Identity We Are Willing to Have
May 29, 2013
9 Min read time
A Vassar grad of peranakan descent finds herself in the Navajo Nation.
I had been working as an office temp at St. John the Divine in New York City for a few weeks in 1987 without being noticed by the Dean. Then one day, after he learned that I had graduated from Vassar, he asked me out to lunch. He wanted to talk about my having attended that school, and why I was a temp. The unfinished cathedral was being slowly completed. As sculptors fashioned gargoyles and masons and apprentice masons cut stone, the back garden of the cathedral was serene enough for two peacocks. I told him I loved to sit back there with my lunches.
I believe the Dean was sizing me up for a permanent hire. He started telling me his thoughts on the cathedral's relationship with the city. Focusing on fundraising to complete the building, he talked about coming campaigns to convince moneyed donors to give, which was part of my temp job. Then he talked about challenges in working with neighborhood workers from nearby Harlem. He was proud that the cathedral was committed to hiring from the neighborhood. At the same time, it was a cross-cultural experience for the cathedral’s core staff who were still finding common ground. Clearly, to him, common ground meant educating the workers in the cathedral’s values. I didn’t tell him what I thought about that.
In 1987, I was an undocumented worker. When that lunch took place, I had just spent several months working in a carpentry workshop with Hispanic workers in the South Bronx, overseen by an Irish foreman. The cathedral’s Dean may have expected me to tell him some stories about Vassar girls, and maybe expected an interesting story about why a Vassar girl was a temp. I was not what he had expected. The recent South Bronx experience, and being undocumented for over a year, had taken away any institutional shine and replaced it with an acute sense of class difference. I must have seemed to him the kind of personality he noticed in the workers in the cathedral’s stoneyard—rough around the edges with little, culturally, in common with him. I must also have seemed unfathomably angry.
I remember thinking, well-meaning people like the Dean, who believe in raising up a Harlem neighborhood, would never dream of living in that neighborhood on that neighborhood’s terms. They might even think that the neighborhood’s “terms” don’t exist, or are simply a confused stew waiting for education. It must have been obvious at that lunch that Vassar hadn’t given me enough education.
A few weeks after that lunch, I was called suddenly to a Sunday morning meeting in the Park Avenue home of a TV producer to whom the agent of a college friend of mine had given a manuscript of my stories. It didn’t take long for the producer to grow agitated, even angry. He said that I lacked the sophistication to have produced such complex emotional stories and asked me repeatedly to reveal who I’d copied those stories from. When I insisted I’d written them myself, he went into another room.
I remember walking outside, onto Park Avenue, past blocks of grand stone building fronts before turning onto a wide side street and finding a dingy reflection of me in a diner window. My face seemed a random tiny scrunched up face backed by traffic. The eyes, nose and mouth had a careworn expression. The features were soft and round, not distinctive in the way I knew some people might associate with sophistication. The way I held my head and shoulders was humble and vulnerable. My dress was thrift store grubby. The personality seemed withdrawn, maybe in need of “work.”
I had taken both my education and my social role seriously. I understood the need to be truthful, to respond truthfully, and to embrace a place. While a university is a place to acquire learning, truths and skills, your social role is still the one laid out by your family. People might reject a family role for that something “better” or more conducive to self-advancement, unless your family had laid out no social role out of a belief that the school would teach it; or if your family had, itself, lost a sense of its role. I had moved so often across physical, cultural and social borders that it felt to me that I didn’t know a single person for which some of the above was not true, and all of it was true or could be true for myself.
I thought about that lunch and that Park Avenue meeting as I drove on the Burnham Road, a lonely road that curves on a broken plain in the northwestern New Mexico desert. Now as I drove, a thin man in a black suit seemed to run across the road on one leg, press forward in a straight diagonal line, then fly off as a crow. The crow swooped across the road, its beautiful spread wings showing the texture of its feathers. I thought, what can be so difficult to be a one-legged man one moment, and a crow the next? Except the crow had always been a crow. It had never been a man.
I had just left an orientation for new tribal judges in Window Rock on the Navajo Nation, where I’d worked for thirteen years, half that time for tribal courts. The presentation had been about Navajo peacemaking, which the judges would learn to use. It was falling into disuse. Peacemaking is a heroic and emotional journey, from chaos to harmony, undertaken with the help of a guide who knows the traditional teachings. Leonard, a Navajo educator with a doctorate in counseling, had designed a curriculum. He said he hadn’t been sure in the beginning what peacemaking was and that his curriculum had initially been modeled on non-Navajo mediation. Later, he threw in elements of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He wanted to talk about it after the judges left. Mostly, both of us wanted to talk about education in terms of what we both knew, didn’t know, lost, and gained.
