Lately I’m having to pull daily (sometimes hourly) on mantras that hold me up, and I’m also learning from my friends’ examples.
Are We Okay Right Now?
Previously, in life-threatening situations when I was stunned and dumbfounded and also knew I had to hold it together for others, this was the question that got me unstuck. Obviously we are not totally ‘okay’ if it’s a crisis. But when I compare current state, right this minute, to worst case scenario (which could happen, hence the crisis) and we are not there yet, then I can take a breath, regain my wits, and take the next necessary step.
People say, “One day at a time.” But so much can happen in one day. That interval is too long. Everything can change in a moment—of misunderstanding, of misspoken word, of impulsive action. We do things in a moment and it’s 来不及后悔—literally ‘cannot regret fast enough’—we can’t take it back, the damage is done. So one moment at a time is even sometimes too long. “One breath at a time” seems more helpful. If I can get one breath’s distance from my impulses, maybe I can make a better choice of words, actions, expression or attitude. Depending on what’s going on right now, I can be elastic—taking everything One Day, One Moment, or One Breath at a time. When I can get up to one whole day, it reminds me to be grateful and revel in the good. When I take one deep breath, in this minute when we are mostly ‘okay,’ I can also find the good, and then a way to keep going.
Show Up Loving
My friend Donna gets it. When we share our challenges and struggles, we show up loving for each other. Donna also teaches/reminds me to show up loving to myself. Because when I show up anywhere or to anyone in self-loathing, nothing good happens. This doesn’t mean I absolve myself of responsibilities and accountability. I do not stop striving for learning, excellence, and progress. It just means I allow myself to be fallible and imperfect—to be human. When I do that for myself, I’m far more likely to do it for anyone I encounter. I can take another person’s perspective more easily. I can show up loving to them, and also hold them accountable, as I do myself. It’s a win-win, even if it’s hard and painful.
I’m taking a break from the blog for a while, friends. Hopefully not too long, and not total silence. Maybe I’ll find a way to post shorter pieces, and/or maybe just not as often? I’ll figure it out. Thank you for reading all these years, and for your engagement and support. Peace to you all.
What kind culture do you wish to perpetuate? What specific actions, policies, behaviors, and outcomes would it manifest?
I learned the term ‘cultural perpetuity’ this past week, from a thought-provoking article on how Maslow’s Hierarchy was influenced by and also misrepresented Blackfeet Nation teachings:
Self-actualization. Where Maslow’s hierarchy ends with self-actualization, the Blackfoot model begins here. In their view, we are each born into the world as a spark of divinity, with a great purpose embedded in us. That means that we arrive on earth self-actualized.
Belonging. After we’re born, imbued with a divine purpose, the tribe is there to love and care for us.
Basic Needs & Safety. While in Maslow’s model, we find love and belonging only after attending to our basic needs and safety, the Blackfoot model describes that our tribe or community is the means through which we are fed, housed, clothed, and protected. The tribe knows how to survive on the land and uses that knowledge and skill to care for us.
Community Actualization. In tending to our basic needs and safety, the tribe equips us to manifest our sacred purpose, designing a model of education that supports us in expressing our gifts. Community actualization describes the Blackfoot goal that each member of the tribe manifest their purpose and have their basic needs met.
Cultural Perpetuity. Each member of the tribe will one day be gone. So passing on their knowledge of how to achieve community actualization and harmony with the land and other peoples gives rise to an endurance of the Blackfoot way of life, or cultural perpetuity.
I also listened this week to the Building an Anti-Racist Workplace episode of Adam Grant’s podcast WorkLife. It’s an insightful, enlightening, and empowering interview with John Amaechi, whose work I will now explore further. In their discussion on allyship, Amaechi points out that we upstand against racism and sexism not just to help our individual friends or coworkers, but because we uphold certain core values. Thus, we speak and stand up to defend and disseminate a certain culture—to perpetuate it:
Adam Grant (21:43): I wanna talk a little bit about sort of the- the ally perspective here. Just thinking about my own failures in anti-racism and other people who I know, recognize the problems and care about the problems, but haven’t done much about them, I keep coming back to this literature on psychological standing.That sense that, you know, it’s- it’s not my place, it’s not legitimate for me to speak up because I’m white. What are your thoughts on overcoming it and getting those people who are by-standing for those kinds of reasons on board?
