I fit and don’t fit in America or even Asian America. I belong and yet have not found full belonging. That may surprise people who know me, because by all appearances, I am well respected and included. I wrote for CAAM for 14 years. I have many friends who like me. I have a lot, I mean a lot, of COVID-era Zoom conversations. My patients like me, and I do my best to be present for them and let them know I have their backs. I am lucky to have been cared for just enough or perhaps more than enough, and I have cared for others in turn. Most importantly, I am very lucky to have my mom, for she has been a tirelessly loving human being who does her best to love on everyone she meets. I sometimes wish I could gift her attentions to my patients and friends and even every suffering soul. I’m sure she would say at this point “no thanks, I’ve done my job!” but I am my mother’s son, trying to carry her love forward in my manbody as best I can.
Adobe stock image, licensed by Ravi Chandra.
It’s not that I crave respect, attention, appreciation or admiration. I get enough, and at this stage of my life view attention and admiration especially as addictions and displacements. It’s just that I’ve carried a lot. Been through a lot. And I think in my heart of hearts I wish someone would just know this and love and accept me, knowing all of it, all the broken places, all the traumas, all the ways I have reacted to the traumas, and all the ways I’ve grown, and hopefully grown in ways to help others get through their days with a touch more ease. I do have my therapist … and he’s been more than enough, and been through more than enough with me, as has my mother, even more so. I have them, and they have me.
But how can you belong to a community that has itself been deprived of belonging, that has anesthetized itself from its possibility, yet remains in denial of the surgeon’s knife which threatens to carve us apart as if we weren’t one body at all?
I have been carried, enough. But there are ways that I still have not been held.
I’m hardly the only one who feels this way. Feeling lost, betrayed, abandoned, bereft … these are our common woes. For some, it is a 401-year story, or even a 10,000- or 100,000-year story. Some days, all time weighs on my soul, brooding or empty or filled with love. Some days, one little thing can push my button and I’m in the trauma zone, hot and feral, shouting “THANKS, KAREN!” to the older White woman who caustically shouted at me to push up my mask when I was walking in the street, eight feet away from her, listening to a John Powell podcast on othering and belonging. Oh, the irony. “I figured since I was eight feet away I was keeping us both safe!” “IT DOESN’T MATTER!” she screeched again, her voice a rigid metal baton to my chest. I was immediately her bad object to be policed and disciplined loudly, because her anxiety mattered more than manners or science. I got 25 feet down the street, and simultaneously thought “maybe I should have told her I’m a doctor…” and also “yup, I’ll be writing about this.” I wasn’t with it enough to say something like “have a blessed day,” as I’ve watched some Black men online respond with their much worse encounters with more clearly racist and possibly mentally ill White women.
Adobe stock image, licensed by Ravi Chandra.
I was mildly Karened and othered in the laundry room of my own condo building too. COVID-19 is doing strange things to people, what can I say. And how quickly death anxiety turns into fear and rage at Black and Asian bodies this season… And this rage against us has always been more acceptable and palpable than Black or Asian rage against White supremacy.
As Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five once sang, “don’t push me – ‘cause I’m close to the edge – I’m tryin’ not – to lose my head…. It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes wonder how I keep from goin’ under.”
I think part of the reason I feel I don’t fit is that there are some folks runnin’ around pretendin’ not to understand my emotions, or sayin’ that my emotions are somehow bad, wrong or strange. Not namin’ names, just sayin’. “Are you alright, Ravi? It’s not like you to be upset.” I’m like, “do you even know me?” The answer is no.
Let’s face it. Fuji-san looks all stable and majestic, but it is still a fucking volcano.
And then there are the people who have their sights set on structures and institutions instead of people. And run around thinkin’ that if they get the institutions right, or worse yet, the institutional mission statements right, then the people will somehow be better off. We’ve been dehumanized by institutions, and somehow some of us think that institutions can set it all right again. “But how else does change happen?” they might ask. I don’t know, but it seems we can get off track if we don’t talk about people. Talk about us; who we are as people, and who among us don’t get seen as fully-fledged people.
I don’t fit into the mainstream AIR (Acceptable Identity Range) or EAR (Emotionally Acceptable Range), so my messages are filtered out before they get to HEARTS (not an acronym, just an emphasis). I’m all like, okay, good luck with that… Imma keep doin’ my job.
