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Love the World Twice as Hard?

May 10, 2011

I recall one of the strangest conversations I had in the city. A woman came up to me at a party and said she had been moved by a piece of writing I had published. She confessed that prior to reading it, she had never wanted to talk to me, and had always been sure, on the basis of what she could see from across the room, that I was nobody worth talking to, that I was in fact someone to avoid.

But she had been wrong about this, she told me: It was now plain to her that I was a person with great reserves of feeling and insight. She did not ask my forgiveness for this brutal misjudgment. Instead, what she wanted to know was—why had I kept that person she had glimpsed in my essay so well hidden? She confessed something of her own hidden sorrow: She had never been beautiful and had decided, early on, that it therefore fell to her to “love the world twice as hard.” Why hadn’t I done that?

Here was a drunk white lady speaking what so many others over the years must have been insufficiently drunk to tell me. It was the key to many things that had, and had not, happened. I understood this encounter better after learning about LEAP, and visiting Asian Playboy’s boot camp. If you are a woman who isn’t beautiful, it is a social reality that you will have to work twice as hard to hold anyone’s attention. You can either linger on the unfairness of this or you can get with the program. If you are an Asian person who holds himself proudly aloof, nobody will respect that, or find it intriguing, or wonder if that challenging façade hides someone worth getting to know. They will simply write you off as someone not worth the trouble of talking to.

Having glimpsed just how unacceptable the world judges my demeanor, could I too strive to make up for my shortcomings? Practice a shit-eating grin until it becomes natural? Love the world twice as hard?

The above is a quote from a recent NY Magazine article by Wesley Yang, “Paper Tigers,” which in the aftermath of Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal article “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” strives to understand once again the way race filters the life experience of Asian-Americans living in the United States of America today.

As a Canadian, I find myself at a comfortable distance from the heated debate. After all, Canada is proud to be known more as a diverse mosaic than a melting pot of cultures. Living in Toronto, where diversity is as much of a given as our short summers and excessive “thank yous,” race is a topic far from my daily mind.

As an Asian, the paragraphs above strikes a chord. The thought of being written off as less worthy than the person next to me simply because of the color of my skin is repulsive.

As a woman, the assertion that beautiful people have an easier time in achieving social success rings true.

As a writer, the way one’s words are able to cut through the social constraints, ingrained stereotypes, and superficial bullshit to make a connection with another individual who, otherwise, would not have the chance to see a part of you for exactly what it is, rejoices me.

However, as an Asian-Canadian female writer, I can’t help but feel that there is no answer to the question of how exactly one’s race plays into one’s life experience. True, it factors in, and it has tangible consequences, but how much of that is directly attributed to one’s skin color rather than, say, the brightness of one’s smile or the wit of one’s banter or the trustworthiness of one’s work ethic?

You can argue that all those social and personality factors can be eventually traced back to one’s upbringing and is therefore, as shown in the article, intricately tied to one’s race. That would be a logical statement, though in my opinion, a rather useless one.

Because there is nothing we can do about the race we are and the upbringing that we had or the family we’ve been given. Those are all in the past. They already happened and made you the person that you are today.

And here you are.

Looking the way you do, with all the flaws and quirks and insecurities and strengths possessed uniquely only by you, and no one else. How are you going to live your life wearing them in a way that makes you — not anyone else — happy?

That is the key question, and the only question we should be asking, man or woman, writer or otherwise, Asian or not.

Like most others, I have had my share of experiences involving discrimination and prejudice: some of them racial, some of them social, some of them gender-based. Looking back, I can’t quite separate them into exactly what caused those encounters, just like how I can’t quite separate my identity into their various female, Asian, writer-ly parts, but I can remember exactly how those experiences made me feel: dis-empowered, alienated, sad.

In a perfect world, such feelings have no place and should never have happened. But they did — in the world that we live in — because we are imperfect human beings with our natural impulses and socially ingrained behaviours and mass-reinforced perceptions.

It is naive to think that we can eradicate all our imperfect human impulses and perceptions from society as a whole. What we can do is call each other on them, one person at a time, when confronted with them.

At the same time, know that you are not perfect yourself either, and thus just as lovable and worthy a human being as those beside you.

Ok, that’s all fine, you say. Accept yourself and others blah blah. But what about those bamboo ceilings and yellow faces and the less-beautiful? Do they just need to love twice as hard in order to be as happy as others? How is that fair?

Well, tough guy/gal, it is not.

Life is not fair, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find happiness.

