Cười (Smile): #KollabSFGetsLit Interlude

Anytime I feel it rumbling through my stomach, I know I only have a few minutes to respond. My hands start to shake as my body wants to purge this angst through my eyes. Paige is already in front of me, so it’s too late for me to run into an empty room. I already feel pathetic in front of her so I let it come out, sobs and all. My body lets her know I’ve been having trouble keeping it together since the year started.

“Can you smile for me?” she asks.

I know she means well but I’ve always had qualms with that phrase. It’s not her fault — she doesn’t know I have a hard time with that question. This might sound like a ridiculous statement, as Dr. Andrew Newberg of Marcus Institute of Integrative Health states on how simple smiling is: “Before they engage in a conversation with someone else, visualize someone they deeply love, or recall an event that brought them deep satisfaction and joy. It’s such an easy exercise.” Recalling or visualizing a place of joy has always been hard for me, as I struggled with smiling until I was 18.

When the family photos would come back from Walgreens after they were developed, I would always hear my mom say some variation of “sẽ không cười” immediately after she saw my lifeless face staring back at the camera. Those words used to cut my heart, because I disappointed her. I just nodded and stood there, wanting to apologize that I just don’t know how. I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain the heavy boulder that weighed on my chest throughout the day, let alone in Vietnamese. The older I got, the more these comments became stern demands from my mom asking me to smile and hide my sadness, as if she was ashamed of me feeling that way. I held onto guilt that I couldn’t do it at all, especially for her. Instead of wearing that disappointment on my sleeve, I wore it on my face.

When my dad would catch me coming home from school crying, hugs were never the solution. It started with getting grounded and being yelled at. When my attitude didn’t change, he would add an extra layer of name calling and insults. The insults weren’t effective, so he transitioned from metaphors comparing me to a lowly animal to showing me how he would treat a lowly animal, with a weapon in hand. Him trying to remedy my sadness instead let me inherit his personal trauma.

I later figured out I had “unique severe depression” in middle school. When I say unique, I mean an Asian kid with severe depression. I would always envy people on TV when the school guidance counselor would eavesdrop on conversations behind the lockers, wanting to selflessly help the troubled student. The guidance counselor would then show up at the kid’s house and the parents would hug their child with sympathetic tears. Instead, faculty never tried to help me. I could always tell teachers were annoyed with me when they saw my bloodshot eyes, signaling that tears would come out soon. I decided to take the initiative to visit the guidance counselor for a session, but they said that I couldn’t go anymore without consent from my parents, so I was off on my own, embracing betrayal at its finest. I did what I could, finding that the only solution was to replace my sadness with anger. The anger was the mask to hide my shame.

Not smiling is a good visual cue for people to avoid you, just as the sight of a dog with a foaming mouth is a good visual cue for rabies. What secured my isolation was being an Asian American that didn’t do well in school. Living in Fresno, a city that thrived in racial segregation, I ended up being assigned to the “mentally retarded classes.” That’s what school administrators were reported calling them as they put the black and Hispanic students there to suffer. I would watch from afar as the white and Asian kids got treated well while we got stuck in the Lemon dance, getting burnt out tenured teachers who had forgotten why they became teachers in the first place. My anger grew with increased resentment, wishing that maybe if I was white or black I would have had a better supporting community.

I don’t know what came first: me isolating myself from everyone or they were the ones putting me as the outcast. Nonetheless, it was prison life I was living. I would sneak into the football gym room after school and lift weights. If I was going to be off on my own, I needed to protect myself by weaponizing my body. 100 pushups, 100 sit ups, and 1 hour of weights was my goal everyday. I had to tell myself, “Ain’t nobody gonna f- with me.” The football coach that would come in knew I shouldn’t be in there, but at that point I’d earned my “Black Pass” as he knew I was displaced with the “others.” We dapped fists in solidarity whenever I came in; game recognize game.

