The Re-Education of a Panda

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An abridged educational autobiography.

Some children are told that they can be whatever they want to be when they grow up. Some children are told they can and better succeed.

I was told, on an almost daily basis, how worthless, stupid, and “good-for-nothing” I was. A mistake, even. An abomination that my father hoped would one day get hit by a car.

When I became a teenager, I told myself that these viewpoints weren’t rational. That everyone had to have some worth, and even if I was stupid/dumb/idiotic, it had no bearing on whether or not I was lovable. And I managed to fight back against these abuses, quietly and strategically. I read Bukowski constantly (and even ended up with a Bukowski tattoo). I read The Myth of Sisyphus repeatedly to remind myself that suicide was not the answer. I read Francesca Lia Block obsessively. Any book I could find about overcoming struggles and adversity I checked out with my library card. Luis Rodriguez. Maya Angelou. Martin Luther King, Jr. All my diaries were named after Anne Frank. And, of course, Harry Potter. I would hop on a bus and just read all day to avoid being home, to avoid being reminded just how worthless I was as a human being. I remember once I misplaced a library book. It would cost $35 to get my card privileges back. I asked my dad for the money at the restaurant he was running, hoping that he wouldn’t cause a scene in such a public place, but our restaurant was never busy and he just hit me repeatedly with a stack of paper plates.

“The problem isn’t even you exist! You exist to take, take, take. You don’t care about anyone else – just your own, selfish self. You’re a horrible person. A horrible, miserable person.”

I was 13. It took 5 months of saving tips to pay off that $35 book charge.

So, I fought back, quietly and subversively. I listened to Bikini Kill and L7. I listened to Nine Inch Nails and Leonard Cohen and the Smashing Pumpkins.

Oberlin once sent me an advertisement for their college. I decided that Oberlin was where I wanted to go. They had been the only college to send me anything and the ad said it was a liberal arts college. I wasn’t quite sure what “liberal arts” meant, but I had heard enough people mention it to know it was something good. Neither one of my parents graduated high school – my mom didn’t even go to high school – so I knew nothing about college or how it was supposed to work. I knew nothing about reputations or the Ivy League. I just knew that, at the time, I still had a shot escaping my life. It’s a sad truth that poor kids, minority kids, the kids who exist in the “other” realm, are all told that their worth is based on their intelligence and/or ability (for ex., sports) to go to college.  So I erroneously thought, as many kids like me thought, that only “the smartest” go to college. It would take another 10 years to discover Foucault and other critical theorists who would prove me so, so, so wrong. And that college is actually more than its academics.

One day, I shared with my father that I wanted to go to Oberlin. His response was “You’re not going anywhere but the streets.” “Why would you tell me that?” I asked. I was 15, working 20 hours a week to help pay rent, in addition to trying to keep up my school work.

“Because you’re too dumb to do anything. You’re just like your mother. You’ll turn out just like your mother.”

My mother, the drug addict, whose greatest accomplishment has been not dying from HIV-yet. That is who I was supposed to turn out like.

But I fought back, quietly and subversively. I found friends and went on wild Los Angeles adventures. My friends taught me how to dream and have fun. Most of us were just fucked up kids, but we became family to one another.

By the time I was 17, it was apparent that I wasn’t going to go to college – I couldn’t stand school anymore. You’re told in school that your failure to do well is a failure in yourself. It would take years for me to realize that my father coming into my room and ripping up my just-finish-homework because I didn’t do the dishes right was what was really holding me back. But, at 17, I still had dreams and I could feel myself almost being happy. On the verge of adulthood with a job at Taco Bell, I felt optimistic.

Then, my father read my diary. My diary – which was my only source of comfort and strength. And he punched me in the face for having written less than stellar things about him. He didn’t care about my depression, my hopelessness – he cared that I had written ill of him. So for the first time ever, I punched him back. And then I punched him again. And then he beat the shit out of me. But those two punches I gave him were glorious and wonderful and I will remember them for the rest of my life.

I was then arrested for elder abuse.

