We Belong Here

It started with him. The third brother, with two older, two younger, and one older sister. His parents, farmers in Taiwan that spent all their days in the rice fields. They raised pigs too. Their pigs ate predominately sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes were cheap. And so their entire family ate lots of sweet potatoes too. Meat was expensive, so an ordinary meal may be a pot of soup with sweet potatoes and shreds of pork. The six kids fought with chopsticks in the pot over the thin slices of pork mixed in with big chunks of sweet potatoes and greens.

When he was older, he really loved school. But electricity was a luxury they couldn’t afford. So in the evening, when it was pitch black and the lanterns had burned out, he would drag his table out to the sole street light and study until he fell asleep at the rickety four-legged makeshift desk.

Later on, he tested into medical school, the hardest field to test into. But money wasn’t fluid, and his parents couldn’t afford to let him go. He found a full-ride out of the country to study mechanical engineering in America.

America. A far away dream for so many. And here he was. The fourth child of six, from a farming family in Taiwan, making his way to America.

He spent every waking moment working on his English. The language in which he would obtain his PhD in mechanical engineering. He would write and defend his dissertation in a language he only learned in his 20’s.

It started with her. The second daughter of a wealthy family. She and her sister and five brothers lived in a nice home with their parents and a live-in helper who made their meals and cleaned their home and watched after the kids. Her mother owned the local convenience store and spent seven days a week there. Her father, a government official, spent his days at work. They lived a life of luxury. Affording to buy and eat entire apples, a luxury only the rich could afford. When she was of age, she had many suitors. But she was not interested. She pursued music and became a music teacher. She loved to sing.

Then she met him. A poor son of a farming family. He was moving to America. A country one only planned for in their dreams. She didn’t speak the language. She couldn’t teach music in America. But they had fallen in love. Her parents strongly opposed and would not provide her a cent for her departure.

So, they married. No extravagant wedding. And with two suitcases in hand, they came to America. They had the stipend offered to a graduate student, and lived in a studio apartment. She found odd jobs that didn’t require her to be yet fluent in the language. She welded together computer parts and collected and sold seashells she found on the beach to local distributors.

This was a foreign land, and the first time it snowed, she didn’t know anyone else, so she called her husband with tears in her eyes. She’d never seen anything like it.

She had never heard of a sandwich, but this is what Americans packed for lunch. She took two slices of bread, and found canned peaches and sliced pickles and packed this lovingly for her husband. He ate this every day for a year without complaint.

After he graduated, he had his PhD in mechanical engineering. But landing a job after graduating, was difficult. He had been bright and graduated with ease. But on the other side, was the real world. Was it his thick accent that kept people from wanting to hire him? The color of his skin? His lack of fluidity in American culture? He ultimately found a job in a field he was not prepared for—computer programming. It didn’t pay much, but it was a good job. He was smart and learned quickly.

After graduate housing, they found a place to live. It was more of a large shed like building, with a makeshift kitchen and bathroom. Just one large space. Their landlord lived on the property’s house. And when they were late paying their rent, because it was difficult to make ends meet, she would turn off their electricity.

In this home, they had their first son. It was difficult to provide for him. And when she went to the local store to buy milk and came short the cost of the milk, she was turned away. She felt desperate and humiliated and her heart ached for her hungry son. She cried with him.

He had his first friend over and was beyond ecstatic to have a playmate. After their play date, his friend said he wasn’t allowed to come back to their house because it was too small and they made foods that smelled weird. She understood that their poverty and Taiwanese meals were not welcomed into this American dream. Her heart again ached for her broken-hearted son who just wanted to belong and be accepted.

Some days he came home in tears because someone would say he had slanted Chinese eyes and that his lunch was gross and they wished he would sit alone and eat his yucky Chinese food.

Over time, they saved and made extra money however they could. It was hard to get hired—was it because she was still viewed as a foreigner? She was determined to find her American dream for her kids. Seven years later, they had their second son. Three years after that, they had their daughter.

