By: Almond Rich
Your arms should appear fragile– or at least, not as muscular as a guy’s.
You should shave your legs because it looks unhygienic to have so much hair growing.
Your hair should be tamed and never look too slept on– take pride in your appearance. You’re representing not just yourself but me as well.
Always wear earrings; you’ll look girly that way.
Get rid of any idea involving playing basketball, softball, rugby (all the rough contact sports). Consider cheerleading (something more feminine).
If you decide to show any piece of skin from the waist down, always make sure that your skirt or shorts pass the length of your fingertips.
When you wear a dress, and you find yourself sitting down anywhere like the train or bus, cross your legs all the way (even the slightest spread is inappropriate).
Take the time to chew your food before you speak. No one wants to have food bits launched into their eye.
If you have to burp, excuse yourself from the table. Have some manners since no one likes to eat with a pig.
When someone asks you a question, be polite and answer the question, no matter how absurd it sounds; these are the things that young ladies do.
This piece was inspired by Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” a semi-autobiographical flash fiction reflecting on women’s oppression.
By Victoria Kim
“Oi! Wake up, it’s time for school. Hello! You have to go to school today. Yah, you lazy bum, are you deaf? Get up and get ready for school right now!”
My mother was louder than any rooster in this country. She’s the reason why I refuse to buy an alarm clock. Her indecent slurs eventually wake me up. If they don’t, she makes sure to drag me by my hand and throw me onto the floor from the comfort and sanctity of my bed. She would smack me across my butt, reprimanding me for being slow and lazy, and tell me to get ready for school.
As an immigrant, my mother had a very specific motto for school and the purposes it served for me. She would never fail to remind me every day that the reason my father brought her and me to this country was for us to receive and never waste better opportunities, to be the best in this country.
“Remember, you go to school to study hard. If you study hard, you do good in SAT, and you go to good college. You go to good college and you get good job. You get good job, you get a lot of money. And if you get a lot of money, you become very happy.” That was my mom’s motto in life for me.
My mom was practically obsessed with my educational life. “Do you have a test this week? How did your friend do? Why is she doing better than you when you both get tutored? You better bring above a 90% home, or you might as well find another family! Remember to kiss up to the teacher’s ass so you will seem like a good student.” I would roll my eyes at her daily words of wisdom.
My mom seemed to believe that getting A’s was easy and perfectly attainable. Almost as if students could buy grades from their teachers, just like my mom would buy her clothes from the clearance section in Macy’s. As I would tie my sneakers bought on sale, I would say “I’m leaving!” She would come running around the corner and stuff my face with sweet curd; she believed that beginning the day with something sweet would always make it day better.
“Vicky!” my mom used to call. I looked back at her questioningly. “Remember, absolutely no boys. You’re of no age to date and flirt with guys. If you look a guy in the eye, you might fall in love with him. Oh, and if you even dare to touch a guy, you might even get pregnant!” I would slam the door on her face as I heard her saying, “Go to school safely, and stay away from the guys!”
In all the years I attended school, I would always hear my mom speaking in the background and telling me to get good grades. That didn’t prevent me from liking guys, though. Sure, she told me to stay away, but I was a woman. Given that she taught me that girls were meant to complete guys, I might as well not take her words lightly, unless she expected me to bring a girl home. I remember my first crush from elementary school. He ended up going out with my friend and coming to me for homework help. I had a crush on one of my closest friends in middle school. When I confessed, he told me that he was asexual. I stopped pursuing him after that. My second crush from eighth grade seemed perfect. as I would gaze at him longingly from afar but never got the courage to confess to him. Then, I and watched him go. Then came high school. I liked a sophomore in freshmen year and built up all the courage to confess to him, but I ended up getting rejected, as usual. I attempted to talk to him even though I got rejected, but eventually, I gave up when I realized he was unemotional. I and gave up on him and my nonexistent love life all together.
It was as if my mother had bound me to a curse on me: a curse for not attracting anybody. I remember going to the temple with her and her telling me to ask God to keep all the guys away from me. Innocently, I obeyed her. Only now do I realize the mistake I made.
