A friend wondered if my years of participating in church and community leadership – teaching, writing, and speaking – have been fueled by a need for acceptance and approval. My response is that it’s more complicated than that.
I have often remarked that my cultural experience of being a first-born female in the Chinese culture, which values first-born sons as the correct way to form a family, is the defining experience of my identity. My paternal grandmother, who was an iconic matriarch, made it known in words meant to punish my mother for producing an eldest daughter and not an eldest son and thus, being an unworthy daughter-in-law. I was a precocious child, who soaked up these lessons and sought to protect my blossoming heart by trying harder to speak, sing, and dance in ways that might attract the praise of elders. But a child’s version of speaking, singing, and dancing could not elicit the countervailing opinions sufficient to withstand my grandmother’s power to shape a girl-child into a whole person.
The opposing, sheltering winds came from the unlikely community of a German-language Lutheran church that taught me scripture and instilled in me a salvific belief in something beyond the authority of my family and culture. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” [John 3:16 KJV] I also learned to sing, “Jesus loves me! This I know, For the Bible tells me so; Little ones to Him belong; They are weak, but He is strong.” [Anna B. Warner, 1860]
My maternal great-grandfather was evangelized in Guangdong Province and rode a bicycle around his village, and was known widely as the “Jesus Man.” It was his Christianity that tempered his Chinese character, leading to schooling for his girl-children and no beatings for the servants and indentured labor. My mother would adopt her grandfather’s modern Western views and nurture me as the eldest daughter of herself, an eldest daughter, who was also mothered by an eldest daughter, my grandmother.
I went to public school in Detroit, Michigan, in a time (1954-1966, 1st through 12th grades, skipping 2nd and 5th grades) when citizenship and civics were still taught. I gravitated to the concepts of equality and liberty and justice as the lifelines that they promised to be. I was saved intellectually by lofty concepts that overshadowed the demeaning and mean-spirited cultural memes that made me, a girl, less than a real person. It was only later, in my maturation from teenager to adult that I learned the hypocrisy of the USAmerican dream – that it didn’t apply to girls of color and girls from refugee-immigrant families. I’ll tell that story another time.
It was only within the last two decades that I came to name the cultural meme that denigrates first-born girls as a form of child abuse. Naming is a powerful liberating force, and it is never too late to say the true names of things for all to be freed from the tyranny of cultural memes taken for granted as false truths.
Being the precocious eldest child led to the duties of taking care of the English interactions that make a household function when the father works the 12-hour swing shift laboring in Chinese restaurants and the mother speaks only Cantonese. That early responsibility actually restored an identity where one had been ripped away as the first-born girl. My aplomb at carrying out the adult duties gave me gravitas as an eight-year-old and helped me to develop bravado. What was the worst that anyone could do to me? Hit me? I had already been the recipient of verbal blows from an early age. I was already accustomed to racist epithets from the White kids on the way to school and the Black kids on the way home. I already knew how not to cower at the verbal criticism that the adults didn’t know I had heard and absorbed.
I learned at a very young age the power inherent in being openly vulnerable. It is the same power that lives in the story of Jesus Christ who was strong in his human vulnerability, his seeming weakness. Enduring suffering does more than build character. It is like the stone that sharpens the sword, especially if you know that you are shaped by the One Creator who declares that His Creation is very good.
I know several highly talented, articulate, fabulous women who have important thoughts and experiences to share with the world, but for myriad reasons they are blocked from speaking out and do not allow themselves to be seen as their true selves in the public eye. These women have journeyed from different posts in the USAmerican culture. They receive praise of their gifts with grace and are truly grateful for the recognition. As much time as they have each spent achieving distinction in careers and volunteer service, nonetheless they are mostly hidden from view and not necessarily by their choosing. It is as if their psyches have chosen for them, without their bidding or permission.
I have stumbled and fallen in public, both figuratively and on the steps up to a podium, more times than I can recount. I have made big, painful, public mistakes and paid the painfully exquisite consequences, and I have sometimes repeated those biggies until I finally figured things out or had things pointed out to me. I have hurt my family, especially my children, and caused them to pay for my errors. And yet, I continue to embrace open vulnerability, because I believe in its power to lift up, affirm, and reaffirm the authentic woman I’ve become, grown up from that first-born girl, who early in my 30s claimed the position of first-born son with all its attributes and privileges. I really, really like Star Trek, where all command officers are addressed as “Mister.”
I am sad that these women friends cannot find the release button to present their authentic selves in public, to reveal the hidden parts that their fears control. I recently read a People Magazine article as I sat in the waiting area of a doctor’s office about Spanx. In case you don’t know, Spanx is the life-changing underwear that oft-photographed celebrities wear to bind their bodies so that they can fit into body-hugging clothing that doesn’t allow for eating, drinking, or peeing. I think Spanx is the metaphor for people who cannot be openly vulnerable in public.
Just as I talk about empowerment as something that one claims rather than waits to be given it, so, too, I think of being brave as claiming the role that carries the power and the privileges and owning it. Be it, and strut it, boss!