Adventures in Naming Myself

By Travis Wise/Flickr
By Travis Wise/Flickr

By Jia Ying Lim

The teacher cleared her throat, aligning her sharp pencil nib to our printed names on the class register. “Isabelle Lee Shi Qi … Daniel Teo … Lim Jia Ying…” As I raised my hand, she paused and lingered over my name. I bit my lip. Was I about to be singled out on the very first day of class?

She pursed her lips. “There’re two of you named Lim Jia Ying in this class. What are we going to do?”

Another person with the exact same first and last name? My name wasn’t exactly the Asian equivalent of John Smith, and last names were usually the differentiator. I glanced around until I caught the gaze of the person whose face was attached to the torso that was attached to the other raised hand. There was a pregnant glance of equal parts solidarity and wariness.

This situation would not do. How would teachers refer to us in these two years with us in the same classes, how would we write our names on our homework assignments and report cards and parental consent slips? The conclusion was this: because I was eleventh on the class registration list, I was now christened as “Jia Ying 11”. Because the other Lim Jia Ying was twelfth on the list, and life is unfair, she would simply be “Jia Ying”.

When I told my parents after returning home, they indignantly demanded to know why I couldn’t be the one just called “Jia Ying.” I shrugged.

I didn’t mind. I’m still using the same “limjiaying11” email username now. It’s true that when I see her posts on Facebook, I sometimes wonder if that could have been me doing and writing those things. As if her name meant we possessed a common essence, that we were interchangeable. I wish I could report that our identical names forged a unique bond that endured and transcended all our differences and soldered us together forever. But it was just another thing that happened in the year I first had my period, the year a boy first shakily confessed a crush on me, the year I met a true friend who’d remain so for the next fourteen years.

I hadn’t even been that shocked that the name “Jia Ying” was also claimed by another. Chinese names basically meld two distinct words with prosperous or auspicious meanings. Many of my female friends were named after beauty, feminine gentleness, happiness, floral motifs. The chosen pair of words anchor and harbor and shelter the buds of outsized hopes and dreams and over-expectation of new, eager parents.

Apparently my name was chosen from options conjured by a wizened old man with a sharp chin who looked at my birth date and various other vaguely random factors like the weather. (Such superstitions are normal among my mother’s five sisters, who spoke mainly Mandarin and prepared feasts of fresh food and folded paper objects to pray to their ancestors.) In Mandarin, “Jia” 佳 means good (or excellent, beautiful, fine). “Ying” 颖 means clever (or gifted, intelligent, smart).

No name better encapsulates the chronic fear of losing (kiasu, a commonly professed national virtue) and drive for attainment of the Singaporean. At least three of my Facebook friends are also called “Jia Ying”. I used to constantly discover new “Jia Ying”s during role call in Chinese class, sneaky Jia Yings that usually went by their Western names instead. My mother likes to recount the time she signed me up for art classes, and the receptionist informed her that there were already ten other students named “Jia Ying”.

Sure, I could never find my name on those personalized souvenirs at gift shops, though that never stopped me from trying. I will probably never experience the thrill and instant affinity of encountering a fictional character that shares my name (or maybe that’s because I do not read and probably cannot understand Chinese books). I spell out my name habitually when ordering lattes or making a reservation. But there were Jiaqi’s and Jiaxuan’s and Jiawen’s and Jiaqing’s and Jiawei’s, and there were Yingying’s and Shiying’s and Peiying’s and Cuiying’s and Liying’s. So my name was no anomaly.

•••

My name served as a pre-emptive hedge against the willful renouncement of my Chinese heritage. My parents had nothing but the deepest condescension for people who gave their children Western names, or as they called them, “Christian” names, especially as these names would come first before their last name and Chinese name. (Christianity was their synecdoche for the West, something I would also have to delicately navigate when I became a Christian: another story.)

When we were ten, appalled that my sister and I had named our dolls Elizabeth and Georgina and Louisa and other names lifted from the pages of Enid Blyton, my mother warned darkly, “Remember, you don’t want to become a ‘banana’ all right.”

My sister and I would roll our eyes with as much gusto as we could muster without injuring ourselves and mutter, “Yes, yes, we know. It’s just a game.”

(A banana may be pale white or snow white or stark white on the inside, but remains stubbornly, unchangeably, yellow on the outside.)

“Don’t be like X, who married an angmoh (Singaporean slang for red-haired man)! Don’t be like X who doesn’t even go to hawker centers anymore but only eats brunch. Don’t be like X who can’t even say hello to her grandparents because she simply forgot how to speak Chinese.” It seemed there were endlessly available examples of “bananas” to serve as cautionary warnings, as I refused to voluntarily speak Chinese and devoured unhealthy amounts of English books and movies and decided I wanted to study in America.

They warned ominously against my choosing a Western name for myself, as some of my friends had done. I once unwisely complained that my name was always forgotten. They were savage: “If you deserve to be remembered, you will be remembered.”

