The Revolution Out There

I remember sitting at the kitchen table of my childhood home, sometime in middle school or high school, listening to my mom talk about two college-aged Vietnamese kids she knew through her friend circle. They had been dating – a young woman who went to Virginia Tech and a young man who turned down Cornell to follow her. They had broken up, and my mom shared the news in an excited yet hushed tone, even though only she and I occupied the kitchen. I wonder if he regrets turning down the Ivy League, I recall my mom saying. What a waste, she said, to follow someone to a school like Virginia Tech and for it not to even work out.

Whenever my mom praised prestigious colleges and the people who attended them, I always rolled my eyes on the inside. I went to a high school with about a 40% Asian population – I lived near a Korean church community – and I remember at least some other Asian teens my age feeling pressure to live up to their parents’ rigorous academic expectations. As I get older, I associate this pressure less with stereotypes about uptight Asian parenting and more with how the United States constructs racial hierarchies (see: the model minority myth), as well as Asian immigrant parents trying to protect their kids from racism through professional success. Still, at that age, I tended to ignore my mom’s glorification of elite educational institutions because why would I trust the perspective of someone who consistently gaslit and emotionally abused me? I cared about getting good grades solely so I could get the heck out of that household.

Flash forward several years later. At about 21-years-old, I printed out a super cute man of color’s CV and brought it with me to my therapy session with my first long-term therapist, L. I may have even rolled around with the guy’s CV on L’s couch.

“Look at all of his publications and community service about mental health and compassion,” I said to L. I proceeded to point out his research about social justice topics. I remember L smiling at the guy’s picture and saying something like, oooh, he is cute, which at the time felt quite vindicating coming from my sometimes detached-seeming yet caring therapist.

Back then, when I first started exploring my romantic attraction to m*n, I thought I had been doing so in a way that defied the messages my mother provided me about elite educational institutions. Sure, I felt drawn to ambitious and accomplished guys, though these guys were ambitious and accomplished in fields like mental health and social justice. I carried this preference with me into the beginning of graduate school and contemplate it to this day. On a foundational level, some of this desire makes sense: I value compassion, mental health, and social justice, so I want people in my life who care about those things too. At the same time, I suspect this preference also stems from a slightly modified version of what my mother instilled within me, the importance of ambition and achievement. In the past perhaps I even viewed these traits as markers or shortcuts – if a guy publishes research on interventions to alleviate depression or regularly leads protests on behalf of marginalized groups as part of a legit social justice org or organizing community, he must be worth knowing, right?

Not exactly. While I’m sure many mental health researchers, social justice activists and organizers, and other do-gooders in the world embody kindness and thoughtfulness, I’ve also met several people in these fields in the past few years who engage in self-destructive behaviors as well as behaviors that hurt other people. I’ve learned that sometimes people partake in these altruistic activities to actively avoid self-awareness and confronting their own issues. I remember a couple years ago or so talking with my current long-term therapist about some guy, saying something like, wow, it’s still so odd to me that this person can care so much about racial justice yet treat the actual people of color in his life so badly. My therapist said something along the lines of how it can feel so much easier to focus on the revolution out there in the external world, instead of doing the painful yet meaningful work of processing one’s own past and current patterns of behavior.

Despite this disillusionment, I actually feel more hopeful about the idea of a romantic relationship with a m*n working out for me if it ever does happen. I’m not hopeful that I’ll ever meet a man I find worthy of dating who feels the same way about me. And, I still feel 100% happy if I never ever date a man. Rather, after my most recent set of realizations and my growth after seeing L again last month, I’m hopeful that if I do somehow meet a guy I like enough to spend more than 30 consecutive minutes with, which honestly it’s probably more likely that everyone who reads this blog post will wake up the following morning with a Jeni’s ice cream dispenser in their home, idk we’ll somehow make it work. I’ve always joked with my friends that my first romantic relationship with a man will fail because I’ll project my issues with my father onto him (e.g., you forgot my favorite Twice song? Just like my father forgot to take care of me…). Now, though, I’m more optimistic that at least I’ve done enough self-work to not immediately detonate something worth sticking around for.

