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i’ve never been to me

This post is inspired by The Bloggess‘ latest post I have no fucking idea what I am doing which has inspired 500 (and counting) comments so far, including the three comments I’ve left there… *cough cough* yes, I am a comment hog… 

I have been grappling with this question: Who am I? since high school, and it has induced a lot of angst and crazy shit, including reading and misreading existentialist novels, and a suicide attempt because it felt exhausting and pointless to go on living.

I remember one of my teachers was particularly asinine. For example, this being an all girls’ school, she would interfere in people’s friendships whenever she thought the young women were too close to each other emotionally. (More about that, and my life in all girls high school some time later…)  Anyway, one day she decided to talk about our mottos in life. So she wrote a bunch of standard, expected, nice things, e.g. the Golden Rule, be grateful, Karma, etc. Then she asked us to vote. I did not raise my hand, thinking it would not matter. That bitch went and added up the vote, and got pissed when she realized she was one person short. “Who did not raise their hand?!” she hissed. She had that look on her face that made me defiant (otherwise I’m usually quite easy going) and so I raised my hand.

“Why didn’t you vote?”

“Because none of them are my motto in life.”

She smirked. “Well, what is it then?”

I got up and walked to the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk and wrote my name. True (or truth). Then I sat back down.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” She hissed again, taunting.

“It means one should be true to themselves and be who they are.”

She rolled her eyes. “Ok then. Let’s vote again.”

Nobody raised their hand for the first choice. Nor for the second one. Nor for the third one… … When she got to the last one, the one I added, every single person in my class raised her hand.

This youthful obsession with finding oneself and staying true to it came hand in hand with my obsession of Hermann Hesse’s Demian. I was hooked by the very first line from the book:

I wanted only to try to live my life in accord with the promptings which came from my true self.  Why was that so very difficult?

This being one of the classic Bildungsroman, the protagonist’s main objective was to find himself, on a path to enlightenment and self realization.

Each man’s life represents the road toward himself, and attempt at such a road, the intimation of a path. No man has ever been entirely and completely himself. Yet each one strives to become that — one in an awkward, the other in a more intelligent way, each as best he can.

This sounds great and vaguely romantic on paper, unfortunately, it caused a lot of heartaches and confusion because try as I might, as pretentious as I wanted to be, I could not seem to embark on that journey. I did not even know where the Yellow Brick Road started.

During my “self searching” formative years, I wrote the only short story of mine that was ever published. Don’t get too excited, it was published by the school magazine. I don’t even have a copy of the magazine and I can only barely remember what I wrote. It was narrated in first person (of course!) fashioned after Notes from the Underground. The Narrator complained about having trouble recognizing her own face in the shop windows when she walked by, in the mirrors, and in group photos. What she saw was a young woman with an unnatural smile that made her look as if the corners of her mouth were pinned to the sides of her cheeks. She could not recognize her. Blah blah blah. She ended up carving herself a smile. (WAY before The Dark Knight with Heath Ledger as The Joker…)

Now that I am (much much) older and (debatable) wiser, I think I’ve got it figured out. The problem is that most people still subscribe to the idea of a true self being somewhere to be found, that there is this essence of oneself to be discovered.  (I think this has something to do with Plato and Aristotle from the very beginning but I have given all my knowledge about Greek philosophers back to the teacher as soon as I received my diploma…)  It is somehow our job, as we grow, to discover what that essence, that core, i.e. our true self, is.

But here is the right question to ask, imo: What if there is no core? What if we are more like onions? What if we are made up of all the layers? If so and you still believe in finding that core, no wonder you feel lost: as you peel away each layer of the onion, you are like, FUCK! There is another door behind this door!   What if we shift the paradigm of how “selves” are defined, and that every single layer is YOU?  The real you. Everything you do, everything you say, every decision you make, every breath you take, is what makes you you.

To steal Sartre’s famous line: “Existence precedes essence. ” Your essence, who you are, is defined by the way you live your life, the actions you take, the decisions you make.  This also means one’s true self is constantly changing, because our actions are constantly changing.

The person you encounter each time, even though she may be slightly different from one moment to the next, is you.

Ergo, even when I am pretending, I am being myself because in some sense, when I become so sure of myself, I cease being myself. Ouch my head hurts! I need to stop right now!

Before I end this rambling, I just want to quote e.e.cummings, yes, again, because the quotient of pretentiousness in this post has not gone through the roof just yet!

 

 

* I am not endorsing the message from the one-hit wonder I’ve Never Been to Me. Just borrowing the title. Although I’ll admit, the song is a sweet sweet gem for a good old drunken Karaoke session.

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She did not want to come back the last time she was there.

She wanted to stay home. Home.

When she was there by herself, she was not a mother. She was not a wife. She was herself.

More enticingly, she was her younger self. She was a daughter. She was the much adored and lauded miracle child. The family legend.

The one who would be could have been “The Doctor”. The real kind.

She realized much to her sadness and guilt that she has not been a daughter since 1993 when she left home for graduate school. The first time she went home, she brought her American boyfriend with her.

She stopped being just a daughter to her family. She has never been back by herself ever since.

When she went home by herself, everybody treated her as if she had just left and then returned. They treated her as if she were only 24, how old she was when she left.