•••

But “Jia Ying” was abruptly unpronounceable once I stepped foot in college in New York. I watched as my name was promptly forgotten during those orientation icebreakers and self-introductions. Some people wouldn’t bother ever speaking to me again (or maybe that was for other reasons—who knows). Some people would try to call me or get my attention without revealing that they had forgotten my name, out of that habitual American politeness. The more earnest and well-meaning would frown, stumble over it, ask me to repeat it, try to repeat it but end up saying it the exact same way, ask if that were better, and I would nod encouragingly with a forced smile.

What was the point of a name like that?

First I collapsed it into Jiaying, so people wouldn’t call me Jia, thinking that “Ying” was my middle name.

I’m not sure why I thought that would make a difference.

Then I caved. “I’m Jiaying—but you can call me JY. Like, the initials JY.” I would smile, slightly ironically. “It’s easier that way.”

•••

Practically, renaming or naming yourself may be advantageous. We can legally change our first name, neglect or adopt a last name, or choose a new one altogether. Names are flimsy, insubstantial representations. The wrong name sabotages, closes doors, lowers pay, diminishes workplace opportunities. Professors cannot call on you if they do not remember your name. Networking contacts cannot provide a referral if they forget how to spell it, especially if a Henry or a Jack or a Jessica pop into mind as well. These are the more benign examples that exclude actual racism.

But why does it feel so disingenuous to choose a name for yourself? I considered choosing something other than “JY”, but balked.

A name is an identity that extends beyond temporary capitalist gain. It reveals, defines, categorizes. Just as we don’t choose our family, we usually don’t choose our first names. There’s a weight to the given name. Names don’t feel real until they are bestowed, whether by your parents or loved ones or through ceremonial rites of baptisms. Naming yourself is too radical and too literal an act of self-definition.

I suppose “JY” worked for a bit. The most common response was the approving observation that it sounds like a rapper’s name. I suppose it does. I just never quite evaluated the aesthetics of my name that earnestly: It was a utilitarian move, my way of secretly preserving my actual name (for those who knew what JY stood for) and truncating it to the point where it could fulfill the functions of a name: it could be pronounced, remembered, and used.

•••

I’ve considered other names, sometimes as an idle fantasy, sometimes as stimulating dinner conversation fodder. My only condition was that I wanted a name with two syllables, because my cardinal rule was that it sounds better when the first name is a different number of syllables from the last name (Lim). That seemed to leave many two or three or even four-syllabled names for the picking. But, turns out everyone has an opinion of what a Joy or Catherine or Ruth should look like. Also turns out that there are many people I do not want to share a name with.

During my brief summer stint at a business newspaper, I was Sofia. Or at least, I became Sofia for the sake of my email address, because there was a full-time hire with the exact same first and last name (again!). Being the lowly intern, I was naturally instructed to somehow obtain another name. In the five-minute conversation with human resources, I chose Sofia. I liked that Sophia meant wisdom in Greek. And I didn’t want it to be spelled like the “Sophia”s I knew. And I had recently read a few novels on Eastern Europe and had always wanted to visit Bulgaria after reading about it.

But everyone who mattered, like my mentor and my fellow interns that I shared lazy afternoons and countless waffles and ice creams with, still called me Jia Ying. I would always take a few seconds to realize that the person calling the name Sofia was actually referring to me, Sofia!

But I became friends with a fellow freshman named Sofia (did I become good friends with her partially because we shared the same name? I will never know.) We met up regularly, lived together for a semester, laughed and cried through breakups and academic failures. It would be too weird to be a second Sofia. So now, I’m still just JY.

•••

I doubt the rapper name JY is the best partner to plunge into the working world with. It seems unbefitting an actual adult, which I was pretending to be.

But what will I use on my Facebook account, if old college friends try to locate me or newfound ones try to add me? What will I use when I write? What will I get baptized with? What will I use at my wedding? I want continuity and I want pronounceable-ness and I want functionality and I want something that I like.

Now I’m flirting with simply “Jia.” It should function well for these few years of living and working away from Asia, away from home. It should be easy to remember. (Or easier. I’m not over-optimistic here). It’s the name my emails are already addressed to, since most companies assume “Ying” as my middle name. It’s one half of the nickname my boyfriend calls me. It’s minimalist and pretty slick and if people cannot pronounce that single word then they will just have to deal with it on their own.

“Jia” is a compromise. It’s my name, spliced brutally into half. It’s part of me. It’s not something entirely new and foreign: how could I possibly name this foreign, ill-defined, mysterious, and incomprehensible being?

But it’s also a whole new identity to be “Jia” instead of “Jia Ying,” as I begin working and living and eating and breathing in America, after the reassuring structures of college as “JY,” sans family and old familiar friends as “Jia Ying” or even “limjiaying11,” a twenty-hour flight and twelve-hour time difference away from home. I preserve a fraction of myself, I relinquish a modicum, and I gain something else in exchange.

•••

JIA YING LIM is a writer based in Philadelphia. Her work has previously appeared at Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, the leading literary journal.

