After the party

I once said “there’s nothing like a social climber trying to prove their worth with a major celebration.”  Wow, that sounded much harsher in print but I don’t mean for it to be.  We’re all social climbers, and probably always will be unless you’re Prince William.  Negotiating the intricate workings of the class system is inescapable and we try to survive through markers of privilege and accomplishments.  It requires work but those who are best make it seem effortless.  Because of the ease with which they read contexts and people they are often rewarded with praise, love and popularity.  There’s probably a reason why the word “cool” denotes lack of passion.  Those who know best could care less what you think of them, or at least they give that impression, and it’s irresistible.  One of my favourite phrases is “fake it till you make it” because it denotes the performance aspect of confidence, backed up with some level of competence.  Till you’re established on solid ground I think most of us have to not be disingenuous per say, but sometimes pretend to be more than the sum of our parts.  I guess it’s a good form of hustling right, and you are nowhere without working hard and having some of that finesse.

One of the biggest performances people take part in is through their wedding and I feel like this is just an extension of the social project.  One of the curses of grad school is that you start to see through everything.  My husband loves it because it’s a part of his nature but I just find it exhausting sometimes.  On occasion it’s a bit more fun to enjoy things at the surface level right?  But, now I can’t even help it if I wanted to and it’s made worse by the fact that I married someone who sees the same strings on people’s show.  Don’t get me wrong, we are the first to point out our strings too, it’s just that we can sometimes push each other on and be a bit judgemental.  Returning to the wedding, I always love a good party and so I found planning my own not a source of stress at all.  The only difficult part was trying to balance the budget and this is where I continually reminded myself of the performance aspect.  Did I really need that centrepiece?  What am I trying to say with it?  Do I need it to prove something?  This was also coloured by my own perspective of how I was about to enter marriage, not a fancy dress ball.  I preferred to be grounded.  From the minute I started to plan the whole thing I knew that it was a commitment to work.  I regret being way too pragmatic now because I think it took away some of the romance of it.  If I had to do it over that’s the only thing I would change—to have a more balanced approach of practicality and emotions.  But really, when you already live with your husband, do you need to be apart the night before the wedding?  I didn’t give into that superstition or tradition because when you’ve known each other since you were 14 and started dating at 16, you go through a lot and you’re more confident that you can probably get though anything.  So, when I designed our wedding day, the most important thing to me was that it represented us.  There’s definitely some negotiation involved in the process and you make concessions due to cost and parental wishes, but that’s the one thing I didn’t want to lose.  Some people say that they barely remember their wedding day but I feel lucky that this was not the case for me.  Weather-wise, there were thunder storms throughout the whole day, less than ideal yes but it was almost a relief.  As soon as that happened I literally just said forget it, I’m going to have fun.  The pressure was gone and I began to relish in the most important part: the people.  We just felt like it was one of those rare moments when the whole room was filled with people, from all over the world, to love us and wish us the best.  So, I ate my dinner, enjoyed the company of my best friends in the wedding party, did not walk around the room once during the reception, danced and drank some vodka.  You only get one day and my advice to a bride is to remember your partner, be with each other and float in the warmth.  Having such a day gave me something to come back to in my marriage.  Through the hard times, because trust me we’ve had plenty after that party in August six years ago, I try to reconnect with that day and how I felt.  There was a support system there, our guests wanted our union to succeed, to thrive, and so it made me return to him, us, our history.  That’s what your wedding day is for.