Why was my mother so tough? Yes, I realize that grades are important, and I was keeping up with them. But was it wrong to let someone in your heart once in a while? Was I really going to have to live the rest of my life fangirling over Korean actors and idols and screaming Oppa from my computer screen?
I had practically convinced myself that I was visually unattractive and I wasn’t very special. Korean dramas? Psh, they were just another myth. It took me awhile to realize that scripted stories can’t necessarily become reality. I wanted to have a conversation with my mother. Why was she being such a boob block to me?
“Mom?” I asked her.
“Yes, Vicky?” she replied.
“Why am I not allowed to look at a guy as a man? I mean, you taught me that a woman and a man completed each other, just like you and baba do, so why can’t I complete anybody?”
My mom looked at me with eyes full of amusement yet horror at the same time. “Vicky, you really are too young. You don’t understand men very well.”
Was she serious? “Ma! I’m a teenager– and a high schooler at that! I think I’m mature enough to understand guys and the society!”
“No, you aren’t!” my mom burst out. “Had you been as mature as I thought you were, you wouldn’t be asking such irrational questions!”
Irrational? Why was my question irrational?
“Vicky, never let a guy get between you and your career, goals, and motives in life. Honey, I didn’t even know I was getting married until my engagement day. How ironic is that! A bride who doesn’t even know she is going to be a bride! Don’t let yourself take my place. When I married your father, I was miserable. I had to leave my job and take care of our marriage. Your father wasn’t even there for me when you were born, and then he left for nearly two years after you arrived. When I came here, I was verbally abused by this man I called my husband. I prayed so hard to God to help me save our marriage, and thankfully, she did. I was so thankful when your brother came into my life, but that meant sacrificing my job and career, which I did happily. But then while your dad left me to go earn money three days after your brother was born to go earn money. Vicky, I don’t wan’t you to go through the nightmare I have.”
I looked at her quizzically. “I don’t understand. I don’t understand how your life lecture is an answer to my question.”
My mom looked a bit hurt, but she shook it off as she took my hand. “Vicky, build yourself a stable future. Have a good career, and stand on your own two feet. Once you do, all the guys will coming running towards you, begging on their feet for your hand.”
She gave my hands a soft kiss and patted my head. “Never depend on a guy. That is the worst thing a woman can do. Once you depend on a guy, you are indebted to him. Your father tore me away from my family and career as I became bound to him, you, and your brother. That’s how much I depended on this man to help feed this family. Had I been able to study more, I would have been able to earn a lot of money. I could have married a guy of my choice rather than be forced into a marriage with a man I hated. I still regret the fact that I didn’t have any opportunities to complete my education and make myself a well respected woman.”
She looked at me again and said, “Vicky, complete your education. Have a stable career. Make a lot of money and then find a guy of your dreams. The guys you look at now are boys. They are immature. They haven’t been through anything. Have they suffered any losses or built a house with their bare hands? No. When you grow up as a successful, independent, mature, and beautiful woman, find a guy who will treat you with respect and dignity, unlike the guys who you look up to today. Those guys will treat you like any plaything. They will play with your emotions and hurt you and attempt to tear you up, which you aren’t ready for. When you grow up, find a man who has been through a lot and can respect and appreciate your presence, rather than these boys who fight over the number of girlfriends they have had in the past. But Vicky–“
“Find a guy who can love you.”
I had always thought that my mother was being a typical Asian immigrant mother. I didn’t know what she was attempting to protect me from. I didn’t know she had suffered from so much. I didn’t know she didn’t want me to live the same terror she had experienced.
My mom didn’t want me to get good grades and earn money just to marry me off to a well respected stranger. But she was giving me a chance. A chance to find a guy who would respect and love me, unlike the guys I desperately want to hook up with. Those guys would want to hurt my feelings. Even if they ended up accepting me, they would grow tired of me after a week or so and throw me away for another Barbie. Those boys, I felt indebted to them just like my mom does to my father. I would feel indebted to them for liking me, and accepting me, and acknowledging me in front of everybody, and helping me gain academic success, and most importantly “loving” me back. I would never be able to easily let them go. However, if I grew up well rounded, then I wouldn’t have to feel indebted. I would like a guy for being my equal, for not having to be supported.