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Peach Courage

masked woman
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jennifer Richardson

Earlier this year when I was trying to work up the courage to quit my job, I went to see the performance artist and musician Peaches at one of those “in conversation” events at a Berlin art gallery. I had moved to Berlin with my husband in 2015 for my job, with the mutual understanding that we would only stay for a year. That deadline was looming, and I had cold feet.

The setting and inspiration for the talk was an exhibition of sixty-five photographs by Cindy Sherman, an artist who’s been tackling the concept of identity in her work since she first started taking her portraits of herself in the 1970s. Sherman usually works alone in her studio and the resulting pictures often portray social and cultural stereotypes, from starlets and pinups to, more recently, aging society ladies and fashionistas. I first came across Sherman through her so-called History Portraits. I was taking an early Italian renaissance art history class at college, and the counterpoint of Sherman’s Madonnas—often equipped with obviously prosthetic, exposed breasts—made me laugh. Sherman doesn’t title any of her works, but they’re often referred to by the numbers curators use in exhibition catalogs and, as in the case of the History Portraits, thematic groupings. In other words, Sherman declines to identify any of her pictures about identity.

I nabbed a seat for the discussion in the second row with a perfect view until, minutes before the program was set to start, a middle-aged woman doused in perfume and wearing a matching white fur jacket and hat sat down in front of me. It quickly became clear she had no intention of removing the hat—which was the primary offender in blocking my view—and when she turned around, I thought I may have figured out why. She had black hair, the texture of which looked like a wig, with spare tendrils of odd lengths spilling onto her shoulders. The hat seemed to be holding the whole arrangement in place. Her coral-red lipstick was smeared and she wore black eyeliner and a blank stare as if the point of her eyes was to absorb the snatched glances of those of us around her. A closer inspection revealed she was wearing rather fabulous high-altitude platform shoes, the heel of which was scalloped in gold metal. When the second man approached to kiss her hand, I was sufficiently intimidated to lose my nerve over asking her to remove the hat. She looked like a Berlin version of one of Sherman’s Hollywood/Hampton Ladies, a series of photographs displayed on the wall at the back of the room, and it only occurred to me the next day that she could have been Sherman donning a disguise to attend a talk about herself. This would certainly explain the hand kissing.

If it was Sherman, she wouldn’t have been the only one in the room fiddling with her identity. I was there straight from work and dressed in my version of a businesswoman costume—Isaac Mizrahi for Target blazer, Banana Republic dress, Wolford black tights and LK Bennett boots—feigning to be a fan of Peaches when, in fact, I had just read an article about her in a magazine a month or so earlier. I was a legitimate fan of Sherman’s, but on some level I was attracted to the event by its association with the radical art of Peaches. Simply by attending, I was asserting my identity outside the narrow confines of a normie, trying on the idea of what it might be like to be the kind of person who’s a fan of Peaches. I was too timid to go to a club to see her, but here in a gallery at the gentle hour of seven-thirty p.m., Peaches was accessible to me.

•••

In addition to being an artist and musician, Peaches—who was born Merill Beth Nisker—is a forty-nine-year-old Canadian super-fan of Sherman. Like Sherman, Peaches’s work explores identity. While we think of Madonna and Lady Gaga as our culture’s pre-eminent pop-star chameleon queens, Peaches’s subversive take on identity, particularly when it comes to traditional gender norms, exposes their work as merely conventional. The video for Peaches’s recent single, Rub, was banned from YouTube, perhaps for being “a lesbian desert sex scene, but without the male gaze,”—which is how one of the video’s co-directors, artist Lex Vaughn, explained it to The Daily Dot. During the course of the conversation at the gallery, Peaches screened this banned video along with the one for Dick in the Air, in which she and comedian Margaret Cho don fuzzy onesies complete with built-in, penis-like appendages that they proceed to, you guessed it, wave in the air.

In person, Peaches is nothing like you might expect from her videos. She wore a baggy brown dress that hung in swags around her like something from a Greek statue, Dr. Martens boots, a couple of hair extensions, and no makeup. As she remarked to the interviewer when asked about her penchant for elaborate stage clothes, sometimes dressing down is its own version of a costume. Her manner was down-to-earth and engaging while displaying a self-assured intellect. When the interviewer occasionally veered into presumptive lines of questioning, Peaches managed to disarm him with the politest of is-that-sos?

Commentators on Sherman’s work sometimes characterize it as an assertion of identity as a performance. When asked her views on identity, Peaches answered that it’s something we’re constantly creating through trial and error, starting with the identity-less child who learns by mimicking her parents: the child sees her parents holding a phone and holds a spoon up to her ear. I like this concept of trial and error better than performance; it asserts an earnestness where performance asserts artifice. The two can, of course, co-exist.