When very young, Leonard had been removed from his family and tribe and placed in a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school, where Navajo language was forbidden. He had been put there in order to learn a better system of ordering life, so that he would have the tools to become a successful adult. He had unlearned Navajo, and now spent his adulthood relearning what was lost. He knew people who were invited to speak on Navajo traditions who, like himself, had had to relearn them or even make them up.
My story seemed very different. I’d gone to Vassar on scholarship after picking the name at random. My father had allowed all his children to leave Malaysia except me, so I had to forge his signature on college applications. The family plan had been for me, the youngest, to be my mother’s companion. Leaving Malaysia hadn’t been an option, but I’d done it anyway, and on my own. The culture in my own family was complicated. There were cultural factions—the western-civilization faction of my father and older sisters, the Chinese faction of my mother and brother. After thirty years of marriage, my mother still couldn’t speak English and couldn’t carry a full conversation with her husband nor her own children, who spoke only English at my father’s insistence. In his twenties, my brother rejected my father and began learning Chinese in earnest. He started affecting broken English and was ridiculed by my sisters. In her soft and passive way, my mother claimed me, put me in Chinese language class at school, and tried to give me some sense of Chinese values. My oldest sister teased me, telling me I looked and behaved like a monkey. I became determined to be better than her. In-fighting in my family was unbearable.
The author’s grandmother
My parents had married in 1947, ten years before Malaysia became independent from the British. A colonial British culture was in place. After independence, clubs like the Royal Selangor Club that formerly served only the British opened their doors to also include English-speaking and educated locals. Those who adopted English language and manners put down non-Christians and non-English speakers. My mother’s traditional Chinese mother avoided the English-speaking Chinese because, she said, they were loud and pushy and had no manners. My father, who hadn’t been raised in a traditional Chinese family where elders are given special respect, treated my grandmother like an illiterate domestic.
Leonard told me that my family sounded like Navajo families that have been split apart. In his own family there were members who lived in Albuquerque or Phoenix, who no longer could speak Navajo and who had fully adopted the ways of the mainstream culture, meaning they disparaged their own. There were members, like himself, who chose to remain on the reservation and follow the traditional ways. It was difficult, he said.
He had hated boarding school. He had refused to wear a tux nor go to a prom because that kind of experience was too foreign. Instead, he hung out with other Navajo kids and drank in the desert. Yet, he went on to attend Dartmouth on scholarship, going on to graduate school and a doctorate. I told him about convent and Jesuit education in Malaysia. I had slept through my classes right in front of my teachers. My clothes were always in disarray. From Vassar, after three years being undocumented, I went on to writing school at Brown and law school at Penn, getting scholarships from both also. It seemed to us that both of us had gone through the system in a state of passive rebellion, and had thrived in the system on paper.
When Leonard had shown up earlier in back of the courtroom, he had seemed like a vagrant. Very thin, dressed simply in old jeans and a grey T-shirt, he looked like a defendant hauled in for drinking or loitering. He sat passively waiting his turn to present, with his shoulders hunched a little. When he spoke, he didn’t meet anyone’s eyes. He reminded me of myself.
I wondered if his appearance and manner were deliberate. Nothing about me was by design. I told him that I hadn’t tried to sort out my feelings until years after my education was over, because that would have been ungrateful. Also, to have the education and experience not “take” would have felt like a shameful failure. Yet, my convent and foreign higher education didn’t “take.” I’d cried a lot in law school and had hated anyone there with a straightforward corporate ambition. I believed that anyone who believed in a culture of personal momentum had the power to kill me. As irrational as the thought was, I believed it emotionally to be true.
Leonard nodded. Then he said, “If children have a firm identity, a firm foundation in their culture, they can go through the system intact. It’s a bit of a surprise, but not a surprise, to be told that this issue exists everywhere.” I said, drawing on my illegal carpenter days, “It’s not easy to find a principle that might put a veneer over the whole thing.”
Now driving past the old trading post that stood in ruins some fifteen miles along the Burnham Road, I thought, tourists would love to grab a picture of that, but the Burnham Road was a reservation secret, still marked on maps as a dirt road, impassable to small cars in most seasons. Now the light shining on the ruins felt like green light bouncing off the prairie.
I thought, but mistaking the desert for prairie grass may be the type of dream only someone not of the desert would be willing to have.
May 29, 2013
9 Min read time