This essay was written for Celebrations, an Asian and Pacific Islander anthology, completed on August 1, 2020 thanks to the Legacies Team. Proceeds were donated to Give2Asia.
All text and illustrations within the essay were completed by me.
The Black Warrior (Achievement)
In Taoist mythology, Xuanwu is the Black Warrior. The name technically applies not only to an anthropoid god, but also the steed upon which the god rides, a mythological creature that looks like a snake coiled around a tortoise. Xuanwu is the revered icon of Chinese martial artists. Through dynasties, the creature is a constellation and protects lands that lay North, a symbol of power tempered with discipline, skill mastery, and longevity — resiliency through time.
It’s not so much a contrast as a complement, how the most popular American fable depicts the turtle as slow — but dogged.
As an ADHD kid undiagnosed for much of my schooling, I felt slow growing up. Not dumb, I think; just blurry and tired. I slept a lot, but I also had trouble falling asleep. At about twelve, I started to read bigger books and was confused to realize that some fictional characters could think in words. At first, I assumed this was a fantasy. As absurd as interdimensional portals that took the shape of wardrobes or spiders that could spell.
However, I eventually mastered that particular skill too: how to think in words. For me, that was a big one.
My journey to hearing and developing my inner narrator coincided with a physical journey of immigration. At age eight, I moved from the United States to Hong Kong, which had been under British rule at the time. I spoke no Chinese and largely failed to learn it while I lived among people who looked like me, and had their own complicated relationships with colonization and home culture. I spent most of my childhood being subtly othered, and embarrassed by the language skill deficit that was responsible for that othering. In the meantime, my alternative language skill — the capacity to think in words — grew with slow and steady practice.
It’s one thing to sweat any time you ask for directions, or to stress about the prospect of telling the bus driver you need to stop in your incompetently mangled or shyly whispered Cantonese. I could feel the other passengers staring, but I couldn’t look back. I lost count of how many skipped bus stops I had to trudge back to in the stinking subtropical heat.
But it is another thing, to have the special self-compassion that comes from being able to articulate these experiences to myself with words. To tell myself I was “frustrated” or “embarrassed.” Then, eventually, that I was “learning.” Instead of being lost in a haze of undefined sensations, cringes, and avoided feelings, I broke things down with words. Thereby, I made meaning, about discomfort and solace, alienation and making a home.
Eventually, I took my affinity for meaning-making into my studies, where I showed more persistence than I’d expected of myself, as someone whose adolescent tagline could have been “I hate school.” I obtained a doctorate. I became a talk therapist! Apart from healing others, I sought to learn more about myself. To find mutual similarity that transcends differences in culture, to better understand people who are often fundamentally alienated individuals in our society, and to grow the humility to recognize my part in social processes.
Psychology offered not just one lens, but a multitude of ways to look at my own life and identity. Over my years of training, I read about vodou practices and sweat lodges, found my way to the concept of tradition and ritual as therapeutic interventions. Acculturation gives you tunnel vision, especially before you’ve started to think about what “acculturation” actually means. I only had the vague notion that I was bad at being Chinese. Bad at speaking it, obviously. But to the expectations set by peers, also: bad at math. Bad at rote memorization. Easy to overlook the notion that my own cultural identity could be integrated into my work, to turn my own failure into an opportunity for learning. Model minority bullshit made avoidance all the more tempting.
Then I read about Eduardo Duran.
White Tiger (Ritual)
Taoist iconography took the stripes on the forehead of the tiger to be the symbol for ‘king.’ The white tiger protects the lands to the West. It is to present itself once an Emperor who suffers no mortal vices finally ascends and brings about peace to the entire world. But for us ordinary people, living outside of utopia, it rewards good behavior with luck and companionship.
This is important, I think. This connection between good behavior and strong relationships, but also the way that the leaders in any field influence the rest of us, the hoi polloi, as often through symbolism as governance.
Dr. Eduardo Duran is a psychologist of Native American descent, and if his autobiographical stories are to be trusted, his was a long and strange journey with challenging lessons and unexpected friendships. He described alcohol and violence in his childhood. Eventually, he joined the Navy. In graduate school, he was a researcher educated and trained primarily in Western science, a go-getter. He hadn’t thought much about his own acculturation. But one day, he took his research to reservation lands and crossed paths with an elder tribesperson. In one sense, he was woefully under-equipped. In another, he was exactly where he needed to be.
The elder was named Clarence. He had this impossible meandering, non-linear, conversational style, full of anecdotes and tangents. There was structure of language, but the architecture was nothing Dr. Duran had met before. It was incredibly annoying for Dr. Duran, who was accustomed to formal syllabi, deadlines, time management, introductions and conclusions. Three years went by with Duran on the job. Clarence spent much of the time stringing “nonsense” together, and laughing at Duran’s efforts to pin down coherent theses. Yet the most maddening part was to come.
On their last day of work together, Clarence switched gears without warning. He spoke with unprecedented eloquence, gems of wisdom imparted with clarity. Dr. Duran was beyond exasperated.
