A Long Walk Won’t Make Me Brave

Earlier this week, I had my first experience with COVID-related anti-Asian racism. In simple language, boiled down to its most basic description, it could be summarized in a single sentence: a man spit at me as I walked past him. All in all, not the worse violence that could have occurred. A small act, compressed in a short span of time.

I could have brushed off such a minor incident, but as luck would have it, the day had already been going terribly for me. Several hours prior to being spit on, I had called the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Curled in my bed, breaking down in sobs, unable to say the words that had become too heavy for my mouth to bear, I tried my best to explain my situation over the phone. The lady on the other end, who had sat through five straight minutes of my tears and likely many others’ tears, very kindly directed me to several resources and then innocently suggested that I go for a walk later that day. Innocently, I agreed. It wasn’t anyone’s fault; she couldn’t have known what was about to happen, or what my skin tone was, and I had simply been too naive to remember what was happening in the world outside of myself. 

Leaving my apartment building took immense effort. Walking around depressed feels like moving through mud, like some damp grey fog has descended upon all the earth that only you can see. Once outside, I had the brief realization that I can keep walking forever and leave the life that had become too heavy to bear behind. It’s not the first time I’d had this thought. On a previous walk, I had once glimpsed the Griffith Observatory on a hill in the distance and was suddenly gripped by the desire to walk the four miles towards it. Eventually, though, my legs grew tired and I wanted to crawl back into bed, so I started to head home.

In retrospect, I should’ve known something was wrong. When I’m ready to cross the street, the Brown man on the other side of the street is maskless, and he keeps glancing at me before he stops at the corner of the sidewalk. I tell myself that I’m “just overthinking things like usual. My neighborhood is mostly POC and so close to Koreatown that it might as well be Koreatown. This man is going to leave me alone and mind his own business like the countless other POC I’ve walked past before.” So despite my initial misgivings, I walk on towards him, certain that I’ll pass him by without notice. 

It’s not the wetness I feel. It’s the pathetic, dry sound of an attempted spit I hear behind my right shoulder. Now I understand: the man hadn’t lingered on that sidewalk corner to check for passing cars. He had waited for me to cross the street to specifically target me with this hateful act. It was a cosmicly hilarious joke that on the day that it was difficult for me to be alive, someone came around to make it even harder. I’m so dead inside at this point that I don’t react outwardly and just keep walking. I can feel the shock reverberate through both of us: me, that this happened in my neighborhood, blocks from my own home, from a POC I had mistakenly trusted to “be on my side,” and him, that because I was wearing headphones and no actual spit had seemed to actually leave his mouth, that I might not have noticed his act at all. He then continued to follow me for almost half a block, upon which point I abruptly turned, crossed to the other side of the street, and hid behind a van to make sure he kept walking away without coming to find me. As I came up on my building, I saw my neighbor exit the front door with his dog for a walk — a sight that filled me with inexplicable relief. Somehow, it made me feel like even if that man had continued to follow me home, that everything would be okay. I don’t know my neighbor well, but I had pet his dog once before just outside of his apartment, right when I was returning to mine. He was neither overly chatty nor dismissive, he was simply neutral towards me. And that was precisely what I liked about him. That he had treated me as another person passing by.

There’s a part of me that has to wonder — should I have reacted more overtly to the spitter? Had I played into that Asian stereotype of obedience and submissiveness? Have I essentially enabled him to go around committing the same pernicious act against others? Was my lack of reaction the better thing to do in the long run? Clearly he was looking for a reaction, maybe even looking for a fight. By withholding what he wanted from me, had I actually taken back my power in this situation? It’s hard to think about what the “right” thing to do was — both and neither feel appropriate at the same time. I am used to taking, taking, taking other people’s anger all the time, interested only in diffusing conflict. But are these turbulent times, calling for more vital action? Is it the survival of my body or my dignity that is more important?

In 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement, rise in anti-Asian racism, and the violence against Indigenous protestors by the state all serve to illuminate one truth we have always known deep down: there is a line in this country that demarcates whose bodies are safe and unsafe. Who is allowed to walk around freely and who among us are subject to a feral, careless, undiscerning violence. How am I as a person brave enough to move past that? I don’t want to have to be brave every day of my life; most days I don’t feel brave at all. How do I walk outside again without fear? How do I have the strength to do anything, and I don’t want to believe that softness is a bad thing, but how do I continue to exist sanely in a world that regularly crushes the softness out of us? 