Mr. Kade, the social worker, told me me when I entered his office that I was in “a lot of trouble.” And a cop told me he recognized me from Sepulveda (insinuating I was a prostitute. My best friend lived off Sepulveda at the time so it was quite possible he had recognized me.) And I was told what a horrible human being I was for beating up this elderly man – even though I had a black eye and a swollen lip. I cried and said “But he’s beaten me before. He tells me how worthless I am everyday.” Their only response was, “Well, why didn’t you call us then? You’re a liar. All girls like you are.”

The failure of the justice system to see me as the victim crushed me. To hear that this man who had once hired someone to murder my mom, who had beaten, cheated, and stolen his way through the world was a “good guy” took away all feelings of personal sovereignty I had. To have cops yelling at me how worthless I was, it utterly destroyed me. To have a social worker, who I had thought would be my advocate, advocate for my “kind father” was traumatizing. To have my precious journals laid out as if they were a freak show, to be shamed and judged for merely expressing myself – I still haven’t found the words to adequately describe that particular torture.

When that incident was over (my dad did not press charges), the Old Man took me to Pho 21 on Sepulveda Blvd. and while I sobbed quietly into my soup, he said, “You’ll never beat me. I will always win.” He never hit me again, but every day he would remind me that he was the victor, and if I didn’t stop crying he would send me to a group home. I was obviously suffering from PTSD, and no one could reach out to help me. Even though we were supposed to go to therapy, my father told me I didn’t deserve it. That I should get over it. But I kept crying – I was completely destroyed. That spark -however miniscule – that kept me moving forward, that kept me believing in myself, vanished. I stopped hanging out with my friends and instead started spending my time with a gang of asshole rockabilly dudes – but they drank. And the only thing I wanted to do was drink. At that time, my dad ran off to Kuwait for 6 months, leaving me to take care of the house and my brother. So I dropped out of high school, got a youth job at the DMV, and proceeded to to further lose myself in my own self-pity and shame. My apartment turned into some sorta hedonistic paradise.

After my father returned from Kuwait, he told me didn’t need me anymore and that he hated me. And then he kicked me out. So I wasn’t just a high school drop out. I was now a 17 year old, homeless high school drop out. Almost being arrested for elder abuse was nothing like the pain of being homeless and depending on other people for necessities. I bounced around for a few months until I managed to stabilize myself into an apartment situation. I even managed to somehow convince a guy that I could be a paralegal. My old boss still has no idea I was homeless when I started that job – brushing my teeth and doing my make up in the bathroom- and I ended up being there for 10 years. However, that fear of being homeless again kept me from making risks and trying new things for a long time. However, more importantly, I vowed to never let my father into my life again。

From the time I was arrested for elder abuse to when I was 21/22, I lived in a forgetful haze. The only thing I cared about was not reliving the traumas, the disappointments, the heavy weights of blame and shame. I finally woke up to discover myself in some sort of feminine mystique hell. I was “engaged” to a bass player who was cheating on me while I took care of his toddler child. I was depressed and overweight and being told, again, just how worthless I was. I remember our fights usually ended with “You’re just a feminist!” “I am not a feminist!” I would cry.

And then, one day, while I google searched “feminism” to prove him wrong, I only proved him right.

“Holy shit,” I thought. “I actually am a feminist.”

Leaving him was the hardest thing I had done at that time, because he was my “first love”. He had given me my first tastes of stability, and I was taking care of this little person who lived with us and who I adored and who adored me. Taking care of her curbed my drinking and forced me to grow up, because I wanted to set a good example for this tiny child who had also already been through so much. For the first time in my life, I thought I had this “family” and I was throwing it all away. “You won’t find anyone who will love you except me,” he said.

“Then I will just have my books,” I replied. Even though I hadn’t actually read anything in years.