By the time I was in my senior year, my severe depression had elevated to High-Functioning Depression. I transferred all that anger and anxiety into a creative outlet for music and songwriting, as hip-hop and R&B were the only forms of art that told me it was OK not to be white. Though I had very mediocre grades, luck was on my side as I was accepted into University of Pacific’s Music Management program (mind you, I got rejected from every State and UC program, so maybe it was God throwing me a bone). That moment felt like I had won a parole hearing, I’d served my time and deserved a second chance. Fresh out of jail, California dreamin,’ I walked out with a broad chest and held my head high. Like any reformed prisoner, I work hard everyday to never go back there. Looking back, I thought that chapter of my life was over. Little did I know that my depression would be a chapter that had not yet been closed.

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2018 was an exciting first year for me as I became a writer for Kollaboration SF. The role has brought me so much joy and fulfillment. Setting up 2019’s Kollaboration calendar should have been easy. #KollabSFGetsLit wouldn’t have been possible without the help of “The Millions” list. As they posted their 2019 list in the first week of January, an unexpected angst comes over me as my eyes glazed over it, and I close the browser immediately. Plenty of the writers that have been interviewed on this list are ecstatic about Esmé Weijun Wang’s new collection of essays, but I am filled with guilt as I have only glanced at the title of her book. Mira T. Lee’s book “Everything Here is Beautiful” is next on the list for #KollabSfGetsLit series, and I haven’t even touched it, as the thought of even approaching it fills me with anxiety.

I have written nothing at all for the year so far. I’ve always known about the dreaded “writer's block,” but I didn’t know it would be this devastating. So for Paige to ask me to smile — I couldn’t, because I wasn’t capable of doing what I enjoy.

Alexander Chee, a Korean American writer, wrote about experiencing writer's block, “I've somehow rejected my own ideas as improbable, or unacceptable, or otherwise unthinkable. And so to deal with it I have to deal with why that is. Like many people, I have the belief that keeping myself silent in certain situations will make me invisible or will somehow protect me.”

Maybe I’ve silenced that part of my life for so long it’s decided to come back now. It camouflages itself as migraines, stomach aches, and insomnia to bypass my brain’s self-defense. I want to be the hero I needed as a kid, conquering it with my bare hands to say I did it all alone once again. Doing so though can trigger my dependency on isolation, veering me back into the angry darkness. What we’ve learned with all the Hollywood superhero movies coming out every 6 months — from Spider-Man not stopping the thief that eventually kills Uncle Ben, to T'Challa listening to all the women around him to do what’s best for Wakanda — isolationism is never the answer for any hero.

Every month or so, I go back to these words from researcher and storyteller Brené Brown to remind me of my purpose: “When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding. We beat vulnerability to the punch. We dress rehearse tragedy to beat it when we are vulnerable.” So without that joy, I can’t smile for Paige. My decision to take the role as the Creative Blogger for Kollaboration SF was to challenge myself to be more vulnerable with a community I thought I had nothing in common with. With that, I have heard many voices and narratives that were different than my way of navigating being Asian American. They have given me a new sense of empathy and strength that I carry not only in my writing, but also in my personal life. However, with all the journalism I was doing, I had forgotten my personal story. I realize now my personal identity with being Asian American is deeply rooted in my conflict with struggling with severe depression.

That doesn’t matter though, because my story with all its flaws is still important. What I've learned from fiction writers is to observe the details around you and find beauty in what people find mundane. I’m still looking at the flaws and trying to make it beautiful. I came across a moment on Twitter where journalist Stephanie Foo was also looking at her past. She tweets:

“My parents desperately wanted me to be an immigrant success story. So I did what they asked. I strove for perfection. I became a successful journalist. And I pay for it every day, in so many small ways. True success is loving yourself enough to love your present as well as your past. I wish I'd had those as lines instead. Thankfully, it's not too late to learn.”

I too need to remind myself I don’t have to figure this out all at once. It helps, having others around me to give gentle reminders that they rather see me smile than push myself to be perfect. The only way to allow love that I wasn’t getting in my childhood inside my soul is to let people see my growth and assist me in finding my way. When we let others in to join our experience, we feel much more connected to the world.

Creative Blogger

Long Vo