Month: March 2014

Unexpected encounters with grief

1.

We’re standing in the front atrium of our high school, forty or so girls in rows of ten. We’re all in matching warm-up clothes, and there’s a boom box up front, blaring hip-hop music. We’re rehearsing for our halftime dance number.

Suddenly our coach comes hurrying down the hall. She pulls the team captain aside and speaks quietly into the girl’s ear. The girl crumples. Without a word of explanation, she walks away, supported by the arms of our coach. Practice pauses while the other team leaders figure out what to do.

Later we learn that the captain’s father has been in poor health for a long time. She’s only a few months away from graduation, but they don’t think he’ll make it. Eighteen years old and facing life without her dad.

2.

September 11th starts as television broadcasts from a faraway city. Then it becomes rumors whispered in the hallway between classes. Buildings falling, dust clouds flooding the streets, a plane crashing into a field.

I’m in third period calculus when a front office aide interrupts the lecture and hands a note to our teacher. He reads it, then asks the pretty blonde girl two rows in front of me to gather her things and go with the aide. Terror and tears gather in her eyes as she leaves the room.

Later we learn that her brother worked in the Twin Towers. That’s all we ever hear.

3.

It’s the summer after my freshman year of college, and I’m getting ready to go to my parents’ office. The bathroom radio plays Top 40 hits while I brush my teeth, wash my face, and get dressed. Through the closed door, the phone rings, but I know my dad will get it.

He knocks a few minutes later. I open the door and find him braced against the frame, his head buried into the crook of his arm. My brows furrow, but even then I’m not alarmed. Just confused.

Later, at my uncle’s funeral, I will think about that moment over and over. I will hear my dad’s voice, calm but thick, as he tells me that his brother is dead. I will think about how we are never really ready for something like that. Never expecting to lose someone that we love.

But I will also remember the strength that my dad showed in the moments after. He grieved, but he did not let grief shut him down. He cried, but he did not drown. He was changed, but not diminished.

I don’t know if I can be that strong that quickly. But I’m glad to have a model for it in my life.

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Confession

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Being different doesn’t have to mean being divided

Today I’m over at DiversifYA talking about my experiences as a halfie, as well as my advice on how to write diverse characters. I’d love for you to check it out!

Also, this opportunity came about after I commented on my friend Jasmine Warga’s great interview there. She had a lot of smart and eloquent things to say about her Middle Eastern heritage, and about people’s (mis)perceptions of that region (i.e., Aladdin, terrorism, and being “untouched by time”).

I’ve learned to embrace my background. It’s sort of the old adage that when you’re younger, what makes you different makes you embarrassed, but as you grow up, you learn that what makes you different makes you unique, makes you, you.

We’re all human with our own separate affinities, opinions, and interests. As important as I think it is for people to talk and discuss diversity, I want there to be a greater focus on what makes us all similar, as opposed to what divides us.

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Clothes for an empress

1.

I duck into a circular rack of clothing, a giddy smile on my face. Soon Mommy will notice that I am not by her side. She will, at least for a moment, panic. She will think that I have wandered off and gotten lost, or maybe even been kidnapped.

But then Mommy will come to her senses, calm down, and search for me. She will call my name in a sing-song voice and bend down to peek under the clothes.

I pick up my feet and tuck them onto the bars. Now I am invisible. I am a monkey nestled into a tree. I am a chameleon blending into my surroundings.

Still, I know somehow Mommy will find me, and I will shriek with glee. Then we will go to the next store and play again. This is my favorite game.

2.

My mom’s closet is a treasure trove. Sometimes when I am home alone, I go inside and rifle through all the sweaters and dresses and shoes. There are jackets with shoulder pads from when she worked in an office. There is a thick winter coat from when she went to school in Philadelphia. There are even skirts and shorts from when she still lived in Taiwan.

My all-time favorite thing in my mom’s closet is her bright red qi pao. Long and silky, embroidered all over with blossoms, fastened from ribcage to collar with delicate butterfly clasps. It is the most beautiful, regal thing I have ever seen. A Chinese princess dress. And it belongs to my mother.

The first time I put it on, I am too small in every way. A few years later, I try again, but I am still not quite there. Finally, in high school, the hem falls to my ankle as it should — but the sleeves and chest are tight, and the stiff high collar won’t even close around my neck.

Wistfully I realize that I have outgrown my mother. I will never fit her qi pao.

3.

In my own closet, there are a number of items I should probably get rid. Star Trek t-shirts, all XL, because as a kid I hid my body. My dance team uniform, stiff and cliché, but a reminder of the joy you can find in stepping outside your comfort zone. And way in the back, two tiny dresses that I loved in pre-school, one handmade by my best friend’s mother, the other frilled and polka-dotted, affectionately dubbed the Blueberry Dress.

I will never wear any of these things again, but each one tells a story about who I have been. About who I am. And maybe someday I will have a daughter who hides between hangers or presses her nose into the mothball scent. Maybe she will want to read my life in my clothes or try them on for herself. Maybe she will be fascinated by that “otherness” in me and want desperately to connect to the “otherness” within herself.

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