Along the way, there have been hurdles. Though fluent, there have always been backhanded comments and racist remarks made about their spoken English. The hardware store cashier that has exasperatedly said to him, “WHAT? I can’t understand a word you are saying.” The man at the store, that has glared at her speaking in her native language to her children. “Speak English”, he spat at her. This has been part of their American life that has been less than the dream they planned, but it is part of these lives they have had to come to expect and handle.

There are always questions along the way. The disrespect and blatant acts of disgust absorbed, as to keep their kids safe. It has braided its way into how they conduct themselves and react, or choose not to react to racist comments and behaviors.

They have taught their children to stick together, be one another’s best friends, and try harder, be kinder, be better always, because you have more to overcome than your fellow Americans. Never take for granted anything you are given. It must be earned. Always be cautious because while we are legal citizens, not everyone perceives it that way, so tread lightly as if you were standing on someone else’s land at all times.

So this family of five put their heads down and worked as hard as they could. They learned to speak English. They went to American schools and found American jobs. They made American friends and paved their own American way. Both sons became lawyers and settled with their wives and kids. Their daughter became a doctor and settled with her husband and their kids.

They have become interwoven with the community that surrounds them. They are as American as the next. But the racism is there. In backhanded comments and sideway glances at best. They are aware and know they must always be.

But their story is beautiful. How it began. How it struggled. How it evolved.

To those that hear my father’s accent and judge him. To those that hear my mother speaking loudly to me in Taiwanese. Think before you hate. My parents have overcome to provide for me and my brothers this American life they dreamed of for us. I couldn’t be more proud of how we got to where we are. And I couldn’t be more proud to say, with all our history in tow, my parents, my brothers, our families—we belong here. Just like you.

Holding Space

Recently, I sat with coffee in hand with a dear friend. Winter starting to melt under the sun’s warm, uplifting brightness. Those rays filling us with a sense of new beginnings, deep breaths, letting go, and moving forward. 

We cupped our coffees, a residual comforting habit from those frosty mornings from winter’s frigid abyss. We let ourselves thaw, letting go of weighted heavy layers, unfolding those cocoons we had weaved around ourselves from colder days. 

It has been a long season, we agreed. The temperature being the last thing on our minds. There have been lows and highs. Sometimes, the low lows dipping farther and staying longer than we could have anticipated. Sometimes, finding the path out the other side more winding and less paved than we hoped. 

In this time we sat together, we let go of any “I’m fine” neighborly banter. We never discussed the weather. We told our truths. We led each other into the hard and let it be known that we were not in fact holding everything together behind a shiny bow. Our bows were loose, worn, fraying at the edges. 

There is undoubtedly so much good and so much to be thankful for, but sometimes it is okay to acknowledge that what has brought you to the other side of a season, what has broken you down and left you with pieces to mend is just part of your truth. Those feelings are valid. We have all been through it to varying degrees. We are all getting through it.

I think back to a year ago. Keeping patients comfortably breathing, keeping them alive, keeping the rest of us safe and healthy was an unbearable responsibility that filled me with crippling anxiety. It flooded into my nights and the low, pounding bass of my insomnia was untamable. These feelings that had never been a prominent part of my emotional vocabulary now clutched tightly to me and held me captive. My ability to compartmentalize becoming my most deployed and essential tactic, like gasping breaths to keep me afloat and steady.

Over time, with the help of dedicated scientists, medicine, hard working essential workers, improved PPE stockpiles, and the community that has surrounded me, those gasping breaths have calmed. Sleepless nights have become full nights again woken by an alarm. 

