Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Someone Else’s Closet

Today the Defense of Marriage Act was ruled unconstitutional. Wow. I know some of you reading this out there are celebrating with me. Others of you are lamenting the decline of our country’s values. Some of you, perhaps, are ambivalent—it doesn’t really affect you, and you don’t have strong feelings one way or the other. Wherever you are on that spectrum, I meet you with respect, and even understanding. Coming from my own fundamentalist upbringing, I have intimate knowledge of the discourse and rhetoric that produces certain worldviews/faith beliefs. But for me, this move toward the recognition of *my* status as a real, human citizen of this nation, one who may be in the not-so-distant future entitled to all of the rights afforded to others…well, it’s a big freaking deal.

This topic was already on my radar to blog about because of the course of events in my life this past week. My Korean uncle, my mom’s only sibling, came to visit this week. So what? Well, I haven’t seen him in since high school, and he didn’t know until a few hours before he got on to the plane that I am a lesbian. Thinking about the many closets in my life, I remembered Eve Sedgwick’s discussion of coming out experience in Epistemology of the Closet. She writes that the coming out process isn’t a one step process; there’s always more than one closet in the life of a GLBT person. At this point in my life, I’ve opened all the closet doors that I have the keys to. My partner and I have been together for 13 years, and we have a beautiful 21-month-old little boy, so there really isn’t room in my life for secret lives or closet-living. Unfortunately, when other people are involved things get complicated.  How do you get out of someone else’s closet?

When I went into labor prematurely almost two years ago due to some serious health issues and gave birth to my son seven weeks early, my mother rushed from Korea to be with us. She visited my son with me in the Special Care Nursery; she cooked and cleaned; she held him when we came home so that I could sleep or shower. Of course she doled out lots of advice, too—some of it welcome, some of it not so welcome, but that’s what mothers are for, right? Our relationship had been strained for some time and it was the first time in a long time that she gave herself over to mothering me in the way that I needed her to and that I was able to open myself up to her to accept her gifts. When she came, however, she brought her closet with her. Upon telling my uncle, who lives in California, that she was here, he guessed that she’d come suddenly to the U.S. because I’d had a baby. She agonized about what to tell him. She even half-jokingly-but-not-really suggested that she might tell him that I’d had a drunken one-night stand and gotten knocked up. (That’s right, move over David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs. I’ve got plenty of complicated family angst and I’m not afraid to use it.)* But when he advised her to have me just “marry the guy if he was half-way decent” and offered to pay for the wedding, she simply told him that she didn’t know anything about the guy (which technically, I suppose, she doesn’t).

*Okay, that’s a lie. Actually, all of this truthiness makes me really nervous.

So this past week as we prepared for my uncle’s arrival, I asked my mom every few days to please tell my uncle about my sexuality and relationship status before he arrived. I’ve had too many unpleasant coming out experiences, and I really didn’t want to have to navigate one of those in my home with my son, niece and nephew in tow. Finally, just hours before he was set to board his plane, my mom called and talked to him. And he was just fine. In fact, it was the easiest coming out that I’ve had with family members thus far. Maybe it was because he didn’t want to heap any more stress or pressure on my mother. Maybe he just didn’t care. Whatever the reason, the experience was a far cry from the hypothetical scenario that my mother always claimed it would be: one laden with confusion, lack of acceptance, and disapproval. And just maybe, it was eye-opening for her, but probably not.

When it comes to my parents, there are lots of closets. Until very recently my grandmother didn’t know that she had another great-grandchild (and she only knows now because she can’t remember anything).  No one in my parents’ circles—friends, church people, etc.—know that I’m gay, that I have been in a loving relationship for over a decade OR that I have a son. With my mom, I’m working against religion and culture. And while, on the one hand, I understand where she’s coming from, it doesn’t change how incredibly infuriating, painful and frustrating it is to be rattling around in her closet alongside those other skeletons—shame, guilt, fear—that she’s hung up so neatly. My parents love my son, of this I’m sure. And they love my partner. But that love isn’t big enough to combat the rhetoric of judgment and shame that meets them daily in their lives…because this problem isn’t just a private or personal one. So many sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, etc. are locked in closets of someone else’s making; they are smothered by the closets of religiosity and “normative” discourse; they are stifled by the closets of nations that refuse to own them and acknowledge them. Too many have already lived fear-filled or unfulfilled existences there; too many have already died in those closets; too many have died because of those closets. In my house right now, there’s not a lot of room for forcing people out of their closets or demanding that I be let out of mine. But today, as the Supreme Court strikes down DOMA, I hope that closet doors are swinging wide open, airing out the shame and fear, and making new space for dialogues about what love is, what family looks like, and what it means to be human. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

What’s In A Smell?