I don’t have any answers to the questions I just asked. I am maybe blindly reaching towards anything right now — a doorknob, a safety lever, the side of a ship. I have decided to continue living in a world that regularly refuses my right to exist, and maybe there are no just answers to that. I am reading Michaela Coel’s Vulture profile right now, and something she says sticks out at me:

“I learned that when I am traumatized, I make a line and I say dangerous/safe,” says Coel. “Sometimes when you stay in that mode too long, the line becomes good/bad, nice/evil, angel/devil, not me/me, friends/enemies. But the line is not real. I’m not saying remove the line, but if we understand that it isn’t real, it may enable us to look at the thing that we are calling over there differently. And when you acknowledge it and look at it — that enemy, that evil, that bad thing — the more you learn how to master it and temper it.”

Maybe that is answer enough. 


If you or someone you know needs help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

If you have experienced anti-Asian racism in relation to COVID-19, please consider filing an incident report with STOP AAPI HATE

Five Films by Women You May Have Missed in 2016

Now that awards season has come and gone, one of the most notable deficiencies in the hubbub have been recognition of films by women. Despite the dismal statistics in the film industry for female directors, 2016 has been a powerhouse for female-directed films focused on diverse and complex women. Ava DuVernay’s 13th and Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann were recognized at the Oscars, but there were plenty more that made the circuits at independent film festivals and awards shows. Here’s five amazing, noteworthy films that you might have missed last year:

1. Certain Women

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When it comes to the American independent film scene, Kelly Reichardt might just be one of its brightest and most ingenious voices, despite being nowhere close to a household name. Yet she’s been directing films since 1994, and has continually been challenging the conventions of film language for years. Her most recent film, Certain Women, is a triptych exploring the lives of four women in Montana, starring  Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, and newcomer actress Lily Gladstone. Reichardt’s deftness as a director is on display here, juggling the loosely connected but distinct character portraits, all while weaving disparate themes and maintaining a consistent tone and atmosphere. (She doesn’t really work in a certain genre, so to avoid confusion, hope you don’t mind that I took any mention of genre out!)

2. Cameraperson 

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From 13th to Fire at Sea, it’s been a riveting and groundbreaking year for documentaries. But one of the year’s quieter films, Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, delivers a just as powerful emotional gut punch, felt for hours after the film’s conclusion. An opening title card from the director explains that this is a patchwork of clips from different documentaries she’s been a camera operator for over the years, and should be considered as a memoir. More accurately, though, it is a story of human experience and struggle, as she finds common themes throughout the many different locations and people she’s filmed. And alongside the director, you as the viewer discover the story as well — perhaps one of the most gratifying journeys one can take in a film.

 3. Queen of Katwe

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Mira Nair has been a working filmmaker since the 1980s, delivering powerful stories about the Indian and Indian-American experience with such groundbreaking films as Monsoon Wedding and Salaam Bombay!, which was nominated in 1989 for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. She returned last year with the highly anticipated Queen of Katwe, starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyewolo, based on the true life of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan chess queen. It’s a fresh, innovative take on the sports underdog narrative, with powerful performances from the two main leads.

4. American Honey

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Though Andrea Arnold only has four features under her belt, that in no way undercuts her as a talented director. Her best known films are Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights, the latter a modern take on the classic Bronte novel. Arnold tends to focus on displaced, poor or working class, and difficult-to-like teenage girls, which is the focus of her new film, American Honey. Star, played by Sasha Lane, joins a “mag crew,” a group of young adults who travel the country selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door to suburban homes. Shia LaBeouf stars as Jake, a love interest who also involves himself with another girl. The resulting film is a fascinating coming-of-age story and in-depth exploration of the forgotten towns of the American landscape.

5. The Bad Batch

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The Bad Batch is only director Ana Lily Amapour’s second film, but already she’s exploded onto the American independent film scene with her ribald irreverence and uncanny ability to mesh two or three genres into a seamless story. Her first film, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, is an Iranian vampire western, which is every bit as awesome as it sounds, and she takes her experimentation to new heights with The Bad Batch. Suki Waterhouse stars as our steely-faced protagonist dropped in the midst of cannibal territory, trying to return cannibal Jason Momoa’s daughter back to him. Along the way, Keanu Reeves makes an appearance as a charming but manipulative cult leader. Amapour dares to throw every possible crazy idea she has into this movie, and it really pays off — aside from being one of the weirdest adventure movies you may ever watch, it is, at its core, a heartfelt love story. (If you have a queasy stomach, however, beware — there’s a scene near the beginning of the movie where our heroine is amputated by said cannibals.)