During these times, what kept me strong was the immense amount of love that enveloped me and held me upright. The love of my husband and the inevitably contagious joy of my kids that filled me from my toes on up. The kindness and care I received from my community. The check-ins, the front door drops, the uplifting messages that let me know I was not alone. I was supported, lifted up, and most importantly, I never felt alone. That was truly the greatest fuel to keep me strong. Sure, it was messy and never picturesque, but I was part of a greater community that let it be known that they were walking right alongside of me. So I moved forward, because this grind required all of our wheels to keep moving forward.

But I have wondered, what if I did not have this community? What if I did not have this dear friend here to talk about truths and let me cry? What if I leaned and there was nothing to lean on and I fell farther down a deep hole? Or worse, what if a community surrounded me but I still felt unheard and unseen? What if I felt like I could not let anyone in and no one knew I was falling?

Last night, I learned about the passing by suicide of a young, brilliant physician. A mother, a wife, a vibrant member of a community. This loss hit me in the chest and sucked away my breath. I did not know her personally, but every female healthcare provider is part of the same united community. We are here for each other. We know the hard is hard, and also that the good is beyond rewarding. The challenges of being a female provider are a collection of nuanced uphill climbs that make a collective steep mountain for us to summit. The boulders that have been placed in our way this last year have made it all that much of a rockier terrain, as it has for everyone in so many ways. 

This year has also been one that has placed a much-needed spotlight on mental health. Mental illness is an unapologetic part of so many worlds. Whether loud or whispered, acknowledged or ignored, it is ever present. May we allow it to be spoken about in a safe space so we can start to better understand how it significantly affects those we love and our community. 

On the other side of this year of greater hardships has been a slow release. The pressure grew, expanded and now, it is starting its tentative release. The hiss initially quiet grows louder. Sometimes, this slow release of pressure explodes. It becomes unmanageable and those breakthrough tears are more than just that. I have no insight into what led to the suicide of this female physician within my local community. But I imagine that maybe her slow release became too strong and overwhelming. I often think about one of my colleagues who said in passing, “post-traumatic stress disorder is identified as post-traumatic for a reason.” 

On the other side of adrenaline, stress, and getting through any trauma is a let down of everything you have been holding tightly to your chest. It is a let down that has sometimes brought me to tears. It is a let down that has sometimes sent waves of sadness over me. It is a let down that has allowed those compartmentalized memories to become disorderly and break down the iron doors at the gates. 

People have died. Loved ones have been lost. People have struggled to breathe, cope, and endure. Sometimes they have won after weeks and months. Sometimes they have lost. There has been despair. There has been anxiety. There has been unknown which breeds the worst kind of fear. There has been isolation and loneliness that has left people feeling broken. 

I have taken each of these pieces of tragedy that I have encountered and cupped them in my hands. I have soothed them and placed them gently and carefully in a compartmentalized box. Once in awhile, they spill out, and they remind me of all the sorrow that has left dark staccato spots throughout the filmstrip of this year.

As we all process the events of this last year, a new set of emotions has surfaced to greet us. For some, it is filled with insurmountable grief, loss, and tragedy. For some, it is knowing where to begin to heal from this past year’s fear, anxiety, and loneliness. For some, it is hope. 

As I look back, I am reminded of recent coffee with my dear friend. We talked a lot about holding space for those we love and what that means to us. Holding space is letting go of judgment. Not trying to “fix” or change anyone. Holding space is letting go of comparisons. It is being present. It is seeing one another. Hearing one another. Validating all the emotions that exist in a person’s truth. Holding space is creating a safe space for one to be him or herself. No questions. No criticism. Just friendship with no strings attached. I have found this to be the thing I have needed most this past year. A rope for which I can steady myself and that helps pull me forward. Not a tug of war that leaves me doubting and exhausted. 

In processing this all, a few things are clear to me. Let’s be careful with one another and listen. Let those around you know you are ready to be present for them. Know that your emotions are valid and worth talking about. Everyone has been through something, big or small. My hard may look vastly different from your hard, but each is laced with a complex set of emotions and coping. We truly don’t know what we are each managing on a daily basis, so let’s just hold space for one another.