I knew I didn’t just have to break up with him. I had to break up with the whole “scene” I had found myself in. Full of petty people who tore each other apart. I counted as my friends date rapists and wife beaters; misogynists and jealous women who trashed each other. I got rid of my cell phone. I stopped going out. I moved away. At the age of 22, I became a social hermit. I had to accept that everything I knew about myself and everyone else was incorrect. That the way I saw the world, the way I interacted with people – it was all wrong. Everything I ate was wrong. Everything I thought was wrong. The way I treated people was wrong. More importantly, the belief that I deserved to be treated the way I allowed people to treat me for so long was wrong.  I can’t adequately express the fundamental shift in my being that happened once I accepted everything about me was wrong. Accepting that I wasn’t right about anything gave me the freedom to search for new truths.

So I read more books. I read bell hooks and Jessica Valenti, Courtney Martin and Naomi Wolf. My feminist awakening was life-changing. I became almost bold. It occurred to me that my father’s treatment of me had little to do with myself, as an individual, but everything to do with myself, as a woman. I was able to separate the abuse from something that was inherently my fault and see that it was his pattern with all women – from the dawn of time until the end of time. And that was liberating.

And then I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of The Negro, and Angela Davis’ Women, Race, and Class.

Those last three books had a profound effect on me. Feminism was cool and all, but I was mostly being exposed to white middle-class academic feminism. And while I am white, I wasn’t culturally white. Having grown up in foster homes and in the barrio and in poverty, I existed in this weird cultural miasma. I had no idea where I belonged. Reading these books forced me to understand structuralism and how inequalities are nurtured by a dominant culture. That heavy weight of responsibility I had carried for so long began to vanish. Like a phoenix, I began to rise from the life I had blindly created for myself. They taught me that change – deep, personal change – was possible. It was never too late to be educated. It was never too late to start over. It was never too late to try. Malcolm X, particularly, will always hold a special place in my heart. In addition, learning about astronomy and understanding just how miniscule we all were in the great scheme of things – was incredibly comforting. “You are made of star stuff” was one of the most amazing things anyone had ever told me. For the first time, I felt connected to the world, connected to humanity. We were all created in the core of a dying star.

Still, I felt I wasn’t smart enough to go back to school. I was more well-read and socially conscious than many graduates from top schools, but that lingering voice in my head told me I was fundamentally dumb. At that time, I had started tutoring at a homeless shelter and one of my students called me out on my own lack of a college education. “To prove to you that you can go to college,” I told her. “I will go back to college – for reals.”

That first semester was shaky and I went home and cried every day – convinced I wouldn’t be able to write this essay or that essay. I was overcome with stress and pressure – this was it, I reminded myself. I cannot fuck up this time. I also had to learn how to balance a full-time job and school and homework. But I sincerely put my all into it and wanted it so badly that funny things started happening: I always got A’s (left community college with a 4.0 GPA). Professors reached out to me as mentors. I was offered a “free ride” at a great (albeit expensive) university. More professors noticed my academic sincerity and took an interest in my education. I discovered incredible friends and a normal, complicated life. And more importantly, I developed a sense of identity that, I hope, is rooted in compassion for others and myself.

Now, I am in a good place even though I am still obviously a work in progress. Most of my friends see me as someone intelligent, kind, and responsible. Sometimes, I think people think I’ve just always been good at things. Or, that I’ve always just been popular. Or, that I’ve always just been lucky. Or that I’ve always “been smart.” And I am OK with that, because sometimes winning in life means people can’t tell where or what you came from. Most people don’t realize I struggle with feeling deserving almost every day. That I have moments where I am convinced my friends actually hate me. I still have anxiety over school and I am still shocked when I am rewarded for hard work. At times, I still fear that people will discover that I am really a fraud. And, to this day, my most challenging things are believing my voice is important and that it is OK to need things from people. That I am not a selfish bitch for wanting.

Recently, someone called me out on my back story. “The only thing I know about you is that you were homeless,” she said. “You know, other people go through fucked up shit, too.” That made me “have feelings”, because it touched upon that “You don’t mean anything” voice that I fear I will always be combating. That “your story is bullshit” voice. The fear that people will think I want something from them (for example, sympathy), and, as a result, leave me. I’ve read enough and met enough people to know that my story isn’t the saddest and what a miserable competition to engage in anyways.