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Losing

“You can be lost anywhere.”  This is one of my favourite quotes from “Felicity” a TV show from the late 90s.  If you’ve never heard of it you are missing out on an underrated but excellent series that portrays the aftermath of a woman’s (Keri Russell) decision to follow her high-school crush (Scott Speedman) across country to attend university.  Describing the premise this way does not give credit to how the writers slowly draw out and build her character throughout the seasons.  You learn that she didn’t follow a boy, she was trying to escape her overbearing parents and stifled life.  Again, “you can be lost anywhere.”  It’s so true isn’t it?  It is sometimes so tempting to bolt and let go of problems, schedules and monotony.  Journeys are great and they can help build parts of yourself, but I don’t think they can be counted on to really take apart your inner conflicts.  These types of trips and experiences make cinematic magic and there have been various films (Before Sunrise, Eat, Pray, Love, Stealing Beauty) that address these encounters.  I want to discuss two of them now and how they approach these explorations in different ways.

 

In Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation you are privy to the friendship between two travellers in a Tokyo hotel.  Lets put aside the problematic aspects of the portrayal of Japanese people and culture for this discussion.  In her subtle and delicate style Coppola gets to the underlying desire, love and attraction between two individuals who are lonely and dissatisfied with their current relationships.  They are bonded by their need to connect with someone, anyone, who can draw out why exactly they are staying in such an unfulfilled state.  Time seems to pass slowly and the pacing is what really makes this film.  You have to be just as patient as the characters themselves who are finally slowing down to enjoy time with someone who can actually see them.  But there is a limit and they will return to their lives and never meet again.  Bob will reconcile with his wife, career and duties but you have a feeling that Charlotte has built the courage to let go of trying to sew up the holes in her marriage.  Yes, they don’t end up together and they never cross the line but that’s probably the most meaningful part.  It’s less contrived as a result of their restraint and more meaningful that they were both the catalyst for each other, however brief their relationship.  That they woke up.

 

I believe that Kat Coiro is also trying to achieve this in her work And while we were here where a woman (Kate Bosworth) tries to rescue her quickly failing marriage.  There has been a trauma that has caused a huge divide between her and husband but she accompanies him to Italy to try to repair their partnership.  When he’s working she sees the sights and tries to complete a book documenting her grandmother’s experiences in the second World War.  This is where she meets a younger man who starts to pursue her and although she initially resists she is drawn into his lust for life, which in my opinion can only exist at a certain age and specific context.  They begin an affair and she decides to leave her husband, not for the young man per say, but for herself.  Now this is where I start to ask questions and all of the cliches start to grate on me.  She leaves her accomplished, beautiful, classical violinist husband for a “boy” (I use this word for a reason) in shorts, tank tops who’s about go to Tibet for a “spiritual” journey?  Yes her husband was emotionally distant but is that a deal-breaker?  I don’t necessarily think it was him per say, their marriage just had had too many disasters and there was no more room to heal.  Maybe it would have been more believable if the actor portraying the young man wasn’t so incredibly annoying.  Jesus Christ, I know you are so excited to explore the world but calm down.  The real stars of the movie are Capri and Kate Bosworth’s understated performance and wardrobe.

 

What I drew from both these films just reiterates that quote though, that your laundry list of issues will follow you anywhere.  But it can be much easier to heal and gather yourself when you are away from the people and places that will just remind you of the past.  There’s also more opportunity to meet new people and have more experiences somewhere new.  Perhaps it’s not a bad idea to buy that airline ticket, you just have to remember that you also have to work on yourself when you land.

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Embodiment

They often say that managing our bodies is all about control.  Well of course it is.  I’m not trying to make light of the pressures that exist for both sexes to conform to certain societal expectations of thinness or muscular definition.  After all, it’s this ultimate performance that causes the breakdown of will, wears on bodies and can result in death.  What I do want to do is to bring out some of the complexities in these stories because after all, the easy way out is to blame it all on society, magazines and love songs.  Whenever anything is too easy that’s when I become suspicious and I know that there is more to discuss, unpack and tease out.