My house suddenly smells like Koreatown. For anyone who knows about real Korean food, the smells can be intense, overwhelming and all-pervasive. Like the smell of honeysuckle in the thick heat of Faulknerian summers, the pungent smell of fermented bean soup (doenjang jjigae), the distinctive odor of spicy, pickled vegetables (kimchi), and the smell of fish frying are equally and integrally woven, like DNA, into the memories of my childhood. But my relationship to those smells has always been a contentious one. I’ll spare you the dissertation (for now, at least) on the complexities of growing up in a biracial and multi-ethnic household, but the smells wafting out of my kitchen in the here-and-now and embedding themselves, literally and metaphorically, in the fabric of my life epitomize that dichotomous relationship between the two parts of myself—Korean and American.

My early years, as funny as this sounds, felt more Korean somehow. My Korean grandmother lived with us until I was about 7. She spoke very little English, and Korean food was a staple around the house at nearly every meal; often we ended up with some bastardization (I suppose now we might call it “fusion”) of both “American” and Korean food. For many years, we did double-duty on Sundays, going to both English-speaking and Korean-speaking church services. And I often played with other Korean/half-Korean kids while our mothers squatted on someone’s back porch or patio making vats and vats of kimchi to divide amongst themselves, to bring to the elderly or the sick, and to store for those communal lunches after church on Sunday. Though I was always vaguely aware during this time of the way in which I straddled two cultures, of the way I never fit, exactly, in one place or another, it wasn’t until I was about 15 that I realized how deeply and profoundly I had internalized that feeling of “otherness.” At 15, my dad had just retired and we were living in the south, away from the safety and abundant diversity (oddly enough) of military life, and I had one of those Their Eyes Were Watching God moments—you know, the one where Janie discovers, upon seeing a photograph of herself, that she is black and not white. My moment happened when an adult, who was supposed to be supervising an activity, pulled his eyes into a slant and made some kind of disparaging “ching-chong” remark. I instantly felt myself flush hot with shame, anger and helplessness. All of those little differences that I’d noted and tucked away somewhere inside of myself were suddenly writ large across my body; when I looked in the mirror that night, my skin looked yellower, my eyes seemed more slanted, and my body felt foreign.

Prior to that moment, however, I’d felt those feelings of otherness most acutely in relation to the way that our house smelled because of the “strange” foods that we ate. My friends would occasionally wrinkle their noses or ask with blank and unreadable faces about the smell upon opening the refrigerator and getting their first whiff of kimchi. And I’d explain, embarrassed and annoyed—at them for their rudeness and at myself, at my mom, at my “other” culture—what it was. I made mental notes and promises to myself that when I grew up, my house would smell like clean laundry and baked goods—or that at least that it would be neutral-smelling enough so that food odors wouldn’t cling to me as I left the house, signaling my strangeness, my foreignness. Somehow, after all these years, I still get hung up on this: I rarely buy kimchi unless I know we are going to eat it in one sitting or I send it home with friends to let it stink up their refrigerators.