So I don’t offer up these stories to whine or complain or for sympathy. Sympathy and empathy are things I’ve never expected, and I am still deeply touched by the kindness of my friends. I offer up these experiences simply as “a story.” A part of my story. I have failed more times than I have succeeded. But, the lessons I learned failing meant my successes were much greater. And even if I was moving at a snails pace, I knew I had to keep moving.

Other people’s stories have helped and guided me so much in life. I realize that I am in a position to serve – I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to say as an inspiration (we all have different dreams)- but, maybe, as a guide for some. A friendly nudge that says, “It is possible. You can rise up. It will be hard, but you can rise up.” You will make mistakes, and they don’t have to define you. You can admit you were wrong and be reborn.You can be brave. Regardless of what path in life you take, you can be brave.

And to my friends who think they are stuck or trapped or meaningless, there is a light. Your story IS important. Sharing your story is important. Not giving up on yourself is important. There are amazing experiences and good people in the world. Persevere with a sincere heart and the universe will root for you. As Bukowski once said:

“there is a light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them…

you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.”

They’re alright

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I have met some pretty interesting students in the Beijing program. They’re worldly and well-traveled, and are the children of doctors and diplomats and businessmen. I feel a little bit like an outlier – I am almost 10 years older than most of the students and I am the only female. My background is definitely different.

At first, it was pretty alienating and I felt fairly lonely, but I think we’ve all warmed up to each other and I am genuinely fond of my classmates. I am constantly forced to challenge my opinions and preconceived judgments of others – which is always a fantastic experience. Learning how to talk to people from all different backgrounds with respect and understanding is a wonderful skill to cultivate. Last night, a classmate even told me I “changed [his] life” after a discussion we had. I realized if I had argued with him over something he said 5 minutes earlier, we would have never been able to reach that point. Another student said when he first saw me, he thought I was “thug”, because he had never really talked to anyone tattooed before.

Mostly though, I am thankful for the Beijing program students for making me feel like a “real” college student for a little while. From the midnight knocks on the door asking if I want to have a smoke to drinking beer and listening to Kendrick Lamar on an overnight train ride to just hearing what young college students think and dream about – these are the things I will take home with me.

I’ve read too many articles dissing Millennials while calling them out of touch and narcissistic. The ones I have gotten to know are really optimistic and imaginative. I find myself almost interviewing them regularly, because I was never taught to be so fearless and, man, do I want to learn. We are all in pretty privileged positions in this program, but I feel particularly privileged.

Even more than learning Chinese, even more than living in a different country, being surrounded by the optimistic and life-loving, globe-trotting future is what I am going to really remember.

I said it before, but the kids really are alright.

The Great Panda Adventure

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Travel brings power and love back into your life.

-Rumi

I lost someone really important to me this year. I have written that sentence so many times, and nothing ever follows. Reciting the stages of grief to myself helps sort the feelings into manageable clumps so the rest of my life can keep going. Ok, something finally followed that.

I lost someone very important to me this year. The last time I saw him was December 26, 2013, and in the throes of a nasty, mean drug addiction. The pain he brought home with him sent shock waves through everyone’s lives, in addition to deep, painful disappointment.

Someone very important to me this year told me I ruined his life after he stuffed illegal mailed-from-China chemicals up his nose and spent every dime he had on other lascivious vices. And I lost him. December 26, 2013 was the last time I saw him. No, I realize that the last time I really saw him was long before that. When I saw the boy I had lovingly tried to raise and support despite his only being two years younger, foaming at the mouth and rolling his eyes, I knew I had to go to China.

When I saw who my little brother had become – with all the cruelty and selfishness addictions nurture – I knew I had to go to China. When I had cried for the 99th straight day, curled up in the bathroom, figuring out what I could have done/what I should have done/ knowing I could do nothing, I knew I had to go to China. When I heard little tidbits about the trouble he has been engaging in during the past few months, I knew I had to go to China. I had to do something just for me. Something selfish and crazy and life-affirming.

So now, I am in China.