John Amaechi (22:13): There’s a couple of things that I’m trying to do. One of them is to stop the alignment of allyship with black people as individuals and start the alignment of allyship with their own principles or with their organization’s values. So racism is an incivility. Sexism is an incivility. I do not require sisters nor a mother, nor a wife to be against sexism and misogyny because it is an incivility. If I’d intervene on something that’s racist, it’s not on my behalf or another one of my black colleagues. It’s because it’s an incivility against the values that people say they share. Today it’s not about an individual. It’s about standing up for your values and understand that you don’t need to have a black person in your team for that to be important because the presence of a black person has never been required for racism to occur. The presence of a woman has never been required for sexism to occur. As men, we know that the absence of woman reveals sexism and misogyny.
What culture do you lead?
In my role as interim clinical director of a small practice, I see myself as a steward. My best contribution to most places I inhabit is to highlight and foster relationship and connection. At work, this manifests as effective teamwork, high engagement, and positive morale. Last year as we recruited for a new medical assistant (MA), I got to listen on the phone as our current MAs interviewed a candidate. Through my own questioning, the candidate’s responses were short and sedate. Then each MA on the team met with her, describing with energy and conviction how they live out our core values of collaboration and accountability, as well as our mission of providing compassionate, holistic patient care. With each encounter, I heard the candidate’s responses lengthen and deepen. I heard her own energy and engagement rise to match that of the team. It was one of my proudest moments as director—I could see (hear) and feel how far our culture of connection has come, and how it could persist after I pass the baton to the next director.
What is the dominant (perpetual) culture in America?
Do not underestimate the complexity of this question, and its profound implications. The first answer is, of course, it depends whom you ask.
For far too many, the dominant American culture is white male supremacy. For the past year, I myself find it inescapable. Increasingly, every time I consider what to post to this blog, or jeez, every day and in almost every domain, the primacy of white men pervades my consciousness like smog on a hot, humid day. Let me be clear: White men are not each and all bad; I do not assume every one is a racist sexist, even the actual assholes. But whenever American systems are examined, we find that they are primarily designed, favored, empowered, and perpetuated by and for white males—it’s baked into our societal structures, hence the terms ‘systemic’ and ‘structural’ racism and sexism. If you are a white male, it may be hard for you to see the barriers that have not impeded your life journey (Amaechi discusses this in the podcast as well). You may have answered that dominant American culture is one of success with hard work, of equal opportunity, and of individual freedom. Of course that is a culture we’d all love to perpetuate. How could we achieve it for everybody?
What culture do you work to perpetuate?
I think it’s about the values and commitments we hold highest and manifest most in our daily activities. What do our daily encounters say about our priorities? What do we want more of, and thus work for every day, for ourselves, our friends, our colleagues, patients, parents, and children? I want mutual respect and unqualified acceptance. I want sincere valuation of diversity and real, wholehearted inclusion and integration of that diversity—of thought, experience, wisdom, and perspective—into a coherent, synergistic mosaic of strengths, engaged in service of elevating every individual to their highest potential. I want to perpetuate a learning culture, one that operates with a growth mindset, founded on kindness, generosity, humility, curiosity, and resilience.
None of this happens automatically; even well-established gardens of inclusive culture require regular tending. I have to renew my commitment every day, in every encounter. I fall down regularly. And I give thanks every day for loving companions who help me up. I try also to appreciate the challengers, to see them as allies rather than enemies or hindrances. That is walking my talk, no? To value those whose goals and values don’t align with my own, to find a place for them—for everybody—in my world? I’m strengthening my practice of self-assessment. How did I walk the talk today? How can I do even better tomorrow? The more concrete and specific, the better—words, actions, and attitudes. It’s my own version of “trudging the road of happy destiny.”
On that note, I leave you with two more resources that hold me up this weekend:
First, Hank Azaria’s conversation with Dax Shepard and Monica Padman on the Armchair Expert podcast. They discuss addiction, privilege, and racism, among other things. What an inspiring example of vulnerability, courage, humility, connection, and lifelong learning and growth.