That’s when I made up my mind. Dating wasn’t a First World problem for me, and neither was it supposed to be a concern for an immigrant family. It was just an extra burden. The shocked reactions of my scandalized aunts when they heard of my cousins dating weren’t my biggest concern, and neither was it my mother’s. My biggest concern was to be successful and well rounded: a woman who could stand on her own two feet with no support whatsoever. My biggest concern was to not to misunderstand my mother and to look up to her for all that she has been through, just so that I could be successful.
“You have beautiful eyes, just like your mother.” She looked a bit frightened, but strangely, her features softened. “However, your complexion is your own. Your aura and radiance are yours. Those are yours, Vicky. Don’t let anybody claim them.”
I smiled at my mother. This country bumpkin had a lot to understand and go through. This country bumpkin had many opportunities, and she was set to use them.
For our final class, we considered perspectives on our hometown, New York City, from around the world.
A Christian philosopher from Kenya, a country in Africa, John Mbiti gave us an apocalyptic view of New York’s skyline belching smoke in his poem, “New York Skyscrapers;” the austerity of his poem brought to mind pollution as well as 9/11.
Heralding from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, the great poet laureate Derek Walcott offered a sultrier view of Greenwich Village in his beautiful poem, “Bleecker Street, Summer.” A number of incredible interviews with Derek Walcott are available online, such as this one with The Paris Review on the art of poetry, and this one in commemoration of his 1992 win of the Nobel Prize.
Our last poem took us to a familiar place inside our own heads. Writing from Pakistan in South Asia, Fahmida Riaz‘s meditation on riding the subway, translated from Urdu, resonated with many of our experiences of New York’s public transportation, always vibrating with life as much as with solitude. You can read more of her poems here. Riaz has also spoken out often on political matters, such as the crises facing the Indian state (her advice: “Don’t become another Pakistan”).
A flash fiction from the Argentine feminist writer Luisa Valenzuela, “Who, Me a Bum?” took us into another all too familiar transportation-related scenario: a stranger has committed suicide in the subway, stalling service. Police arrest a homeless man, from whose first-person point-of-view the story is told, when the homeless man sarcastically speaks out against the apathy with which other commuters are angrily responding to the stranger’s death. Often only a stock character for us in New York, the homeless man gains an inner life in Valenzuela’s depiction. Part of the “Post-boom” generation of writers in South America, Valenzuela also has an interesting interview with The Paris Review and another with BOMB magazine.
We finished with an excerpt from the Korean-American writer Patti Kim‘s novel, A Cab Called Reliable (1997), to consider the pressure on us, as students, to succeed here in New York. The young daughter of first-generation immigrant parents from South Korea in East Asia struggles under the pressure to meet everyone’s high expectations; rather than receiving public praise for her first-place writing, she faces judgment and possibly indifference even from her father.
Here were our final writing prompts in response to these writings, in case you would like to pick them up for later:
- After Walcott: Personify your favorite street in New York; think about the life there, the setting, the people.
- After Riaz: Create your own “poetry in motion.” Set yourself in the form of transit you take often– the bus, the 1, the LIRR– and reflect on that everyday experience.
- After Mbiti: Capture the city amidst a crisis or major event, like 9/11 or Black Lives Matter. How does the landscape reflect the mood?
- After Valenzuela: Assume the first-person point of view of one of New York’s many stock characters— a businessman, a homeless person, a police officer, etc. What is this person’s secret backstory?
- After Kim: It’s difficult to be a student in New York! Maybe you’re the child of immigrants, or maybe you’re just under a lot of pressure at school. What is it like to be a teen in your high school/family in this city?
Next up: Our end-of-program celebration on August 22! If I didn’t hug you goodbye this past Wednesday, it’s because I’m counting on seeing you a couple of Mondays from now! So, make sure to come with a short piece of writing in hand to share with all of us before we go. If you’d like to pretty it up and send it to me for some thoughts, I’ll be happy to respond while I’m away on vacation. Until then, thank you so much for an incredible experience!
For far into the future, don’t forget, there are now extra resources for college, writing, and publishing available on the blog’s “menu” in the upper righthand corner here. Here are links to the resources added thus far:
- Writing Personal Statements 101
- Personal Statement Checklist
- Tips for Supplementary Essay Questions
- How to Make Your Best First Impression in College
- Publishing Opportunities for Teens
- Writing Awards for Teens
Looking forward to seeing you later this August!