Lama Rod Owens is a breath of fresh air for my ears, though, in terms of both identity and emotion. A self-described “Black, queer, cisgender, and male-identified, fat, mixed-class, Buddhist teacher and minister, yoga teacher, and shit-talking Southerner,” now based in Seattle, he was born and raised in Rome, Georgia, which is also where my mom lived and worked for 20+ years and a place I once called “the small town capital of nice” because of the friendliness of people on the streets on a nice summer day … even though 85% of those who voted there in 2016 voted for Trump. As Lama Rod would say, “people are complex.” Or as I might say, people are split into pieces, the friendly pieces unfriendly with the pieces that pull the voting lever against Black, migrant and Asian lives.
Owens’ book, Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation Through Anger caught my attention, as you might imagine, and I devoured it in a few sittings. As a psychiatrist, I know that everyone gets to their feelings honestly, when they actually get to them. Lama Rod gets to them, and he got to me, too. He describes being Queer and growing up afraid of being outed, afraid of being close to other Queer teens.
I was afraid, and that fear kept me from disrupting the violence against someone who was doing emotional labor for me by simply being in the world and choosing to be himself regardless of the violence he experienced. This work and sacrifice that members of marginalized groups do to be in the world in a way that doesn’t compromise their integrity are how the rest of us understand being as free as possible regardless of the cost. They help show the rest of us still gathering our courage and resiliency how to eventually be in the world and to survive the world and its brutality. Though I did not have the courage and resiliency to be out, he still showed me what it could mean being myself. However, at the time, what I was most afraid of was how he kept reminding me of what I was becoming, and because of that, I secretly needed him to be erased as well.
We shouldn’t be playing the Oppression Olympics, but the Black LGBTQ+ team continues to be unfortunate contenders. In 2019, “91% of the transgender or gender non-conforming who were shot were black women.” (Grullon Paz I, Astor M, Black Trans Women Seek More Space in the Movement They Started, New York Times, June 27, 2020) Black Trans and Queer people have been at the forefront of civil rights, gay rights and BLM movements, but have also been marginalized in these movements. This is painful but familiar. Movements are both gravitational and centrifugal. Time and love can bring us together, but we haven’t yet been able to fully gather their steam. Lucky for us, we have quite a boiler in the White House, and perhaps we will soon hear the whistle of the Freedom Train.
Adobe stock image, licensed by Ravi Chandra.
We Asian Americans seem good at erasing and suppressing our misfits too…until we’re suddenly given the go-ahead to start including them. We’re outsiders who think we’ll get in by casting out our own outsiders, and keeping our insides covered up. We are shy, private, scared, standoffish, and non-committal as a group, not given to the social nod or friendly street smile. We don’t show our emotions easily, except on Facebook and Twitter – we don’t want to make a scene, draw attention to ourselves, or impose. But our silence and withholding is also an imposition and an alienation. We were wearing masks even before COVID-19, and they cause discomfort.
We are silenced; we bottle our rage and our conflicted allegiances; we have never fully ratified our Constitution of love.
We really don’t go all out and support our artists…until the White establishment or the Twitterati anoints them or they win some big prize. There are a lot, a lot of people who aren’t getting the love they should, the full body-hugging Asian American love they should. It sounds weird to even put “full body-hugging” and “Asian American” in the same sentence, doesn’t it? We’re not that touch deprived in Asia, from what I’ve seen. America does something to us… The Puritans left their mark, to be followed by the crusaders who’ve pathologized even good touch in recent years. And now, there are those among us who haven’t been hugged or touched going on six months. Or years.
And then there are those among us who perhaps feel that love is misguided anyway; what matters is success, financial and professional. “When I’m known, when I have my house, my car, my titles, when the White establishment accepts me, then I’ll know I’m a worthy person; then I can love myself, and I’ll know others have a reason to love me.” So they starve themselves looking for love on the rooftop of castles in the air, all the while leaning their ladders against the wrong wall, all the while forgetting to feed the starving souls around them. Ghosting them.
Others silently note the ways they are passed over, not supported, and alienated from work and relationships. Silent, unexpressed anguish, sadness, grief and anger sits in our bodies, as if silence was survival and not a slow death, never realizing that expression and compassion will bring us to life.
Sometimes I feel like I’m a sphere passing through an emotional Flatland. Maybe I just feel abandoned because I have been abandoned.
May all the lost causes unite and rise.
We are a weird bunch who too all too often shrug off or give up our needs for love, and then look for it on Insta, Twitter, Facebook or TikTok. I’ve looked for it there too. All too often we Asian Americans are taught weird things about sex, dating and marriage, we hide our realities from our parents out of valid fears of judgment, and then we think we should love only our romantic partners, our family, and maybe our friends or ethnic community but not the Asian American community as a whole, except at dinnertime, when we eat each other.
At least we taste good.
Adobe stock image, licensed by Ravi Chandra.
