my inner Shrek

For the first time in eleven months, my friends, who kindly read my blog, I got tired of believing that Everyone is Beautiful the way they are, with all their perfect imperfections etc. No I haven’t met anybody who’s making me think that, not anyone new anyway. Just myself, my good old self. And my feet’s love for tennis shoes. Let me tell you.

Last week I had my first business meeting. There was a fair bit of walking to get there so I wore my tennis shoes and carried my heels in my purse. After the meeting on my hike back to my office I realized: I was still in my tennis shoes.

I told it as a joke later but at that moment I realized just how far away I am from the woman I tried to be. The Professional Woman who not only does good work, but who looks Pretty and Polished and ideally Charming, Friendly and Memorable. 

The other joke is that out of that list of Professional Woman qualities I can ever only meet the first one. With the looks thing I can keep trying but as my feet tell you, it’s not in my biology. And the personality thing, well, my inner voice is saying “Oh honey, you know you’re not that person…”

With my big wide sweaty feet in my tennis shoes, I called myself a rather harsh name I would never call anyone. Unless you’re Shrek. You’d think I was being a bully to myself but actually it was liberating. Compared to the part of me who tries to convince me that I’m Beautiful, who pretends not to notice my aesthetic shortcomings, the name-caller is at least looking and acknowledging every part of me.

And my inner Shrek, whose Shrek-ness is only relative to the Professional Woman ideal, says “You may pretend not to see me, but it’s not like you can get rid of me. Might as well come up with a new plan that includes me so I don’t show up as a surprise to you!”

your door, my door

Just like a lot of you, I live with people, and I find living with people is hard. One day I was really brooding over a certain bedroom door, wishing it was a wall, and blaming it for just about every problem I have. Because when you get upset over people, you tend to think the people are causing you upset.

And then the door talked back,

“There’s no way you can keep me closed, because I serve only the people who live behind me. We are of no real threat to you but you think we’re an intruder. And sadly, when you keep your eyes fixed on me, you nail your heart with fear.

But look, and remember, I have a twin just across the hall. Her name is Your Door. You are free to open and close it whenever you need, whenever you want. That’s the boundary that you can control.

We all live together, I know you wish things were different. But you’re OK, because you have a door. You don’t have to let anyone or anything in that you didn’t want, even if they ask. And you are free to let anyone or anything out. You didn’t know you could, did you? You thought it would be rude, and that’s kind of why you thought you have intruders in the house.

So now I’d like to ask you to stop giving me your evil look and angry vibes, and just see and trust that you have a door, your own boundary, and it’s been here all along for you to use and control.”

And then.

A few days after that door talked to me, I’m standing at its threshold. I’m being greeted at the door to hand over something I’m bringing. When I did, I had a flashback. I saw myself barging in very self-righteously. I can understand it but I am sorry now to recall that I had stood in the middle of that room that isn’t mine, and thought that being asked to leave my thing at the door, as opposed to bringing it into the room, was a violation of my boundaries.

life in a cupboard

My daughter points to the corner of an apron trapped by the closed door. The apron is one of the few items that belong to me in that pantry cupboard that is packed from ceiling to floor. This cupboard is the magic on the fingertips of my mother-in-law. Mysterious and potent herbs casually filling up jars with their now lying mayonnaise or mustard labels. Jars of calories that I had bought, I noted, now seem to mock me with their bellyful of healthful ingredients that I’ll never know the names and uses of. They stand there unassumingly as a symbol of a traditional Chinese mother’s cooking, a feminine power far superior than my tinned tomatoes, brownie mixes and that still-brand-new, full-color hardback Chinese cookbook written by a Chinese-American I bought a couple years back, which I’d started to pretend isn’t even mine.

The other half of the cupboard is the hospice for empty jars and boxes. My father-in-law likes clear surfaces, but won’t leave storage spaces as spaces. For him, filling spaces with something, anything with an illusion of being useful such as the worry that we’ll need a seventeenth plastic yoghurt tub, is better. As if junk is harmless.

I thought this was the battleground I lost because I neither have a lot of cooking ingredients, nor a habit to hoard. When I open the door to tuck the apron back, my daughter goes in and start moving things to the floor, doing whatever pleases her toddler’s heart. She is the person with no cooking skill and who takes up the least physical space. Yet, she is at home and I’m not. Now I see that even though none of the jars, cans, boxes or cookbooks belong to her, and maybe because none of the values, habits and traditions are weighing on her, she’s having fun. That fun is hers. That freedom is hers. Now I know that I’ve had my head stuck in a narrow cupboard that has little to do with me, and now I can stop trying to squeeze myself inside it. Because there’s a whole lot more space and a whole lot other things that I can get myself into. Or not. It will be my choice. It will be how I make myself at home.

see the beauty of who we truly are

It’s a great power to see the beauty of who we truly are.

We can be outspoken, soft-spoken, passionate, calm, spontaneous, reserved, calculated, flexible, principled, talkative, cerebral, fun-loving, challenge-loving, ambitious, go-with-the-flow, musical, mathematical, creative, dependable, practical, abstract… There are as many people as there are types of people. But people really advocate for only some of these traits, leaving those who are opposites feeling a bit disadvantaged, or worse, defective.

The truth is, the person with ideas, strategies, a voice and a will to lead people can make no progress if there are no people willing to cooperate, collaborate and accommodate, and make things happen. People who don’t just think of themselves, people who trust and do the hard work.

