the sick time to which he was entitled. His penalty came in the form of lower marks on his annual reviews for using his sick time, which meant a smaller raise, or no raise at all.
My grandma sat in the passenger seat of my car, wheezing and clicking. She was making so much noise while she was breathing that I didn’t realize the sound was coming from her at first. I thought it was her walker in the back seat of my car, rattling as we drove.
The urgent care doctor said it was good I’d brought her in, because the flu had turned into bronchitis and would quickly have become pneumonia. She was given a nebulizer at the clinic and prescriptions for an inhaler, antibiotics, and steroids. She missed her weekly physical therapy appointments for the next two weeks because she was simply too worn down to go.
My grandma doesn’t drive anymore and consequently doesn’t get out much. Her days out consist of trips to the grocery store, church, and her weekly trips to physical therapy. I’d put money on her having caught her flu virus at church. I didn’t see her for a couple of weeks specifically so that I wouldn’t expose her to what I had.
What really possesses people to go to work, school, or church while sick? Today, at least in Washington, employers are legally required to provide their employees with paid sick leave. Professors would likely rather see a student stay home than expose everyone in class to the newest respiratory infection, and church leaders pride themselves on protecting their congregations.
I’m reflecting on my own experiences for an answer. When I became ill, I missed class and called out for a shift at work. My manager tried to schedule me for the following day, despite my descriptions of my symptoms. The week prior, a coworker was dealing with the same symptoms, and the manager complained about having to find coverage for her for the weekend. My friend who teaches described the guilt surrounding staying home when sick (or even when injured).
But what is at the root of this? Why are those who stay home from work to get better and protect others, or those who take a mental health day, or those who go to the doctor following an injury seen as lazy? Millennials fear missing work will cost them their job. We know that we are easily replaced and that there are others ready and willing to take our place. We have been programmed to have these fears.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Han (also known as Thay) once wrote, “Doing something is nothing.” Our society has perpetuated the idea that we must constantly be producing in order to be valued by other citizens. As technology has advanced, more and more output is required of the worker, despite the fact that there are still only twenty-four hours in the day. Workers who do not produce enough may lose their job and another job may be outsourced to a country where labor is rewarded with only a pittance. Deadlines must be met.
Even I’m guilty of working while sick, but I have not done so for several years. Not only do I not do my best work when sick, but I often feel as though I won’t be able to complete most of my assigned tasks and do not want to expose others to my germs. I am especially passionate about that last part, largely because of my grandma and the increased chances of her catching something. When a coworker is sick, I take their shift whenever possible. If a classmate is sick, I offer to take notes for them (or at the very least, let them copy mine). I hope that someday my efforts can make an impact, and that societal expectations around “toughing it out” will change.