But with my mom’s arrival came all kinds of Korean ingredients that now line my pantry and take up space in my fridge. The house had begun to smell a little like my childhood homes, and I wondered anxiously if the smell would ever dissipate. And then my mom got sick on Monday. She asked me and my sister to make her a particular soup, one that starts with sautéing dried Pollock in sesame seed oil. As we set about the task nervously—worried we wouldn’t do it right, more worried that she wouldn’t be able to keep it down—I realized how disconnected I’ve become, in this second half of my life, from my Korean roots, and I began to feel the tug of that other part of myself that I abandoned in front of that mirror when I was 15. Panic welled up in me from some long-unspoken place. What have I forgotten? What questions have gone unasked? What stories has my mother been unable to tell or have I been unable to hear? The ties that bind me to her and to that part of myself that I haven’t yet begun to fully explore feel tenuous at best. Now she’s tired and sometimes forgets or confuses things that have always been common narratives in our shared history. Now I feel the constraints of time and space in all of our interactions. Now, I worry that when the time comes and those smells do dissipate, I will also have lost the way home to some part of myself. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Making Space

Today I made the bed that my mother will likely die in. It feels uncomfortable and shocking to write that—to anticipate someone’s death and to speak of it bluntly. Much like sex, money and politics, death is one of those topics that we don’t talk a lot about in our culture, at least not freely and without euphemism; generally, we don’t like death and grief to be too messy or too visible.

A few days ago, my friend reminded me of Six Feet Under’s pilot. The show begins with the death of the Fisher family patriarch, who also happened to run a funeral home from his basement. During the traditional and stuffy funeral, as the eldest son Nate struggles with whether or not to enter into the family business with his brother David, he describes witnessing a Sicilian funeral: “Those Sicilian women just went apeshit. Screaming, throwing themselves on [the casket], beating their chests, tearing at their hair, making animal noises. Just so…so real. I’d been around funerals all my life, but I’d never seen such grief. And at the time it gave me the creeps, but now I think it’s probably so much more healthy than…this.” Later, at the burial, as Nate deviates from conventional funerary rites, he tells his brother that he “refuses to sanitize” death—particularly his father’s death—anymore. The Fisher family’s job, of course, is to reassemble and re-figure those mangled and decaying bodies into images of wholeness for their loved ones. Lying in their caskets, the corpses appear to be beautifully peaceful versions of their living selves. What the unblemished exterior conceals are the staples and stitches, the plugs and the padding—those things that smother the signs and stench of death.

After discovering that my mother’s condition was far worse than we originally thought—that the cancer had spread extensively to her brain—I didn’t know how to feel or how to grieve. I sat, that morning, in the car with my son whose new obsession is to play “drive the car.” As he prodded me, in normal toddler fashion, to participate and as he insisted on my undivided attention, I was suddenly overwhelmed and gave in briefly to a few minutes of ugly and unrestrained weeping. He sat quietly and watched, uncertain and nervous. When I was done, he covered his face with his hands and imitated my weeping.  When he peeked through his hands to take in my reaction, I talked a little bit about what it means to be sad and explained that I was sad because my mom is dying. I’m sure he understood very little, but it’s such a fascinating thing to watch this new stage of socio-emotional development in him. I realized, that while most of us are fairly well-versed (to varying degrees, of course) in things like love, anger, happiness, etc., we don’t have an extensive emotional vocabulary for grief.  In our society, we commend composure and calm. We remark on an individual’s ability to “hold it together” during difficult times. The keening, the wailing, the rawness of grief and loss—it gives us the “creeps”; it unsettles us and plucks at the thin shroud draped across the fragile threads of our mortality.

Apparently, I’m no exception.  I’ve busied myself preparing for the living. We’ve painted the room and cleared it out, making space for my parents and my family in our home and in our lives. Ordinarily, our house feels too big for the three of us, but now it has begun to feel far too small for that which comes our way. So I made the bed, tugging at the corners of the duvet, pulling it an inch to the right and an inch to the left, trying to make it even, trying to make it perfect. I smoothed my hand over the wrinkles that just wouldn’t lie flat and laughed, realizing why people iron their sheets. But standing there, I was painfully aware of the fact that as I made space for them to live, I was simultaneously carving out space for death and loss. It feels unimaginable and unreal, and I’m so far from ready for what this journey will bring.  But it comes anyway. That’s life, right? It crashes around us, sneaks quietly by us, beckons to us, and rises up to meet us. But it never stops. It never slows down. It doesn’t wait for us to catch up. It rushes ahead of us, always a little out of sight, a little out of grasp so that even when we think we’ve finally got it in our line of vision, we never really know where it ends.