Years later, Dr. Duran was teaching in a predominantly white high school and the shoe was on the other foot. A girl asked him, because of his circuitous, rambling speech, if he was actually educated.
According to Dr. Duran, he’d absorbed some of Clarence’s energy. Dr. Duran was now a spectacularly successful and equally atypical lecturer, with much to teach in his wandering, narrative style. Perhaps, said style was a teaching in and of itself. Amused rather than offended by his new acolytes, Dr. Duran talked to them about learning their own creation stories, their original gods and home rituals, following ancestral lines. For example, non-Jews should not come in with Genesis 1:1. Initially, the white students found the assignment quite challenging. Though I’m not white, it was good to remember how easy it is to forget — these little customs mean something.
It was my year in internship that I read about Dr. Duran. I also worked on the Pine Ridge reservation and attended workshops led by Lakota scholars. Shortly after, I put up photos of my deceased grandparents in my house and started leaving oranges for them. I learned that my ironclad habit of removing my shoes at home came from the tradition where ancient Chinese families sat on the floor.
Being Chinese once meant that you lived in China, in a village, near your family. Emperors of the Chu dynasty used to bury common folk in mass graves as we built the Great Wall. It wasn’t just death that awaited those forced into labor, conscripted to back-breaking work in harsh conditions. Specifically, it was death far from home. Our ghosts could not find their way back to family altars and ancestral grounds, a careless and intimate cruelty.
In 2020, I have photos of my grandparents propped up in a condominium in the USA. I live almost eight thousand miles away from the cities where they were born, and even those cities are miles from the villages to which I could trace earlier generations. But I know a little about rituals and the value of choosing to keep them, even if they must be adapted as I adapted too. I can see ‘king’ written in the stripes of tigers, and recognize meta-traditions in the works of others.
Red Bird (Grief)
Unfortunately, I know something about death too. In the past four years, seven people in my life were killed by cancer, pneumonia, and a gunman.
Chinese phoenixes don’t resurrect. The magic they have is kind of an inverse and reversed banshee, actually: the most frequent symbolic references are in marriage celebrations, or to acknowledge a great leader has passed. It is said that one turned up by the Yellow Emperor’s graveside. Also, with a liberal interpretation of artistic depictions, I’m pretty sure the phoenix can shoot fireballs.
The phoenix doesn’t show up often because the average king, the average era, the average life, is a shitshow. I think this speaks to a certain philosophy associated with China, perpetuated and popularized by many works. Some white dude wrote, “Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic, and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilization, bellow kan pei — which means ‘dry cup’ — and drink to the dregs.” In Crazy, Rich Asians, the incomparable Michelle Yeoh highlighted some unflattering comparisons between American idealism and Chinese realism. Confucius and Sun Tzu aren’t cited in everyday conversation in mainland China, but their influence can’t be dismissed or reduced to a Facebook meme.
I wonder about the connection between the Han Chinese cultural preoccupation with luck and the fact that we don’t seem to have traditional ideals about how “things will turn out OK.” What is a fairytale ending in Chinese folklore? We have boat race celebrations about heroic, drowned government officials. We have festivals of light and lanterns because, according to legend, we had to trick a divine monarch into thinking we were already burnt to a crisp so he wouldn’t mass murder us. Sun Wukong had such a hard time; centuries of hard times. Not to say achieving Buddha status isn’t worth it, but it sure says something about “fairytale endings” when the epic hashtag goal is to achieve a serenity in which you experience no pain, desire, or sense of self. It says: happiness doesn’t mean much.
I’m aware that it is one-dimensional to think of “all Chinese culture” as Buddhist or Han or completely and fundamentally pessimistic. Diversity abounds. Every single popular Chinese festival has two or more origin stories. Among China’s most exported tales and the Four Great Folktales selected by the government in the 1920s, even romantic love sometimes endures in the margins of Confucian values. The lady White Snake is one such story, where love is enjoyed if only for a moment.
But I think about grief often because of my job and my life experiences, and tragedy feels embedded in cultural practices. Not only grief in the sense of death and loss, but that grief follows every rejection and failure, as well as real sacrifices made for greater gain. For most of these “little” griefs, there are fewer formal rituals, but storytelling and art remain ways to express, memorialize, and comfort — often subverting authority in the process. Bittersweet folktales and haunting tragedies tend to underscore the resiliency of human spirit. Widows turn into enduring stone boulders or weep so hard they shatter walls. In Chinese myths, in contemporary historical TV dramas, the preponderance of sad endings is a testament not to human weakness, but to our strength.
A protagonist does not have to win to be important.
This was a strange truth to take with me into graduate school, then licensure exams, and the competitive job market of capitalist America. So much risk and so much potential reward ahead of me; behind me, millennia of unforgettable defeats. Does it surprise anybody that I am the most optimistic defensive pessimist that I know? The lines between interpretation, translation, appropriation, and straight-up bastardization feel perilously thin. But then, they always have been.
Twenty first century Chinese American problems: having to search YouTube for how to perform a proper kowtow while you’re on the way to paying respects at your grandfather’s grave, because you forgot. You don’t do it very often.
