See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Tag Archives: family


My son,

You became an American citizen about a year ago. You don’t remember it now, you won’t remember it when you finally read this, and it didn’t mean to anything to you then. You had no say in it. At the insistence of your doctors, they ripped open your mother’s womb and plucked you out and forced you into the world. You screamed and you screamed and you screamed and that, that, was the moment you became an American. This is an identity that came to you by law and custom, but most importantly by birthright.

So to it was the moment you became Chinese. You are Chinese because I am Chinese, because my parents are Chinese and on and on it goes into a past none need account for. You have a claim to our language and our culture, to our rites and rituals, to claim your identity and your place among us by birthright.

So to it was the moment you became Hmong. You are Hmong because your mother is Hmong, because her parents are Hmong and on and on it goes into a past none need account for. You have a claim to their language and their culture, to their rites and rituals, to claim your identity and your place among them by birthright.

A wooden train car with a Hmong pattern, a Chinese name, and a white American star

Three gifts of identity

You are all of these things and you have a right to these things, because we gifted them to you irrevocably the moment you were born. People, even people who love you, will try to take them away from you. They will insist you must be American or Chinese or Hmong and cannot be all three and they are wrong and you must never forget that they are wrong. Your birthright to these identities cannot be invalidated. But they can be stolen away.

What I need you to understand my son, is that people who have never met you will hate you. They need to hate you because your birthright is to have your feet planted in many worlds and they must find a way to exclude you and to do that, first they must hate you.

By law and custom you are American. You are American by the blood of your parents and you are American by soil on which you were born. Just for that, that, people who chant slogans about blood and soil already hate you even though they have never met you and will never meet you. They know that your birthright enriches you, and they hope to steal it to enrich themselves. It will never work, but they will still try.

This is a destiny that was laid upon you when you were born. With the life you didn’t ask for you were given gifts you did not earn and enemies you do not deserve. But you also have help.

Before I was your father I was your uncle’s brother, your yeh yeh and your nana’s son. I was born to a life I didn’t ask for, given gifts I didn’t earn, and enemies I did not deserve. With these I made friends and I loved and I did good in the world.

Before your mother was your mother she was your uncles’ and aunts’ sister and your tias and yawg’s daughter. She was born to a life she didn’t ask for, given gifts she didn’t earn, and enemies she did not deserve. With these she made friends and she loved and she did good in the world and eventually we met.

When your mother and I chose to marry we bound our families together, like it or not, got new enemies like it or not, and got new friends like it or not. Because these are bonds of love, and while loving someone is a choice, it also transcends choice to become something greater – a responsibility willingly borne beyond the whims of want. And we were cherished and known because true friendship and family is the greatest force of the world.

And so to you, we give you still more gifts. Family and friends, relatives and cousins and aunts and uncles and those who are strangers by blood but are still aunts and uncles. They all know your name. They will love you and they guide you and they too will help you defend your birthright.

A painted wooden locomotive shape reading

Gifts of family and friendship

We have given you all these gifts because they are yours by birthright, absolute regardless of whether you deserve them. But I hope, my son, I hope and I trust that you will rise to deserve them. Right and responsibility exist in tandem with each other, and they always have for you. The destiny that laid on you at your birth is also a debt that I hope you will choose to acknowledge.

You have been given worlds to plant your feet in so you may grow mighty and true. You have been given companions to nurture you and guard you from harm. You have been given love, so much love, so that you may love and be loved in a world constantly short of it. When the choice comes, I hope you choose to take advantage of these gifts, and when the choice comes, I hope you choose to not only be powerful but good. To be true friend and family, secure in your rights and happy in service to others.

You are my claim against the world, because I love you more than you any merit you can earn. And you are my gift to the world, because I believe you will choose to honor your birthright. That you will choose to walk the worlds in right and in responsibility.

Be powerful my son. Do good.


Parallel Invaders, Post-Trump Redux

Much of my life has been a desperate chase for a particular feeling. It’s that moment where the ground shifts underneath me and everything becomes more clear than it was before. It’s as unsettling for me as anyone else, but I still love it. It’s my thrill seeking behavior, my only drug. I’m intellectually bungee-jumping and using this blog as my GoPro. Worse, I keep inflicting it on others, like these (fictional) cartographers did to C.J. Cregg:

I took my first bad trip late on November 8th, 2016. I’m still reeling from it. I’ve said it again and again today: the world has shifted underneath my feet. I have found myself in a place of fear and anxiety that exists entirely in the world instead of the recesses of my defective mind. My fear is bloodless and serious. It is measured, weighted and proportioned to the situation. I am afraid of a small but real subset of Trump supporters. True lunatics that I now estimate to be more frequent that previously supposed who gathered under a now victorious banner of repeatedly promised, repeatedly delivered bigotry.

I’m afraid of one of them burning a cross on my lawn.