At one point the conversation turned to Sherman’s series of the Hollywood/Hampton Ladies. What’s easy to read in these portraits is satire of the desperation of middle-aged women, both their makeup and their facial expressions trying too hard. But Peaches pointed out that Sherman is also showing us their vulnerability inherent in this set of headshots designed to garner interest for their third act in life. Where I previously was simply in-on-the-joke of these portraits, I could now intimately—and uncomfortably—relate. The Hampton/Hollywood Ladies had something to offer me, a willingness to try and to make myself vulnerable in the process I was going through in defining my own next act.

At the end of the evening Peaches stood in front of the room and performed an unexpected costume change, using the draped dress as a beach towel changing device. Now donning a blush-colored sequined shorts romper, she belted out an excruciatingly raw rendition of Private Dancer. It was earnest and imperfect, an ending dedicated to the concept of quite literally exposing oneself. People whooped and applauded, smart enough to know they had seen something special.

•••

My takeaway from my evening with Sherman and Peaches wasn’t inspiration to embrace an identity radically different from my own. I am early middle-aged and inexorably shaped by the values and mores of life so far, and I didn’t leave the show ready to dye my hair pink and join the circus. They are the artists and it’s their job to operate at the radical edges of identity to show the rest of us what’s possible, giving us room to maneuver in the space in between. But I did take the experience as a reminder that my relative financial security was a ticket to engage in some trial and error about what I would do next, to emulate the toddler that Peaches had described.

She also seemed to be telling the room to be brave. Watching her perform considerable feats of derring-do like changing her clothes in front of a room full of people before belting out a vocally challenging song—and then, crucially, seeing that nothing bad happened—was a life affirming thing. To put it coarsely, I took her performance as a sort of creative invective to grow a pair. So much of my resistance to change—specifically leaving my job—was fear-based: that I would never find a job that paid this well again or that I would never find any job again. The inquiry pretty much stopped there, failing to go to the next step and ask “and then what?”

It reminded me of one of my favorite regular features in a Sunday newspaper magazine, an interview that always asks the subject “What would you do if you lost everything and had to start again?” Invariably the answer inspires less dread than one would imagine. Often it evokes the opposite in the interviewee—a sense of liberation, an opportunity to get back to what he or she loves. In other words, the answer to the question “what’s the worst that could happen?” usually isn’t that bad. Even if Peaches had bombed in her performance and everyone had booed, well, so what?

Years ago I was receiving instruction in sitting meditation from a zen Buddhist priest. Whenever I tried to sit cross-legged, one of my legs would invariably fall asleep. Alarmed, I called out to the teacher that my legs were falling asleep. “Is that so,” he responded, more statement than question. Without having to spell it out, the teacher had made his point: what’s the worst that could happen if my legs fell asleep? Not much as it turns out. If it got really bad I could always uncross my legs, an option that, remarkably given it was always wholly in my control, I seemed to have ruled out because I thought it would mean I was doing meditation wrong.

This is another abiding fear of mine in life: that I am doing it wrong.

And this, perhaps, is the siren call of artists like Peaches and Sherman. They are decidedly, unabashedly doing it wrong. Sherman’s Madonna is squirting milk from her plastic boob and Peaches is waving her penis in the air, both of which make it just a little bit easier for me to remember that quitting my job wasn’t really living life on the fringe. What could possibly go wrong?

•••

JENNIFER RICHARDSON is the author of a memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage. Her writing has recently appeared in the anthology, A Cup of Culture and a Pinch of Crisis, as well as Fiction Advocate, ExBerliner, and Remedy Quarterly. You can find her online at http://jenniferrichardson.net/ and on Twitter @baronessbarren.

Read more FGP essays by Jennifer Richardson.

Her

her
by Sodanie Chea/Flickr

By Jiadai Lin

I never knew my grandmother well but I was told growing up that I had her yan sher, which literally means “eye expression” in Mandarin. I understood it more colloquially as referring to Grandma’s spirit, her aura. My father said this as a compliment. My mother, not so much.

The woman I call Grandma—my paternal grandmother—grew up in the pre–Cultural Revolution Chinese countryside just north of Beijing. She had a clumsy instinct for things like judgment and war and enemy lines. She played with the Japanese kids in the yard who nobody was supposed to play with. She unraveled the bandages wound tightly around her feet and learned to read. She became a wife before she was twenty, and a mother soon after. She birthed seven children from her tiny frame and lost two.

Of course, she wasn’t all good and mighty. Grandma’s fingers were just as clumsy as her instinct to judge, so she could never properly sift the rice hulls from their grains in the fall. The rice patties her kids brought to school for lunch weren’t white and pure as they were supposed to be but speckled with brown. This was considered an embarrassment, but Grandma didn’t lose any sleep over it.

When I was young, I sensed that Grandma wasn’t exactly the model of a woman that I should want to embody. Enemy-befriending, bandage-unraveling, wooden-fingered Grandma wasn’t supposed to be my ideal of feminine perfection. She was wrinkled and weathered by the time she was thirty, and she didn’t know how to smile properly for a picture. Her fingers, unnaturally thick for such a small lady, were dusted charcoal gray no matter which picture I looked at.