For those of you who weren’t able to attend last night’s field trip to the special art, literature, and performance collaboration, “Gender, Justice & the Arts: A Night to Celebrate South Asian Creativity” at Bowery Poetry, I thought I would share a few links to work from the writers and artists we saw.
Benaifer Bhadha started the evening by telling an unscripted story about growing up and coming of age as an overweight child in a traditional family obsessed with marriage, desirability, and appearances. Her struggles with self harm and a self-destructive body image were disturbingly familiar for girls, regardless of cultural background.
Mashuq Deen, who identified himself as transgender at the start of his performance, shared two moving letters from his recently published memoir, Draw the Circle, about coming out to his parents. He also performed a multi-voice piece from his one-person show.
The spoken word portion of the evening finished with Alok Vaid-Menon, who identifies with the pronoun “they” as a trans-feminine person. Transphobia recurs in their poetry as an everyday occurrence– one that reminds us that, in their words, “trauma is a structure, not a feeling.”
A roundtable with three South Asian women artists– Ayqa Khan, Soni Satpathy-Singh (the creator of the hit comic series Sketchy Desi), and Amina Ahmed— finished the evening. These artists discussed the politics of representation in their very different media. They especially focused on the politics of representing female bodies in their authentic biological selves– with too much hair, while menstruating, with feisty attitudes, as Muslim and/or Hindu, etc.
The event benefited a nonprofit called Sakhi for South Asian Women, which supports survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault who are of South Asian descent. Click on all these links to learn more about their work, and see you for our last class this Wednesday!
The rising sun liberates itself within the sky
As blood-red flags flutter within the barren land
Tears disperse and stain the ground
Plastered with souls abandoned from their
Bruised and gashed molds
The harsh wind whistles and abruptly disappears into the crevasses of an abandoned building
A siren blasts a cynical anthem
It celebrates the strained whines and trembles
Of a young girl and the abduction of her radiant smile
Who rests on top of her fragile frame
proclaims he is done and prances into the next room where another girl
Awaits to sacrifice her dignity
The girl’s father, horrified beyond words, gallops onto the bed
Wrapping her legs into a soft blanket given to her for her first birthday
He howls in grief as his fingers
Blood in the lines of his palms
Stroke her tender stomach
Duì bù qǐ1
Five minutes before
His aching feet shuffled into a corner weeping at
The blatant vandalism of his own
Wǒ ài nǐ2
Outside in the shadows, we see a flicker
The flicker reveals a faintly drawn scene of 5 or so months ago
Capturing a mother grazing the head of her young son
We hear his delicate laughter ringing throughout the now barren land
The flicker, in a sudden, grows dim and dwindles within seconds
The mother now clutches her son in terror
As a soldier
Bears a bayonet
Still spotted with dried blood
With fresh drippings at its tip
He viciously kicks her son with his mud-oozing boot
The boy’s ragged cloth falls off his limp body
Surrendering to the cold dirt
Both mother and boy crying for mercy
His mother sympathetically rests her son–
Now bleeding from the crack in his head–
On her bosom and showers him
With the rest of her maternal love
All at once
A gunshot and a shriek harmonize
As the mother’s grasp of the child collapses
Mingling with the cement ground
The soldier smirks at his deed
And runs off to brag about his heroism
Where her stomach should be
Is a hole
A cauldron of blood frothing at the surface
She draws him into her breast and cradles him ‘
With her numb arms
Bù yào kū, háizi
2: I love you
4: Don’t cry child, don’t cry
This week’s session marked our last visit from a fabulous guest author, memoirist and professor Rachel Adams. In addition to Rachel’s generous Q&A, we wrote in response to two readings on disability.
The first was an excerpt from the famous black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde‘s autobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982). Her parents emigrated to the U.S. from the Caribbean islands of Barbados and Carriacou, a territory of Grenada. Ten years after publishing Zami, in 1992, she died of cancer.