When someone is unfriendly to you, how often do you attribute it to your race? How often does the possibility cross your mind?
Since I was a kid this has always been in the background, and it was worst in elementary school. Second and third grade stand out: Kids would pull the sides of their eyes up and down, chanting, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees,” or make fun of my name: “Ching-Chong-Cheng.” In high school one boy in particular referred to me as “Cheng,” and always said it with a sneer. It could have been innocent—I found him generally sarcastic and antagonistic in the most annoying way. When I told him how it made me feel uncomfortable his demeanor changed immediately; he apologized and never did it again. Looking back, he and his friends referred to one another by their last names, and often in that competitive, confrontational, adolescent male way. So maybe that was actually his way of including me? I think he harbored no specific malice, but his impact strayed far from any benign (ignorant?) intention, I think based on my own past experience. I remember the encounter vividly, and to this day appreciate both my own courage to bring it up, and his willingness to accept the feedback and change.
I think my family and I experienced minimal direct racism as I grew up. But I have always felt self-conscious whenever bad news comes from China, like when babies were dying from melamine-tainted formula, and when thousands of dead pigs floated down a river in Shanghai. I hesitate to even mention these stories here, for fear of negative stereotypes they may incite or confirm in readers’ minds about Chinese people. We humans generalize about and denigrate groups we perceive as different from ourselves, often based on minimal information (and these days, more and more disinformation). When these events occurred I asked my friends, and they reassured me that the news was inconsequential.
Not so with coronavirus. A close family member was verbally assaulted in the mall a year ago, by a white adolescent girl. She just walked right up to him, two generations her senior, and started yelling, “This is all your fault!” How entitled, how arrogant, and how brazen—to think you can just attack an elder stranger like that with no fear of consequence. That is the privilege of membership in the dominant culture. Hard for me not to feel defensive and alert to threat, not to mention rageful, after that.
For the past several years, and especially the past year and the last two weeks, acute awareness of what makes me visibly different, and thus a potential target of prejudice and racism, occupies increasing space in the front of my mind. Our family just road-tripped to Colorado and back. Driving through the rural Midwest, I found myself thankful that Husband wore his university hospital, orthopaedic surgery logo jacket into the gas station stores. I spent as little time inside as possible, made sure to be friendly, and felt noticeable relief every time someone smiled and treated me with kindness, or even just common courtesy.
This hesitation–the vague and disconcerting paranoia I feel–is justified. It’s not debilitating, but I’m frustrated, annoyed, and angry about it.
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How important is it to you that all people, including people of color, women, LGBTQ, indigenous and other marginalized groups, feel accepted and welcome, and treated with respect and dignity, everywhere they go? How can you help? Below are my suggestions. I’m tired, friends. Whatever you can do in your spheres of influence is much appreciated.
Educate yourself. See links below to multiple articles and a very well-done video (I recommend the video most) to familiarize yourself with current and historical aspects of the Asian-American experience(s). Talk to your Asian-American friends, if you have that kind of relationship. But understand that they may not want to rehash their experiences just for your benefit. Look for published stories to foster your empathy. Then, if you can muster it, find ways to tell your friends and any other marginalized folks, “I see you.”
Seek diverse perspectives. Asian-Americans are not a monolith. Despite some overlapping aspects of culture, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, and all other groups have divergent histories in and out of the United States, and each individual in any group manifests their own unique experiences. If you’ve met one of us, you’ve met one of us. Resist the urge to oversimplify and overgeneralize.
Look at your own biases with self-compassion and accountability. Biases are human. We all have them. It does the oppressed no more good for you to self-flagellate over yours, than if you ignored them altogether. What matter are your awareness and self-management of your biases, and then your ability to help others do the same.
Commit to doing the work. This does not mean expecting perfect words and actions from yourself all the time. We will all open mouth and insert foot; we will all fall into old habits of thought and assumption. But we must persist; abandoning the work helps no one. Every failure teaches us, if we let it, and this helps everybody.
Find a supportive community to hold you up and accountable in the work–friends, tribe members who love you through your struggles to reckon with yourself. These will most often be people who have committed to doing the same work themselves. Hold them up in return. This is a group project; we all depend on one another to succeed.