And I looked at many. From halfway across the world, from a second-floor apartment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I flipped through the thin stack of Kodak photos that sometimes came in the mail. The images I remember were all set in winter. Grandma and cousins posed wearing puffy neon jackets in their front yard. The ground wasn’t grass or the concrete sidewalks of Milwaukee, but a worn, packed dirt. Grandma sat on a wooden chair, cousins stood in a row, and the family dog, Little Black, lounged at their feet. Their expressions seemed never whole—never just a smile or a frown—but instead halfway through a sentence or question, as if they weren’t sure when exactly the camera would go off.

These pictures were mostly the same but I studied each one as if it were a unique blueprint for my own identity. Of all the cousins on my family tree, I was the only one to live in America. I was special in that way, but I was also alone.

“You’re like your grandma,” my father would say.

“How?” I’d ask.

“You have that same sarcastic look in your eye. Yan sher.

“What do you mean?”

He never replied directly. The answer came at me slowly, through stories and pictures gathered over years.

•••

Just before I turned two, my parents brought me to visit my father’s family. After the stay, I observed that Grandma didn’t pay much attention to me.

“She’s not an affectionate woman,” my father said.

“That’s right—she’s not!” my mother said.

I don’t remember this early impression of Grandma and clearly, it didn’t do anything to diminish her in my eyes. Maybe Grandma was busy playing poker with the village ladies or preparing dinner with the aunts or walking Little Black instead of cuddling me.

My family moved to America shortly after that visit, and I only saw Grandma a few more times in her life. The last was the August before my senior year of college. On this trip, I noticed that my cousin Hailian had bought gifts for the family—bottles of perfume, silk neck ties, a watch for my father, a jar of L’Oreal face cream for my mother. The girl had manners, my mother noted, and I decided that I should learn a thing or two from Hailian.

During afternoon nap on a particularly hot day, I snuck out to the village convenience shop with my little brother. When we walked in, a bell on the door jingled and a sleepy shopkeeper emerged from behind a shredded plastic curtain. We apologized for waking him and asked in our best Mandarin for a nice woman’s shirt.

“For your grandma?” he guessed right away.

“Yes.”

My brother and I examined the one option shown to us, a button-down shirt made from a flowered pattern. It would do.

Grandma had an afternoon routine. She spent hours hanging out with other neighborhood women on the stone ledges that lined the narrow village streets. I had often seen them perched in the shade waving their bamboo fans and swatting at mosquitos that buzzed by their legs. These women greeted everyone by name—kids returning home from school, men in suits riding bikes to and from work in the next town over, the fat lady with the toothy smile who herded her goats down the village’s most central streets every afternoon.

On this particularly hot afternoon, my brother and I found Grandma on the stone ledges and presented her flowered shirt. Almost immediately, the neighborhood ladies clapped their hands in laughter. Look at those American kids! What funnies! They called us not by our names, but as our father’s children.

Grandma laughed too, then started unbuttoning the shirt she was wearing. Soon she was topless and slipping her arms into the flowered shirt we had bought. I stood there with my eleven-year-old brother, unable to turn away. Grandma was skinny and tan, her breasts small and wilted, gently falling over her ribcage. Her skin was withered as if a layer tissue paper had been glued onto her actual skin beneath. I had noticed that Chinese women, who often showered communally, were generally more comfortable with nudity than American women. But an eighty-something-year-old woman changing out on the street with a group of ladies cheering her on? This was not normal. Afterwards, Grandma sat there on the ledge sporting her new shirt with a beaming smile on her face. This was her way of saying thank you for the gift.

When I recounted this story to my mother, she looked disturbed. I got the message. What Grandma did was not ladylike. It wasn’t something I should emulate. But over the years, I always remembered this story and felt a kinship with Grandma. Maybe she wasn’t refined and full of grace, but she was bold. She was a hoot. She didn’t care what others thought about her. She did what she wanted to do, in that nonchalant way that always had my mother shaking her head.

•••

My mother was a different kind of woman. She wore billowing dresses and strappy sandals and tortoise-shelled sunglasses with lenses the color of tea eggs. She knew how to stand for a picture, arm-in-arm with my father in front of Tiananmen Square the year before I was conceived, a silver flowered clip locked into her wavy hair. After we moved to America, she bought do-it-at-home hair perm kits that came in purple and silver boxes with a blonde lady on the front.

I can still see my mother standing over the sink in our tiny bathroom in Milwaukee, her hair dripping of something that looked like milk and smelling of chemicals. I’d watch her from the bed where we all slept—my mother, father, and me. Every night, my mother would come to this bed and put Lubriderm lotion on her hands, her fingers smooth and long like a ballerina’s legs. And then she would take mine and do the same for me, paying special attention to the dry cuticles that I had a bad habit of chewing off.

•••

For a long time, whenever my mother tried to teach me about being a woman, I felt like she was pulling me away from myself. More times than I can count, my mother would come up behind me, rest her hands on my shoulders and press her thumbs into my spine. “Straighten up,” she’d say.

I’d arch my back to an extreme. “Like this?”

She’d shake her head. “You know what I mean.”