In the third chapter, Lorde recounts the experience of being nearly blind as a clumsy young child, prone to shattering the glasses that were stuck to her head with an elastic band. As she considers the barriers that her near-sightedness posed to learning how to read and write, she also suggests the prejudices she faced from strict teachers. The white nuns who ran her Catholic elementary school in Harlem were more likely to misperceive her unwitting misbehavior as a sign of an attention deficit disorder rather than advanced thinking.
In addition to this memoir, Lorde was best known for her incredible poetry, which you can explore here.
On Rachel’s recommendation, we also read Robert Hayden‘s “The Tattooed Man.” Also an African American poet living with extreme near-sightedness, Hayden’s poem uses the metaphor of the tattooed man to discuss race, disability, and desire in tandem. Born to a very low-income family in Detroit, MI, Hayden spent most of his childhood in foster care and became an important voice in the Black Arts Movement (1965-1975).
A professor of American literature and disability studies at Columbia University, Rachel published Raising Henry, a memoir about raising her son, who has Down syndrome, in 2013. As a feminist scholar, Rachel’s public writing highlights intersections between disability and other historical legacies of inequality; for example, one of her opinion pieces we read, “Missing the Bus” in the Huffington Post, analogizes unjustified changes to her son’s bussing to the struggles for equal access to transportation and education that animated the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In the other example that we read, “Belated But Essential Steps to Respect,” applauds the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry‘s long-awaited call to doctors to erase “the R-word” from their medical vocabulary.
Rachel talked frankly about her hopes, frustrations, and epiphanies as an academic who has transformed her writing and interests for a wider audience in the public sphere. Her first book, Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination, studied still-existing freak shows in outposts like Coney Island. During her visit, she taught us a lot about disability. Topics covered included:
- the extent to which disabilities exist on a spectrum;
- the exacerbated conditions for disabled people dealing with multiple and overlapping oppressions (like women in prison)
- horrifying stories of violent and uninformed reactions to disability in the U.S. (such as the shooting of a mentally ill man in a hospital, captured in This American Life);
- research that proves how difficult it is to “change someone’s mind;”
- doctors’ callous treatment of patients as medical specimens, emblematized in her recent observations of genetic counseling sessions;
- the invisibility of learning disabilities, and the use of universal design to counteract discrepancies in learning styles in the classroom.
In particular, Rachel emphasized the perils as well as the possibilities of putting one’s voice out in public on behalf of a cause. She described receiving some surprising hate mail in response to her memoir, ranging from bigots to offended moms who felt her experience didn’t reflect theirs. Especially instructive was one criticism that she took to heart: that her “unexamined privilege” as a white Jewish woman living on the Upper West Side led her to represent her family’s experience without enough awareness for what it would have meant to have less.
We were so incredibly grateful to Rachel for sharing her experiences of publishing life writing with such generous candor– her openness to “being real with us,” as one student, Jamaican Prince, complimented her in the Q&A. With regards to writing memoir, perhaps her most striking pieces of advice were these:
- Know your audience (for her, she wanted to reach doctors, parents, and educators);
- Devote your first draft to what you really think, and your second to how not to hurt the people you’re thinking about, keeping in mind that “nobody likes to be written about, ever;”
- Define yourself as a character, maybe even a flawed character, in your own story; drop the illusion that you’re “writing your real self.”
You can read more of Rachel’s personal essays on her website at www.RachelAdams.net.
Lastly, if you missed class, here were our writing prompts!
- Write an op-ed in which you take a stance on behalf of a political issue that affects you or someone close to you. Become your own advocate, and in a persuasive tone, explain why your opinion is the right one on this issue.
- Audre Lorde’s memoir, Zami, takes us back in time to early childhood memories about her near-blindness. In your own personal essay or memoir, think about an early moment in your childhood when you were accused of being sick, abnormal, or disabled and struggled to become ‘normal’ again.
- Robert Hayden addresses his poem to someone who judges him for his body and causes him pain— both physical and psychological. Write a poem addressed to a “you” who has caused you similar pain and judgment based on the way you look or a physical/mental condition you can’t help.
Next week: It’s our last class! We’ll celebrate with one final round of pizza and a bunch of African, Latin American, South Asian, and Caribbean poems and short stories thinking about our home, the concrete jungle where dreams are made of. There’s nothing you can’t do, you know?