As women, our bodies change throughout our life phase.  Our present image may not reflect our fourteen, twenty-two or forty year old selves.  However, I find that the body is often most scrutinized when you are an expectant mother.  This is probably one of the only times when you’re allowed to gain weight and not feel marginalized because of the added mass.  In my own experience, I loved it because for the first time since my prepubescent days I didn’t need to be self-conscious of my protruding stomach.  Rather, my body was celebrated, problematically of course, as the ultimate as a marker of femininity.  But this changes rather quickly when you’ve given birth to your child and those pressures to present a normative aesthetic return.  It’s not just your independence and regular sleep patterns that you lose in the first few months, it’s also having to live in a body that you might no longer recognize, with scars and badges of how you and your life has changed.  So where do you go from here?

The cruelty of the beauty industry has long been documented but what about the pleasures?  I believe that this portrait is too reductionist and doesn’t show the agency of choosing the outcome.  Is there not satisfaction in trying, through self-discipline and hard work, to have your body be the vessel of your inner self?  With confidence and self-worth you are often able to present a more nuanced version of yourself that can not only impact your professional life but personal as well.  Who doesn’t want to be around someone who is completely comfortable in their own skin?  Lets keep it real, we all have moments of self-doubt but happiness can help you become more resilient.  Probably the two most important lessons I’ve learnt thus far are that not everyone will like you and that it’s much easier to enjoy the peaks when you no longer fear the valleys.  What’s to fear anyways?  We all have our ticket for when to leave, it’s just a matter of enjoying each day that we’re given.  So I say take pleasure in your body, whatever form it takes.  And let go of the guilt that you’re just giving into what is expected of you.

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What’s in a name?

One of the first feminist readings I completed for undergrad said that as a woman, you first belong to your father and then your husband through your name.  I would cite the theorist if I could but unfortunately I cannot remember her name.  Ha.  Her words did resonate with me though and made me consider how marriage would impact my last name, which really was just adding to my laundry list of issues with this social marker.  It is something that’s always unsettled me and an aspect that I still grapple with.  You know those people that boldly say, oh, what makes you different is the greatest gift?  Well, in many cases that is very true and should be celebrated.  But in other instances it is the thorn at your side that you just have to live with.

Burmese women generally keep their names intact for a myriad of reasons I’m sure but mostly because naming is something that is taken very seriously in the culture.  Some parents take up to several months to name a child and that is only after careful consideration and consultations with astrological charts.  Your name becomes like your thumb print, unique to the day, time and stars of your birth and an embodiment of your parents’ aspirations for you.  So, not wanting to mess with the stars I considered combining the two names.  Ei Phyu Han-Smith, which for some reason it sounded like the keys on a typewriter.  The sounds were too harsh and didn’t fit.  It’s like when you call a helpline and the automated voice has a different tone and lilt for each option which ultimately does not go well together.  Therefore, after the wedding I just didn’t change it all.  I didn’t race down to city hall and the line-ups and just left it as it is.

A few years later I decided that I wanted to take my husband’s name.  I loved him, I loved the child that I was about to have and I wanted us to be a team, a unit.  In my father’s eyes I was changing my fate by making such a transformation but don’t we do that everyday with our choices anyways?  It felt like I was committing to my partner again and it finally felt right.  That was three years ago and everything from my driver’s licence to passport signifies that I am indeed a “Smith.”  But somehow people are still adding “Han” to my name, hyphenating and extending it.  In a completely irrational way, it bothers me.  It annoys me still when other women remind me of their hyphenated name and how they could never be Mrs. Whoever.  I’m all for having opinions as long as you’re open to women choosing what’s right for them.  But, I try to remember that identity projects are all well and good but we live in a social world.  It’s strange that you can embody something in such a distinct and legal way but it takes time for it to be adopted in your circle, your environment.