Did I? I don’t remember. What I remember is feeling defiant. Proud of the fact that I didn’t naturally stand up tall or want to sit nicely at holiday parties with the women who gossiped until midnight spooning dessert from the table. I wanted to be the one rolling in the dirt, the one with the scraped knees hanging from the top branch of a tree, the one riding her blue Huffy down the street that ran the length of our apartment complex. Through grade school, I insisted on wearing tee-shirts and cargo pants, the kind that could be unzipped at the knees and transformed into baggy shorts for the summer. In high school, I wore my hair in a messy bun that I had to keep re-doing throughout the day to keep tousled because my thick hair always fell straight.

My mother thought of names for me. Things like kuang tou (basket-head) and bu-nan-bu-nu (not-boy-not-girl, or, as I guessed, tomboy) that she muttered when she saw my getups. I knew these names were not endearing. They were meant to stir me to change. I did change, but in the opposite direction. I messed up my hair even more and slouched defiantly. I wanted to show my mother that this was who I was.

I felt less that I was caught between two cultures and more that I was caught between two women. Except I wasn’t really caught. I knew who I wanted to be, but I was too young to be her yet. I felt a maddening ache to get out of the house and out of our town. Once I grew up, once I moved away, once I had my own place, my own money, my own life, I could be whatever kind of woman I wanted to be.

•••

A month before I started college, my parents and I attended a dinner reception for incoming freshman and their families. We drove into New York City in our green Dodge Caravan and circled the blocks around school several times before finding a parking spot. My mother wore an olive and bronze–colored silk dress with a sash at the waist. She had brought this dress with her from China and kept it in her closet, taking care to replace the moth balls every winter. I don’t remember what I wore, but I know that it had not occurred to me that I was supposed to look nice for this event. I probably wore my uniform at the time: jeans and a tank top, flip flops, and a choker necklace made of plastic sea shells.

There was a woman at the reception who seemed important. I don’t remember what color her hair was or what she wore, but I was alert to her presence. While the families sat at round tables, this woman paced around. She shook hands and made friendly conversation to which families laughed and nodded as if on cue. As this woman circled closer my table, I noticed the muscles in my mother’s neck clench. Her hair was twisted into a bun with a flashy jewel barrette that she saved for special occasions. By the time the woman got to the table next to ours, my heart was pounding hard in my chest. I was suddenly embarrassed at how out of place my family looked. I watched as the woman told her joke, smiled, and then moved straight to the table on our other side.

I ate a piece of my bread and tried to look unfazed. But I was confused. Did the important woman skip us by accident? Would she come back around? I was glad that I was spared an awkward encounter with this woman, but why didn’t she speak to us?

My mother and I never talked about this incident. It occurs to me now that maybe it doesn’t stand out in her memory as an exception to her everyday life. When I was growing up, my mother always reminded me that it wasn’t easy to be an immigrant. “You have to be better to get the same result,” she would say. A better student, a better woman, a better friend.

I’d usually laughed it off. “I don’t feel that way,” I’d respond, “You’re being paranoid.”

But being at that reception, as I sat proud and excited and anxious at the prospect of being alone in the world for the first time, I experienced something that never left me. Only years later did I understand that what I had experienced was how it felt to be an immigrant’s child. That lucky first generation. And all the pride and burden and vengeance that came with it.

•••

I graduated from college and then law school. I got a job at a firm in New York and rented an apartment on the Upper West Side. I worked long hours and indulged in fancy cocktails to justify those long hours. One Monday night in late September, I had come home and had just stripped off my corporate outfit when my mother called me. This was normal, so I took the call and steeped a peppermint tea. Then I put my mother on speakerphone on the kitchen counter and got ready to scrub at the dirty dishes in my sink.

“You should sit down,” my mother said.

I did.

“Your grandmother…” my mother started.

I immediately had a bad feeling in my stomach. My mother never said much about Grandma. Something big or bad had to have happened.

Grandma had died sometime through the night. The night in China that was the day I had just lived. I tried to remember something, anything, that had happened during the day that felt tragic or poignant. A moment I could identify in hindsight as a sign that I knew viscerally my grandmother was gone. I must have felt something. Grandma and I were connected by blood, and something even stronger. We shared yan sher. That had to count for something. But I had nothing. I had been sitting at my computer for most of the day, chatting occasionally with coworkers but mostly working on assignments that barely varied from one day to the next.

After I hung up the phone with my mother, I went to the bathroom. I stood in front of the mirror above my sink, next to my blue shower curtain. The pattern on my shower curtain was a map of the United States, and I thought about how my grandmother would never step foot on American soil.

Grandma wasn’t sick. She had been weak through the previous winter but rejected my uncle’s invitation to stay with his family. She liked where she was. She was walking to the market every morning for breakfast buns and soy milk and playing chess on the stone ledges with the ladies in the afternoon. It had been a good summer. She was getting stronger. Of course she would die someday, but I wasn’t prepared for her to die today.