And then some of us get mad at the system. Don’t worry, I do too. But our inner system needs work too, I don’t think it’s just me. A lot of us are still trying to figure out what we need to do to get loved, and then are afraid of love when it shows up in the ways we don’t expect. It’s Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, Agnostic, or Primal, and not Christian, or the right kind of Christian. We will be judged for loving. It’s the wrong color. It’s too dark.
To me, all love is dark, a beautiful dark night sky with stars, with or without moon, because you know, deep down, the moon is always there, whether you can see it or not.
Lama Rod is still looking for the moon, though, and as a Black Queer man, life and history have given him cause to wonder if it’s there for him at all. He reckons with anger and even “transhistorical rage” instead, as I have, as many of us do, if we’re honest. The fiery hot sun burning holes in our world through the magnifying glass of mind, the volcano of rage and trauma making new land even as it buries us in ash. Audre Lorde said “anger is loaded with information and energy,” a famous understatement. I have delivered a few libraries and nuclear power plants myself, with good cause.
I also smile, joke and laugh a lot, and my personal card carries my motto, “kindness is the only instruction.” I have a fully equipped emotional body, as Lama Rod would say, and am not afraid of showing it. This does set me apart from a lot of our community. We like to lead those split lives, suppressing our emotions in the hope they’ll go away and no one will notice what we’ve got going on inside. Maybe we’re pretending that we’re upholding professionalism or “face.” No, we’re not selling out at all. No, we’re not afraid of being punished for showing up in all our full colors. We are measuring our days, titrating the risks of affection and presence.
Just like Awkafina in The Farewell or Lulu Wang in real life, though, I feel like I’ve become the designated emoter, and my face is just fine, thank you very much.
Of course I do my best to cultivate antidotes for anger. I don’t worship it, but I don’t think of it as a flaw in any way. As Lama Rod says about himself, my anger has protected me, and it has protected others. It has told off those who needed to be told off and told what’s what. Lama Rod quotes Ru Paul: “My goal is to always come from a place of love…but sometimes you just have to break it down for a motherfucker.”
The anger of trauma, in the end, is simply a call for compassion; it is sorrow turned outwards; a bonfire of warmth in the cold high desert of abusive power; a signal fire in the darkness of ignorance; a conch shell call for unity. Only compassion, not judgment, resolves anger. Anger can be a form of compassion. Anger is not the same as hostility. Anger should not be viewed as childish or immature, but rather as necessary and perhaps unavoidable in the disconnections of human relationship, same same as conflict.
Adobe stock image, licensed by Ravi Chandra.
Anger just is. If we bottle it, we drink to keep it down or dissolve it for a night. But if we can only gather ourselves in torments, we might scatter and shatter our ocean of interbeing.
Best to let it roam, let it breathe and roar as need be; let it help us find our way to our true and full identity. Our suppressed, controlled and silenced identities gnash and grind their teeth; we are not yet free. We are split against ourselves, in separate, isolated agonies.
I appreciate Lama Rod’s journey with anger, and admire the space he creates for himself and others, as well as his practices and rituals to work with anger and trauma (his own modifications and innovations out of the Tibetan tradition). To my eye, he does kind of deify, reify, and objectify emotions, experiences, and idealized states, from anger to desire to love. As if they were externalities that he is trying to manipulate and keep at a safe distance with mental powers. Maybe these are rhetorical devices. He reminded me, though, of Milarepa, the Tibetan saint, who was traumatized and then learned sorcery to have power over his enemies and persecutors, angrily bringing down a house with magic, and destroying crops with a hailstorm. But to his surprise, he was filled with remorse, not glee, at what he’d done. He later met Marpa, who put him on a path to full realization and peace through deep insight into the nature of reality. Anger is liberating; but we need liberation from anger too. Lama Rod’s meditative practices and rituals seem helpful in this regard.
Receiving anger is another story, requiring fortitude, self-compassion, and insight into our deep wounds and disconnection. This is also a path of liberation, and there are highly enlightened beings who have walked it. Who among us has not faced anger? I think our receptive skills have been challenged in our virtual realities.
The next deep insight, for Lama Rod, for me, and for Asian Americans in general, might be in the direction of being fully and truly comfortable and safe with vulnerability, which comes through relationship, compassion, and good therapy, if you can find it.
Lama Rod needs, and we need, a lot of love, in other words. He says as much in his book. And I’m kind of a one-trick pony with love, because I know what works and have seen it in action, within myself and others. We need love and justice – because justice is love made visible.
Adobe stock image, licensed by Ravi Chandra.
My mom, by the way, met and walked with Lama Rod once, and she absolutely adores him. “He is a nice guy,” she said. I’m grateful to him for showing us his vulnerability and strength, the parts that anguish, agony and tempest, and grateful to my mom for being a loving person too.