Look around you. There are injustice everywhere and people working hard on fighting them every day. Some days they do alright. Other days not so good. But life goes on, and people live and play and find love and happiness, often amidst the sorrows and tragedies and mediocrity, thousands of years this goes on, and it did not stop today in your life. The world is bigger than you, and your suffering, though seemingly huge and systematic in your eyes, is really not that big a fucking deal in the grand scheme of things.

This is not to say that I think systemic discrimination is not a big deal or that talking about it is useless. It is a phenomenon that needs to be worked on to change for the better, which takes time. It is that I think at the same time of trying to dissect its complex origins, it may be more fruitful to focus on moving forward healthily in its presence. Understanding the nature of injustice builds knowledge, but doesn’t necessarily help one to live alongside it. In the meantime we must, and to do so we should recognize the choices we make and be prepared to bear their consequences.

Which leads me to this realization by the author:

I see the appeal of getting with the program. But this is not my choice. Striving to meet others’ expectations may be a necessary cost of assimilation, but I am not going to do it.

He’s made his choice, and he bears the consequences.

As have the Asian playboy, the reserved poet, the poised executive, the unassuming entrepreneurs.

No one can say whether those choices are right or wrong, because those are not their choices.

We each have to recognize and prioritize what make us happy in life, and choose accordingly. That is all we can do. That is what we should do.

The consequences vary. Some are colder than others. Some are richer than other. Some are milder than others. Some are more unexpected than others.

But they are yours, and yours alone. Together they build up the life you choose, and that, in my opinion, is the only one worth living.

To love the world twice as hard? No, babe, just love it the way you want to love it: be it a thousand times harder or just a teeny tiny bit… take the risk. At least you will know that you have loved the way you want to love and no matter how the world loves you back, no one can ever say it wasn’t interesting.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Bobby Finger permalink
    May 10, 2011 5:00 PM

    It’s been a while. Great to see you back, Grace!

  2. Raymond permalink
    May 10, 2011 10:28 PM

    You know, I never knew I was “asian” until I came to this country (the US of A). As a kid from Hong Kong, the thought never occurred to me. And even if it did, I’d say I’m Chinese. Not “asian”. Koreans, Japanese, Filipinos. They are foreign to me. I don’t speak their language. Don’t eat the same food. Have different customs. But in the US. We are all “asians”. Sigh.

  3. May 10, 2011 10:40 PM

    I hope some day you see all the evidence you need, if you haven’t already, that what you have said in this post is the best way for those of us subjected to “different treatment” to manage our lives without unnecessary neurosis. We can’t change the world and it’s equally difficult to change much of the society we are part of. We have to, as you say, “take the risk” and love the world the way we want to love it. Great advice! Thanks Grace.

  4. May 11, 2011 2:09 PM

    This reminds me of the final scene in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, where Harry wonders how he is that much different from Voldemort, since the Sorting Hat could have put him in Slytherin. As Dumbledore points out, it didn’t put him in Slytherin because Harry didn’t wish to be in Slytherin. To (mis)quote him, “We are defined by the choices we make.” Choices are what separate me from my parents and siblings; choices are what decide the course of my life.

    As for happiness: “Enjoy your life without comparing it with that of others.” -Condorcet

    Now then, I hope you’ll choose to write posts more regularly, though that is your decision, not mine. :-)

  5. May 11, 2011 2:25 PM

    I love your piece, Grace. Your thoughts echo what I have tried to say in the past, you have just done it with far more eloquence.

    Recently, I have tried to live my life the way I want to and not the way I think people have wanted me to. It can be a very difficult journey but I have found it to be much more relaxing. I can sleep better knowing the choices I make are the right ones…for me.

    Glad to have you back, Grace.

  6. June 4, 2011 3:09 PM

    Terrific, I love your article. I can relate it to myself. I am not a beautiful girl. And I had to work twice as hard as my counter females who are beautiful just to be noticed. These following words are my experience:

    Like most others, I have had my share of experiences involving discrimination and prejudice: some of them racial, some of them social, some of them gender-based. Looking back, I can’t quite separate them into exactly what caused those encounters, but I can remember exactly how those experiences made me feel: dis-empowered, alienated, sad.

    I feel sad all the time, but after reading your article I have decided not to feel bad the way world loves me back. I am gonna take the risk, and I will be happy. Thank you so much Grace, nice meeting you. You rock.

    • Grace permalink*
      June 4, 2011 8:39 PM

      No, thank you Cassandra, you rock.

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