Time stopped.

It was disorienting.  A discontium of time and space.

You are here in the U.S. and 24 hours later, you are in a different world. The same skyscrappers. The same modern technologies. Cars. Material goods. Yet different.

Time also reversed. Her family treated her as if she were only 24. She was a daughter again. The unwed daughter. The pearl in their palms.

She looked at her parents who have aged more since she saw them last. She wondered how she could have done this to them. Rid them of their daughter. All these years of separation they seem almost like strangers, yet she remembered. It’s as if life in between simply were not there. She left. She came home. As simple as that.

Now she’s 24.

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She has a pretty face. In 3 D. She knows it. Yet nowadays she does not like to look at herself in the pictures. She dares not search for her own face in them. She cannot recognize herself in any of them because the image she has of herself inside her head is different from the face that is staring back at her.

It’s like whenever you hear the playback of a recording of your own voice, you are  startled by the strangeness of it.

Is this really how I sound to other people?

Oh my goodness. I should never open my mouth again.

The girl in her is puzzled by how she could have possibly aged so much.

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The girl in her did not know at first that being addressed as “Young lady!”, as in “Now, what would you like, young lady?” and “Bill, this young lady here would like an Amaretto Sour!” is actually a sign that you have passed a certain age threshold. People assume that you ought to be grateful for the subtle compliment.

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She gives herself a long, uncomprehending look sometimes when she walks by office buildings with glass walls.

The girl in her is surprised by the unfamiliar physique when she looks in the mirror.

Who is that middle-aged woman? If I feel like a P.Y.T. then who is this matron with thick arms and middle bulge?

The girl in her saw the repulsion in her husband’s eyes. Just for a fleeting second. But too late. She’s seen it. You cannot unsee it.

The girl in her says, with defiance, Wow. It kind of sucks to be you because I am not changing myself for anybody but myself.

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The girl in her does not know how to navigate space in real life now that she can no longer be classified as slender as her younger self.

It is as if her spatial sensory has never evolved with how her body has evolved. She keeps on bumping into corners. Door frames.

When she looks at pretty young things, she thinks to herself: Yup. I can look good in that too. Imagining her 18-year-old body in the same polka-dotted sundress.

The girl in her forgets that she no longer enjoys the luxury of youth and therefore is no longer as attractive as she remembers. This is not self pity. This is the truth as told by time.

The girl in her behaves as if she were still young and attractive and therefore she winks and smiles as one would.

Sometimes people see the sparkle.

Sometimes people don’t and are therefore startled by a not-so-slim not-so-young woman carrying herself as a young beautiful woman would.

The girl in her is saddened and disappears when she recognizes the startled look in people’s eyes.

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The girl in her never really leaves. She sits by the wing. On a stool next to the stage manager’s, waiting for her cues.

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The girl in her sometimes wonder when it will become inappropriate, or whether it will ever, should ever, to swing your arms while walking because you feel happy, or want to fabricate the sensation of happiness.

To look forward to a rainy day so you could walk around holding the umbrella as if it were a sword: palm open and up, with the blade pointing up and the sword against your back, and  envision yourself as a swordswoman, wandering and righting the wrongs in the world.

To dance in the rain.

To breathe deeply in the smell of rain. Fresh-cut grass. And let out a loud Ahhhhhhh——-

To roll down the hill.

To skip.

To be barefoot.

To jump in a puddle.

To say the word, Puddle, her favorite word, out loud for no reason because she likes the sound of it.

To talk to random strangers, and wink at them.

To flirt shamelessly.

To jump up and down while clapping your hands when you are excited.

To take off your shoes and throw them into the tree.

Just because.

To behave as if you had not aged since you turned 18.

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This is how she sees herself when she closes her eyes.

This is how she sees herself when her eyes are wide open, as a matter of fact.

Sometimes this is the only thing that feels real.

The girl in her.

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So now I am completely obsessed with Anna May Wong. I wanted to find and read everything about her… then I found this:

Shanghai Express

This is fucking Marlene Dietrich we are talking about here…  Marlene Dietrich looks like this:

(Ignore the cigarettes. They didn’t know better back then…)

Annex - Dietrich, Marlene (Angel)_01

Annex - Dietrich, Marlene (Shanghai Express)_03

Annex - Dietrich, Marlene_17

Yeah.  I get the irony about me posting photographic evidence of objectification of these two gorgeous women after I posted We will not become what we mean to you.   I have the luxury of a revisionist perspective, looking back at these women and what they have done in portraying strong, powerful women, albeit always thwarted by the end of the film.

On the other hand, now this conviction, and personal, secret mantra, “We will not become what we mean to you”, just became even more powerful for me.  The paradox of the subjectification of the unavoidable objectification perchance will remove us from this endless loop, a discourse that goes nowhere.

I am spewing nonsense now.  This shit is complicated.  No wonder people avoid the discussion of gender and racial politics like the plague.

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“We will not become what we mean to you”

August 29, 2009 a picture is worth a thousand words

This is yet another picture I took of the art works that resonated with me when we went through the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. “We will not become what we mean to you.” I think about that sentence often ever since… I’m interested in how identities are constructed, how stereotypes […]

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