Isn’t that what the women among us, especially the women, have done so well? It’s why I say I’m between 40-60% woman every day as a therapist and as a person. Ultimately, men and women are not that different, though women tend to be closer to the vulnerability of the world. Part of the anger between us is that we put up those identity filters on youth, and make boys think they should be “powerful” and “masculine” and not think or talk about their emotional bodies, or even feel, while the feminine is forced to carry the emotional load. And the emotional bodies of men are often not beloved by women, who fear the reality that men are vulnerable too. When women get angry, they also fall outside the mainstream AIR and EAR. But my ears are not deaf to their anger. It’s part of the air I breathe, when I breathe in suffering, and breathe out peace.
The gender split running through my mind distresses me, as do the splits of race and religion that seem to run through every last damn cell of my body. I love my body and mind, but they don’t always love me back. This shit hurts, all the pushing and pulling of the wound. I don’t mind being enlisted in support of healing, because for some damn reason I end up tripping on the judgments of somebody who has more power than love, and falling into dark pits of disaffection. I think it’s mostly cuz I’m Brown, and I do not brown-nose or blow sweet smoke up the arse of injustice, hatred, devaluation or narcissism. The ones who keep their doors barred against me think it’s because I’m bad, that my silence would be golden.
I know I’m not alone. A lot of us feel torn, in the middle, between, struggling to create ourselves between parents no longer on speaking terms.
I hope we’re resilient enough for what we’re going through, but as Parul Sehgal wrote in The Profound Emptiness of Resilience (New York Times, December 1, 2015) “Why rise from the ashes without asking why you had to burn?” If we have to burn, may we not be simply a Phoenix, rising from ashes not of our choosing. May we breathe fire like Fuji-san, throw hot lava on this broken world, and make new and better land for our lives.
May the world give love – and lava – to Lama Rod, all Black Lives, all Asian Lives, and all lives suffering from the abuse of power. May we learn to give these to each other too. Despite all that’s been done to them, all they’ve carried, Black people have a solid rep for love. We Asian Americans could do better.
And our anger – our Black and Brown and Yellow rage – is that screeching baby bird, eager for a meal from that big mother called America. It’s time for us to feed each other.
I know we cook up a good meal, when we sit down, as family.
Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. For fourteen years, he was lucky to have his MOSF posts published by the Center for Asian American Media, and now looks forward to broadening and building a diverse creative community and coalition through jamming on film, literature, nonfiction, music and all the arts for East Wind ezine. He writes from the metaphorical intersection of The Fillmore and Japantown in San Francisco, where Black and Asian communities have mingled since the end of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. He also literally works there, between two Indian restaurants, go figure. You can find him on Psychology Today, Twitter,Facebook, YouTube, SoundCloud, or better yet, in the IRL.
Beautiful words my friend. Appreciated the insights and images you share here relating to anger, possibility, and receiving love. As an Asian American, I have felt deficient in many ways and still recognize that the chip on my shoulder is still not completely gone. The line about the Phoenix and the volcano was very poignant. Gonna reflect on that one.
Thanks so much for your reflections and resonance, Johnny. You’re not alone in your feelings of being made to feel “less than”. In general, I think this is a very individualistic and narcissistic culture; and that those falling outside the mainstream especially are made to feel less than. We’re always pushing against a stream of devaluation and objectification. Loving ourselves into existence and resistance is an important task. Stay safe and well on the inner and outer journeys.
It’s a dream that my and their actions, thoughts, and words are mutually accepted by my parents, siblings, relative, and good friends also be mutually accepted by the people I come across. In my Asian culture, I’ve been taught to tip toe carefully and silently in the foreign soil I live in to be helpful and liked, rather than rejected by the first people here in the community. I enjoyed the love, emotions, and connection you and your Mom shared with each other, friends, and patients. It’s like a Chinese family inviting visitors to not have the air/attitude of being a guest, but to be at home with a sense of love, acceptance, and belonging. If our community can be like this, we would all be able to be ourselves with our emotions in a wonderful world!!
Poetic, poignant, stirring and full of heart and wisdom. I wish I had the courage to write the way you do. So many Asian Americans are hurting for the exact reasons you described but don’t even have the words to say it. That’s is why writing and emoting is so important : you do the “emotional labor“ for The silenced Asian Americans. Thank you!
Thank you Joann and Maureen for your comments. I’m just trying to channel the inner life as it comes to me. I’m glad that my words resonate. I hope you’ll stay tuned for future posts 🙂 And ultimately we all have to do our own emotional labor, as you know. But we can all take inspiration from each others’ expression.