One time when I went to a Starbucks and stated that my name was “Smith” the cashier replied: “I’m assuming that it’s for someone else.”  Obviously, he is a racist prick but what made me more angry was that for my case I chose that name, and yes it was insulting but it wasn’t devastating.  What if I had been adopted and he reduced my identity that way?  Then I thought of my son and how he too is C. Smith but how will people react when his body might not necessarily reflect a part of his blood and heritage?  However, he’s growing up in a very different context and cultural milieu.  Half of his daycare class is not just of mixed ancestry but half-Asian.  When I went to middle school I was one of 5 Asian people in my school.  So, he’ll negotiate his identity and his world in a very different way and that’s fascinating, fruitful and productive.  So what’s in a name?  History, identity, pleasure and anxiety all melded together in flesh and bones.  There is more at stake than a line on an envelope so take care when you’re addressing it.

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Loving women

Leading up to Mother’s Day I wanted to write a short tribute to two incredible women whom I love.  But then I realized that this wouldn’t do justice to all of the women who have inevitably made such a mark on my life.

But first, I need to speak of my mother.  Ever since I was a young girl I thought that my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world.  Obviously aesthetically she is beautiful and has such a great sense of style, but what makes her gorgeous in my eyes is the way that she lives her life with such grace.  Her calm and gentle approach to life can make it easy to sometimes underestimate her, but she is the strongest woman I know.  She is also the funniest and let me give you some example of my mother’s wit.  One weekend we were over at my parents’ house and I was in the dining room reading.  She was playing with my son and I overhear her saying, “Ask your mommy to brush you hair everyday C.  I know that she never brushes her hair.”  Yes my friends, because I wear my naturally wavy hair in a pony tail and have long given up the fight with the flat iron, I never brush my hair.  It made me laugh.  The other day C. had a cough and throughout the whole day, she kept asking me to give him cough syrup.  He is two years old and the paediatrician has already said that cough suppressants don’t work and that it’s something that his system has to work through.  This is not just for kids, we all have to let our immune system deal with it.  So I finally said, “can you stop telling me to give my child alcohol (which is what cough syrup mainly is).”  To which she replied: “you are like one of those people who don’t use electricity.”

I’ve always wanted to be exactly like her and I still do.

In turn my late grandmother can be described as the polar opposite to my mother.  She had a big and outspoken personality that everyone was drawn to.  Professionally she never allowed anything, from her gender, ethnicity or nationality stop her from achieving her goals.  Her fearlessness is something I continually try to emulate.  This is a woman who completed her PhD in Canada and traveled to Moscow and Mongolia with the UN.  She had a light that people just wanted to be within.  And I’m lucky to have known her and be loved by her because like with everything, she loved well.  She’s taught me everything I know but the two lessons that I remember most is when she told me not to marry an extreme (religious, political) or controlling man and to always have enough money in the bank account to leave.  She told me this when I was eleven.  She spent some time with my husband before he proposed and the fact that she genuinely adored him was probably one of the main reasons I said yes.  That’s how much I trusted her judgement.  I was with my husband in Paris recently and we were sitting in this beautiful, modern restaurant in the Opera house.  I started speaking of her and he said that I was crying in restaurants again (the other moment was when we had a tiff in a famous tearoom earlier in the week).  But I couldn’t help it, it was suffocating how much I missed her.  I miss her every single day.

Lastly, I feel so lucky to know so many strong, incredible women.  My best friend K, has literally seen me at my worst when I was making questionable life choices and when I wasn’t very happy either.  But she is my truest friend, someone who will love me unconditionally.  She is also one of the first people I want to see when I am oh so happy, like I am now.  To the women, K, P and T, who are technically my cousins but actually my sisters, my beautiful aunts, my best girlfriends and all of the ladies who were my family in Chiang Mai and Mae Sot, I just want to say thank you.  Thank you for your friendship, your light and the strengths of your character.

To say that I love women would be an understatement.  I majored in Women’s Studies during my undergrad, I define myself as a feminist political geographer for my doctoral studies and I want to devote my career, whatever form it takes, working towards equal opportunity for genders and those of different ethnicities, abilities and sexualities.  But I couldn’t feel this much passion if I didn’t have such great role models and for that I am eternally indebted to all of you.  Much love.

 

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