I sat on the bathroom floor against the cold bathtub and cried. I had never lost anybody close to me before, and I hadn’t expected the tears to come so diligently, before I could even fully process my sadness. I was puzzled by my tears because along with vague sadness, I felt something light. I felt the peace of a life ended without great injustice. Grandma had lived long. She had died in her sleep, as she always claimed was the best way to go. Her death had not been big or bad.

That night, I lay in bed staring up at the wooden beams across my ceiling. I thought of my grandmother, who had gone to bed not long ago. Now her small body was cold and empty of life, her brain without consciousness. It was impossible to understand how a person could just be gone like that. And not just any person, but Grandma. The lady with the sarcastic look in her eye. Now there was only one of us in the world.

•••

A few nights later, I left my Midtown office building and walked up Sixth Avenue. I strolled along the southern edge of Central Park, past the row of carriage horses resting in the shade. It was a quiet night, the air cold but comfortable. I settled on the stone fountains facing Columbus Circle and spoke to my father, who had gone home to China.

In my grandmother’s village, funerals were celebratory events. My father described how the whole village had come out. There was a live band and two teenage go-go dancers. At funerals, it was tradition for family members to dedicate songs to the deceased.

“Your uncle selected two songs for you and your brother because you guys couldn’t be there,” my father said, “It was really a nice celebration. Everyone said that your grandmother was a really kind lady.”

I watched as two men in front of me played with neon rockets that could be wound up and shot up into the sky. At the top of their trajectories, the rockets flashed with bright lights, lingered for a moment, and then fell back down. I kept my eye on them. Up and down, over and over again. Something about the simplicity and sureness of their paths was calming.

All this reminded me of Grandma. As long as her life had been, it was never meant to be much more than what she was born into. She would get married and have kids. She would live in the same house through most of this and die there too. Then I thought about own my life. I was born in a hospital in Beijing, to a country-boy scientist father and a Manchurian mother with a graceful edge. Maybe I was not meant to travel far in my life either. But I had. What were the chances that somebody like me would be here sitting in Columbus Circle on this very night?

My grandmother could never have dreamed of this life for me, but she did live to see a glimpse of it. A few months before she died, Grandma found my lawyer profile online. She didn’t mention this until she overheard my uncle talking about my website profile in the other room. “I saw it,” Grandma said.

A clunky old computer had sat idly in the corner of Grandma’s room for months, maybe years. Nobody guessed that she knew how to use it. But there it was, in her browser history. My name, my picture, my degrees.

This last story makes me smile because this was Grandma’s way. Understated but crafty, insulated but modern, modest but full of pride.

•••

I see now that while Grandma could never have dreamed of this life for me, my mother did. And even more, she demanded it of me.

Over the years, I realized that the main difference between my mother and grandmother is how each woman handled judgment. Grandma was fearless. This was the essence of her aura. She was not ashamed. She did not care that her children brought to school rice patties that were not perfectly white. She didn’t often ask, am I good enough? She just was what she was.

But my mother, she never stopped asking that question. My mother didn’t believe in accepting what you were born into. She believed in being better. She believed in learning to sit up straight and breaking bad habits. She believed in going to the salon for a perm, and when she found herself in a new country with little money, she believed in doing it herself. She believed in upkeep. And most of all, perhaps, my mother believed in her kids. While I begrudged my mother’s attempts to mold me when I was growing up, I see now that her intentions were pure. She pushed me because she believed in me.

It is a humbling thing to look back on your younger self and see somebody who cared so much about how you would turn out today. The lesson, I think, is in the effort and intentions. Perhaps the time I spent as a girl searching for the good and bad and admirable allowed me to face the judgments I had of myself. Perhaps being exposed to the wildly different personas of my mother and grandmother instilled at a most basic level the idea that there was no one way a woman could or should be.

I never did find a model of feminine perfection that both satisfied my mother and sat comfortably with me. I was a college grad who sometimes dreamed of being a farmer, a corporate lawyer who changed immediately into sweatpants at home, a tomboy who learned to walk in heels. And while I was becoming these things, I forgot to think about how much I wanted to be like Grandma. I forgot to think about how much I wanted to show my mother exactly who I was. I forgot to try so hard. Without detaching from either woman, I detached myself from the idea of being confined to their qualities. In growing up I became my own woman, and I am still becoming her.

•••

JIADAI LIN lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where she is working on a novel based on her former life as a lawyer in Manhattan. She can be found on Twitter here: @jiadailin 

 

The Sexy Problem

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By nvk_/Flickr

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

New to Zumba, I love the chance to channel the jump-around-like-crazy energy of my late twenties again—here at fifty. It’s some of the most fun I’ve had with exercise in a very long time. Unlike the pleasingly prescriptive yoga, which makes me feel serene and strong and slightly, hopefully elastic, Zumba is freeing. I jump on my two left feet. I sweat. I even unleash a few long-dormant “woot”s during class.