And there is no meme for the afternoon, early 2000, when we stopped by the cremation niche where my father’s parents’ ashes rest. We wandered around the sunny garden outside the mausoleum and admired the flowers. Suddenly, a solitary hawk flew down and landed on one of the headstones. Tears welled up in Dad’s eyes. He explained, the way you write his father’s name in Chinese, there is a radical in it that means “wing.”
Blue Dragon (Celebration)
In Chinese, the word for ‘wedding’ has three radicals: woman, clan, and day. No doubt ancient linguistic scholars would chart a complex etymology intricately woven into the fabric of other rituals. Unfortunately, I’m not up and up on all that. When I look at the character, my contemporary sensibilities hijack my understanding: it looks like a pictorial reinforcement of something I always knew, that this is the bride’s day. You see a lot of dragons at Chinese weddings, the yang symbolizing the groom’s energy to balance the phoenix’s yin. You see them in palaces, temples. Dragons epitomize achievement and fortune; the blue dragon protects the East.
The Coronavirus completely screwed up my travel plans for the spring of 2020. I was going to attend a wedding in Hong Kong, to celebrate the union of one of my close childhood friends. I was so excited. But alas: flight cancellations left and right, Amazon sold out of surgical masks for months, and my parents in histrionic fits about breaking up friendships with the wedding families if I tried to fly out. I was furious.
But I’m not the first Chinese person to have to make shit up — or make up for shit — with important celebrations. In fact, I’m not even the first in my family. Decades ago, my maternal grandmother turned sixty. On the same day, last minute, she told my mom that it was Shanghainese tradition for the daughter to cook sixty pieces of red pork for her mother to eat in celebration. Mom flew into a panic! She rushed to the store, rushed to cook. She succeeded in producing sixty pieces of red pork by dinner-time. She did so with pride and love.
Unfortunately, the individual pork slices were a standard dianxin size: too big for this enterprise. Multiplied by sixty, this was a gigantic quantity of food, much more than one person could finish.
My grandmother wound up enlisting my mom’s help to eat it, making fun of her in a good-natured way. “Why did you make such big pieces? Aiyaaa.” Most of it wound up in the refrigerator. Mom wrung her hands a bit, but was glad; a couple technical errors weren’t a big deal.
When my mom turned sixty herself, neither my sister nor I were in the same country. We didn’t make her sixty pieces of pork. Later, Mom said it wasn’t a big deal; nothing to grieve. Mei banfa; nothing to do about it. We’ll have to make new traditions, unless I end up with a baby girl and harass her for some pork in twenty-six years.
In the atlases I grew up with in Hong Kong, China was the center of the world. Literally. In the States, if you Google ‘world map,’ you see the standard layout: the Americas on the lefthand and Europe, Asia, Australasia on the right. But when I was little, the map was reversed, the Atlantic Ocean cut in half to border each side, Africa on the bottom left, and China squarely center page. The phrase ‘Middle Kingdom’ may belong to period pieces and old-timey depictions nowadays, but the country never really grew out of the idea that it was the center of the world, Heaven’s chosen land.
The four creatures, the Four Symbols of Chinese constellations, come from a Taoist origin, popularized in centuries of architecture and poetry. But I didn’t pick them because their essential value was proven immutable through history; I picked them because they weren’t.
Hundreds of years before Taoism itself was so-named, Warring States artisans created cosmological artefacts that showed only three creatures. The qilin, a deer-like chimera, would symbolize stars to the north. A similarly ancient bamboo manuscript described an early ruler using emblems to represent five directions instead of four, a snake to the south, and a bear in the center itself, the fifth direction. Fast forward to today: a Yellow Dragon is typically seen as the symbol of the center. It represents the Yellow Emperor, of legend or history or maybe one that became the other over millennia. Despite the fact that the Emperor is not Taoist, the Yellow Dragon is often seen flanked by the Four Symbols.
Even something as seemingly immovable as the cardinal directions of world geography is actually dynamic. Subject to interpretation and translation; perhaps even appropriation and straight-up bastardization. (Credit here to my dear friend, Ruth, whose sensitivity reading helped steer this essay closer to the former than the latter.)
I got to see pictures of my friend’s wedding on WhatsApp. I’m planning to throw her a party when I get back there, whenever that is. I’ve thought for a long time that the world is my home, and I believe it’s a gift as well as an opportunity: to be able to live down the road from vineyards in Sonoma County, or track through the slush of greater Boston, and to miss people without being homesick. To attend weddings, birthdays and celebrations of life. To be the first person in a kid’s life to have ever handed them a red packet. To wander through the Veterans Memorial Building decorated and booming with Tet Holiday festivities, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, and recognize unmistakable commonalities with the Chinese celebrations, and speculate about the differences. To have been invited to Tet in the first place, which wouldn’t have happened in Hong Kong.
My relationship with cultural identity is ongoing. I believe it’s fair to say that being Chinese and American is typically framed as loss, grief about being neither of those things whole. But it is both Chinese and American, even if one culture is thousands of years old and the other only a few hundred, to synthesize a new and interesting joy from earlier traditions. In terms that the white tiger would appreciate, there is more work to do.