Looking back, I suppose I want to learn more about that situation my mom had told me about. I wonder if both the man and the woman learned anything about themselves from that relationship, even if it ended. How did their past relationships affect their relationship with one another if at all? These couple of questions reminded me about a guy I had recently found cute, who went to H*rvard Law and does work about police misconduct and racial discrimination. Instead of just idealizing him and his work, I considered other elements of him too. How does he balance his legal work with other areas of his life? Did he get this prestigious law degree as an attempt to compensate for some internal feeling of deficit or did he do it out of a more genuine desire to make a difference, or both? How would he treat me? These questions help me understand more of the internal and invisible things that matter, instead of relying on the external image people project out to the world.

So I actually haven’t gotten too much Jeni’s lately, though I’ve been eating a ton of acai bowls from a place that’s a short drive from my home! They’re fruity and tasty just like me. They call the one above “The Power” (aka the empowered bottom), and it contains bananas, granola, chocolate flakes and acai!

How did/does the messages you received during childhood influence who you sought/seek out as friends and romantic partners in your life? How do you balance focusing on addressing social justices out in the world while still taking care of and knowing yourself? General reactions to this post? Slight positive update: I successfully applied for an apartment in Cambridge and am reviewing the lease with my roommate tonight before hopefully signing it and putting this housing search to a rest! I almost considered delaying this post until after I hopefully sign the lease however I thought might as well post this. Hope you are all well and until next post.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Revolution Out There

  1. Well my husband looks like my grandpa (I mean, he has a similar shape face and eye colour, not that he’s 60 years older than me) who was the kind male influence in my life (and also an endurance athlete, cycling miles and miles esp in his retirement (to get away from my grandma)). I also still get tense if he is quietly furious with something that won’t work in the house, as it flashes me back. Generally I learnt that mental ill health was a bad and terrifying thing and have had several of my serious relationships with men who have had mental health issues and dealt with them. Also I’m honest with my friends about my background, where I had to hide all mention of my home life when I was living in that house, if that’s what you mean, too. No hiding things!

    On high-achieving schools, I turned down a place at Cambridge (UK), because they expected me to take a year out, the man who interviewed me seemed to be a pervert (he was, actually!) and I sort of knew the work was so hard that I would drive myself into a breakdown. So I went for the Russell Group, so second-flight, Birmingham and was happy there. When it came to postgrad, I turned down two of the top three schools because I didn’t want to live in rural Wales and I did want to commute to Sheffield but they didn’t want me to, so I did undermine my career there but then I was happy at UCE and I have a different career anyway now.

    Exciting about the lease – everything crossed for you!

    • Ooooh I love the self-awareness you have about things that may feel triggering or activating as well as the honesty you employ when discussing your background with people you are close with! I also appreciate you sharing about your educational journey and the many contextual factors (e.g., sexism) that influenced your decisions that I’m sure influence other people’s decisions too. I turned down an Ivy League school for undergrad for affordability reasons and because I wanted a more tight-knit and undergrad-focused institution. Thank you for your support and I hope you are doing well. (:

  2. “I may have even rolled around with the guy’s CV on L’s couch.” Uhm…. I don’t know why but I can’t stop thinking about this. hahaha….

    The only thing I remember as a kid was my grandmother telling me to always finish what’s on my plate otherwise I won’t have a beautiful wife. This was in additon to the “many children are starving and you’re not going to finish your meal?” lectures. Thankfully my parents never tried to inject any ideas into who I should date and what kind of wife would be good for me.

    Working the crazy hours that I did, I never could figure out how to make time to support any of my favorite causes. I think the most I did were just charity donations. Prior to the pandemic I did volunteer (for the first time) 4 hrs a week at my local library to help with a reading program for kids. Childhood literacy was something I wanted to help out in. Although one of my students like to bring her homework in and ask for my help. I’d like to get back to this when the pandemic is over

    Your therapist is right. It’s easier to fix other things than on fixing ourselves. I always appreciate the thoughtful suggestions you give and responses to my questions (like this morning). Your posts are like little reminders for us to do a bit of self reflection. (except for the strike throughs…).

    Have a great week! I hope you don’t run into any major issues moving to your new apartment.

    • Haha Matt what do you mean by “except for the strike throughs”?? I feel like the strike throughs are especially helpful for encouraging self-reflection. ((:

      Seriously though yes appreciate this comment a lot! Appreciate you sharing about your efforts to give back to your community/causes you care about though yeah working so many hours sounds difficult/draining. Interesting to hear about what your grandmother shared with you and how that may have been influenced by environmental factors, potentially things like poverty or war. And yes agreed about fixing other things over ourselves! Hope you are doing as well as possible.

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