I’d never imagined the Y to be a sexy place. Others bring the sexy in; I certainly do not. I pretty much jump up and down when hips are supposed to unleash juicy moves I can’t imagine I’ll ever make—or have ever made, for that matter. I am far more at home with that crazy aerobics class energy of my late twenties (late ’80s and early ’90s) than anything so bootylicious. I’ve made it this far as a rounded (physically and metaphorically), strong, terribly self-critical woman.

Other people follow directions better. The class ranges from teen (almost always the good-girl daughters accompanying their cheery moms to class) to white haired ladies, with a few men, gay and straight, sprinkled in. Attire runs the gamut from Ts and shorts, to workout gear, to one woman’s “uniform” of a sundress and bare feet. Like my town, the Y—and the Zumba class—runs casual. At the same time, the most canned of the Zumba songs not only instruct participants to “move your body,” but to “shake your body,” and to feel and inevitably be—or at least channel—S-E-X-Y. The choreography orchestrates hips to shake and gyrate and suggest … things I’m not about to do during or right after class in the non-privacy of my very own kid- and teenager-filled home.

While I don’t want to make those signature moves, I don’t mind them. I’m especially tickled when the twentysomething instructors lead the class—and unleash their playfulness in shiny workout costumes with glitter on their faces. One spacey man half-points and gestures and magically enlists each participant to stand in as leader, like a Zumba whisperer.

In fact, the only time the make-it-sexy aspect of Zumba makes me terribly uncomfortable is when the class is taught by the middle-aged white ladies a.k.a. my peers (neighbors, fellow moms). Yesterday, for example, the teacher wore her carefully blown-out, long hair down. She wore makeup. She wore an ’80s-style cut-up T accompanied by black bike shorts and black Zumba shoes. I wore a skort and tank. Skorts are fun and flippy but decidedly not sexy. During class, I expended my energies in nearly equal parts between exercising and perseverating over the notion that to try to dance sexy at the Y in midlife could be fun, appropriate—not weird, not desperate.

I reminded myself how much I hate the judgy part of me. This woman’s wardrobe, hairstyle, or sexiness is neither my call nor my problem: my discomfort with her is all about me. And my unease isn’t new. Nor is it entirely about age. My peers’ aggressive delivery of sexiness has always made me squeamish. That’s because I’ve never been at ease with any sexy edges in myself. I grew up heavy enough to feel self-conscious, and regardless of pounds on or off, my self-consciousness has never fallen away. I wouldn’t have worn glitter—not in my twenties, not ever. I barely attempted makeup before I had kids. But I’ve never been prim, either: my cardigans aren’t buttoned up to the top and my skirts aren’t necessarily below the knee. Even before the mom-style overtook me, I liked cute clothing that aimed for cute, sweet, innocent sexy—and never a step further. My vanity has always had very strict bounds. I’ve never worn long hair down to an aerobics class. Practicality always won—with flat shoes over heels, clothes that never bind, and silver hair.

When I’m in Zumba class, I feel pretty … fit. After all, I can push myself to jump around for pretty much the entire hour even if I will not shake my booty, merely “jump and bounce.” Here at fifty, a healthy and fit self is my aim—in public. I want to feel pretty. I like to feel capable, or at least strong enough. I want to keep going.

I only want to let sexy out when and where I’m comfortable doing so. That’s in bed with my husband. We’ve got teenagers, teenage sons. Sexy has no other berth here. With teenagers around, my self-image is all about chill, or at least cool enough, slightly batty, and available to help if you need me.

But I’d like to experience the middle-aged ladies’ bids for sexy just as I do the twentysomethings’ bids—as theirs. I’d like to believe that my limitations in class—more jumping and less shaking—could feel as if they aren’t signs of a cop-out. I don’t know that any part of me wants to cultivate my inner-sexy, but I’d like to strut my stuff, on my own terms. If I felt as if I exuded strength and competence and had utter certainty of my beauty… I don’t feel that way, though. The problem with my ideal terms is that they involve a self-confidence that I do not have.

Despite the fact that I don’t possess that self-confidence—and by now, I imagine I might not ever find it—I don’t entirely feel that way. I’m too hard a worker to ever give up entirely. And I do long to experience that exuberant inner-something—if not sexy, then something close. So, as I obsessed about the teacher’s sexy aspirations, I asked myself whether I think that you must check your adult sex-having, sex-seeking, sex-loving self at some imaginary gate when you have children. I don’t. I asked myself whether I believe that you have to give up upon channeling a certain kind of sexy vibe when you reach a certain age. I might, I realized, even though maybe I haven’t even begun to try. I’m not at all sure what sexy looks like at forty-five or fifty-five or sixty-five. I don’t know how it translates in this world that equates youth with beauty and sex appeal and power. I wasn’t even thinking I’d contemplate these issues all that much—and certainly not during exercise class at my local Y. But here I am, wondering whether I will surprise myself one of these days—and shake that body.

•••

SARAH WERTHAN BUTTENWIESER is a writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband and four children. Her work has appeared recently in the New York Times, Salon, and Brain, Child. Follow her on Twitter @standshadows.