With such a strong and diverse showing from newer and veteran female filmmakers in 2016, one can only be optimistic about the years ahead. We need stories that treat women like complex, complicated, three-dimensional protagonists of the messy narrative called life — which is what a female perspective so often lends. Since many female directors thrive in the independent film sector, be sure to keep an eye out for smaller films coming out in 2017, and go out to your local movie theater to support the women behind them!

An Open Life

I had been foolish, once again, to let my heart be torn open by men.

My mother had warned me about this once. Strict, autocratic, with a tinge of neuroticism dyed into her every nerve, she had ruled over my household with an iron fist. No wonder – she had escaped communist China with her family, shattered but alive. She had seen the horrors of war. There was no room for romanticism in a world that required survival. She had always talked about marriage in a practical way – marry rich, ensure a caretaker for your children and keep your bank accounts separate in case he ends up betraying you, as men are wont to do.

This was and still is the antithesis of my very nature. As a child, I started to rebel against the narrow guidelines of an Asian-American culture that my fellow first-generation children know quite well, in search of freedom where I felt there was none. Instead of math, I relished art and literature, consuming books by the dozen. In high school, when I was supposed to be studying economics and business, I worked for our theater department by day, then wrote short stories and plays by night.

Predictably, my mother and I clashed over my freewheeling approach to life. This included my relationships with other people. “Don’t give your trust so easily,” she advised, “and keep your heart not on your sleeve but firmly in your chest. Always smile. Keep a check on your temper. Never, never let people know how you really feel.” (And men – men, they will always hurt you.)

In all my loyalty to my truest of selves, I always balked at her advice. I hated wearing false masks, shunning duty for passion. People were something I felt unduly passionate about. As a writer, I understood that everyone possessed good and evil, that everyone was capable of hurting and being hurt. What was the point of human relationships if you couldn’t open yourselves to others and let everything good or bad in?

Of course, this approach has hurt me, time and time again. One may think I am masochistic for opening up my heart only to have its fragile contents trampled. I myself have wondered if it was foolish of me not to heed my mother’s warnings.

But I remind myself that life hurts. Life includes pain. I should feel so lucky, perhaps, to feel pain and be alive or to feel anger and fight for the things I believe in. It isn’t easy to concede that point, not after a good thing has started to crumble, and especially not after having to unstitch and unwind two lives that were deeply connected for two years, but here it is – I’m alive despite the pain.

And to be honest, pain and heartbreak has helped inform my writing and my art. I wouldn’t ever support the notion that artists must be emotionally tortured or clinically depressed to be successful but to know the depths of pain is just as important as knowing the depths of happiness in order to taste all the multitudinous colors of experience that we’re granted. It has allowed me to humanize others, to widen my understanding of humanity, and to search for solutions that benefit people I’ve never met. It reminds me that life is never a simple, straight line, but instead a road full of twists and tumbles. That to truly live fully, we must embrace all of its curves.

When I went to film school for college, my mother and I again fought viciously over my choices. Of course, she had wanted me to follow my sister into the world of finance, where the paychecks would be large and I would have no want for money, namely an easy and happy life. Art would afford me no comfortable life. In her mind, if I followed my sister, I could retire by age fifty and make art then, travel then, be happy then. It’s a sentiment that I would imagine is oft repeated to children of immigrants: toil now, reap the rewards later.

While that’s an honorable way to live, the more she suggested it to me, the more I resisted. No, I can’t make art later, when I’m fifty. I have to make it now, to save the parts of me that nothing else can save. Financial struggle is something I’m familiar with. It’s life without art that sounds inconsolable to me.

Of course I understood why she had been so insistent on my finding a financially lucrative career – after having a home and a life ripped away from her at age nine, then leaving everything for a new country where she didn’t speak the language, she had experienced poverty on the harshest of levels and didn’t want me to have to do the same. My mother didn’t want all of her sacrifices to be in vain.

“You”, she said, “you have had it easy here in America. You don’t know how much life really hurts.”

I thought of all the moments that had caused me pain in my life. Of all the friends who left me behind, all the lovers who said, “No” and thought me unworthy of love. Of all the mental illness caused by being raised by a mother who bordered on it herself. Anxiety, emotional dysfunction, neuroses caused by a war –  who could name them all?

“Yes”, I said, “I do.”