That is probably not going to happen. I’m actually in pretty good shape. I’ve got a law degree and the self-protective powers that implies. While Michigan as a whole is probably going to end up in Trump’s column, my precinct is in Clinton’s. My neighborhood is getting browner, younger. It has long been wealthy and safe. The more likely result is that I face just a few more slurs, a few more but still blessedly rare moments of explicit bigotry as my son grows up through a momentarily wobble as the long arc of the universe bends towards justice. But that risk of actual racial violence, that low probability tail risk, involves an event so catastrophic the only rational choice is to take it seriously. My son is due to be born in the first 100 days of a Trump presidency. All existential risk has to be accounted for, and this risk is real.

The risk of being a direct victim of racial violence is real and is executed along a simple mechanism. There are some lunatic white people who hate people who look like me and want to start a race war.They have been partially held in check by strong signals that the rest of America, including the other white people, are not with them, that they do not have a permission slip from the powers that be to do what they want. That, no matter how much they didn’t think people who look like me belong in America, enough people who do think I belong in America were standing in the way. They are now receiving the opposite signal. It could very well be illusory (it isn’t) but that doesn’t matter nearly as much as what they perceive it as. So now I have to worry. Not just about my preferred direction of policy or American identity, but a more basic question of trust and safety. And I don’t know what these people look like. Well, actually I do, it’s telling them apart that’s the problem.

In this post I wrote about how many women reasonably perceive all men with great anxiety because the sexually dangerous men look exactly like the men who are not. Meanwhile, most men instead live in the parallel universe where sexual assault doesn’t happen – and predators use our ignorance to slip in between. I had no idea then I was writing a metaphor for my own sudden transition from a parallel universe where racial violence was mythical and rare to the reality that I am surrounded by the threat of it. I will look every at every new white face with apprehension. I will always be wondering if it is this one that will turn out to be the dangerous lunatic underneath a genteel surface. I don’t like it. I desperately want to go back to the moment before I fell into this awful world. But it’s real, the race warriors are real, and the unfairness to every decent white person I meet is also real.

This would have been true even if Clinton had squeaked out a win. Over fifty-nine million people sent or cosigned a signal that I’m not part of real America, that my job creating immigrant mother is a threat to their livelihoods, that my to be born an American son is a threat by his very existence to their children because of our skin.

I am faced with a choice of leaving my state, maybe my country or facing down the risk of racial violence every day. Of forcing my family to face that risk as I let my loud mouth attract unwelcome attention. If I have to leave America it isn’t because of disgust, but fear. I love my country. I love America. But the America that I’ve been standing in this whole time isn’t the America I thought it was, but instead the America with the shadows colored in, hiding predators. I have a duty to help bring the real America and transform it into the fantastical one, and I have a duty to keep my family safe.

I know I am not the only one who has to make that choice. And I know for many who do not have to make that choice, this sounds like the ravings of a bitter madman. But please, take our fears seriously. We’re not delusional – we just now stopped having our delusions.

At the Dinner Table

氣 (qǐ): meaning breath, air, energy, spirit, life force.
生氣 (shēng qǐ): meaning anger, literally birthing air.
火大 (huò dà): meaning extreme anger, literally big fire.

Father’s Father taught physics
while students carried their slates;
even as Japanese soldiers gave chase.

Mother’s Father taught too,
the right politics and skills
but to the losing side.

Two grandfathers
trapped on two islands
with Chinese language
Chinese students
and Chinese food.

My parents left
and I was born free
from my birthright.

Mother rebuilt the nation with every meal.
The dinner table was Fujian
seasoned with a splash of Shanghai.
China in Michigan
by way of Taipei.

Grade school failures stole China from me.
Disappointed Chinese mother,
and furious Chinese father,
blew English lectures across the dinner table.

Father and I were windstorms
captured by our lungs
and imprisoned by a beating furnace.
Winds do nothing but push.

Dueling winds made tornados,
splintering thrones,
spilling ceramic islands.
Sinking China.

My smile died for ten years.

Food that hurts,
It made father’s eyes sweat
and my brow tear.

Without the pain
the mouth runs free.
At the dinner table chewing
was the sound of peace.

Our words hurt when they brush the skin.
Breath burns,
not by purpose
but by nature.

Fire is how father and I create
the gas range is the forge
never set lower than seven.

“The Cantonese call it the spirit of the flame!” he said.
He never believed in spirits,
he hates hot air.
But, he understands fire.

You need heat to forge steel,
carbon pain and iron threats,
the awful flame he uses
to save lives.

Incinerate the cancer,
heal the patient.
Extinguish the rebellion,
Remove the failure.
Recrimination is redemption.

Heat is my family’s definition of love.

The tornado passes.
In the wake,
drops of salted rain.

Regrets are found
in the ruins of China
But storms destroy
and salt soothes no wounds.

Things don’t have words that burn,
tongues that trip.
Plastic dragons don’t breathe fire.
Things don’t have to push.
Things have hidden words
I can hear over the wind.

We forgive,
firm the foundations
for a future fighting fires.
China rebuilt again.

Storm season must end
before the next must begin.
Seasons upon seasons,
we fare each better than the last.

I am still a windstorm.
My wife a willow,
strong because she bends.

My families will never be safe from fire.
But I now know how to bend
and how to rebuild.

My smile has returned.