It’s a great power to see the beauty of who we truly are, because then we unshackle ourselves from the generic voice in the media or in society. The beauty of being quiet. The beauty of being the calm one. The beauty in using your voice. The beauty in silent actions. The beauty of being more rational than emotional. The beauty of being more emotional than rational. The beauty of the strength to bite the bullet. The beauty of the strength in being honest and expressing feelings.

 

it’s all in your head: an example

What’s causing you pain and suffering is all in your head. That’s one of the main teachings from The Power of Now. I had a very vivid experience of this recently.

Our Little Precious The Most Beloved woke up crying in the middle of the night. I dragged my body out of bed to soothe her and even enjoyed cuddling her for the first few minutes. It’s always when your expectation sets in and your child is happily dancing far away from it that even a great patient mom like me begins to lose it. It did not help that husband GRUNTED and turned in the bed, as if he was having a hard time.

Part of me was feeling okay, but another part has woken up now and tapping me on my shoulder. She seemed very desperate, very concerned and very scared for me that I wasn’t doing a good job. She says, “Hey you need to shush your baby and put her to sleep.” I told her it’s fine, this isn’t so bad, I’m losing some sleep that’s all it is. But she kept going. “No you should have been able to make her sleep by now. And a decent mom and wife would have taken the baby with her somewhere, so that her husband doesn’t get woken up.”

“It’s not my fault!” I blurted out loud and blamed my husband’s grunting for it.

Finally baby was back in her crib, I went to the bathroom and next thing I know my head was in my hands and tears are dripping from my face.

What?

The desperate woman’s voice was still here. There’s no baby to distract me now and in the silent of the night, she’s screaming in my head “You’re such a bad mom Oh my gosh what have you done You’re just hopeless You’re the worst mom and wife ever”.

What?

See, up until this point, I had been tired and frustrated but not that upset that I would cry. The baby waking up did not do it to me. My husband’s grunting did not do it to me. I was sailing along. It’s that critical, mean voice in my head that did it.

It’s that voice in my head, not my baby or my husband, that I battled with.
It’s that voice in my head that made me feel so worthless and upset that I cried actual tears.

It’s not the outward circumstances that upset me that night. It’s my internal thoughts that crushed me.

What is that voice? There are many names. Call it Thought. Call it the Shame Gremlin. Call it a Deceptive Brain Message. Call it an Old Tape. Call it Negative Self Talk. The one thing people who have identified and studied it agree upon is that We Don’t Need to Listen To It. And most of the time, It’s Not True.

xxx

If you want to know more, here’s an interview of Eckert Tolle, the author of The Power of Now. If anything, just listen to his voice and the voice of the interviewer. Both are so soothing they gave me goosebumps on my head.

 

knew you from way back

Last night in a dream, I confided the recent relationship trouble of a dear friend to another dear friend. The news spread and a circle of four women friends flew across the world, two to show support, one ready to help with anything, and one hoping to talk some sense into an old friend. After being estranged for twelve years, these women were over whatever that had caused the breach in their friendship with this friend. Even I was not expecting such a full on intervention. Now I was caught in the middle as the secret-teller, but all is for the better.

In a book written by a Taiwanese spiritual teacher about reincarnation, he says that every encounter is a pre-planned reunion. Parents, friends, lovers, we promised each other that we’ll meet again. We discussed and decided on the relationship we were going to have with each other. But as we take our first breath as a baby in this material world, we forget. We forget that the main purpose we’re here again is to have a second chance, to make amends to our loved ones and to love them better. We forget, so that we can have the real experience.

Unfortunately, we forget even within the current lifetime about the promises we know we’ve made.

How many of our relationships start out good and turn sour? Would we have talked and be like, “Hey, next time let’s be real good friends. Then let’s have something happen between us so that we’ll break up and secretly resent each other for the rest of our lives”? Or, “Let us be married again in the next life so I can love you better. But let’s make it dramatic and have you cheat on me so that I can never forgive you again. Does that sound good?”

We probably did agree on adding the drama. The drama needs to be there for very important reasons. But with people I love most, I don’t believe we would decide on those endings. Would you?

chinese names and friends

Last night while putting my baby to sleep, I went over the Chinese names of my friends the way you count sheep in your head. I went to a school in England that had a lot of overseas students from Hong Kong like me. We were known by our English names in school; as friends, we also tell each other our original, Chinese names. Pammy’s Chinese name is “Treasure of the Family”. Candy’s name says “Seductive Fragrance” and Chloe’s is “Sunshine”. My husband Galen’s is “Mountain Range of the Family”. James’s is full of aspiration: “Reaching the Sun”. And Ken’s parents hoped that he would be “Intelligent and Conscientious”.

Not all Chinese names have coherent meanings and there’s no one way to come up with names. Parents may start with a word for its meaning. Or they may start with a favorite sound, then choose a character/word based on its meaning, kind of similar to choosing the spelling of a name. For instance, will it be Lisa with an “s” or Liza with a “z”? In Chinese, the “s” and “z” not only looks different but may also have different meanings.

My friend Phoebe’s Chinese name sounds like it could be a man’s name, until you see it on paper, where the characters chosen are all floral-based. My dad’s name literally is “Metal People”. When the internet came along he called himself Iron Man as his email address. For his children, he wanted to carry on the metallic element, so while my given name sounds feminine, on paper it looks like “Armor Flame”.

I had to think hard to recall some of those Chinese names of my friends in school. I counted them in my head like you would count sheep, but the second time around each of them had become shiny jewels and interesting pebbles. With fifteen years of distance between us, I now see that without exception, every one of them is a part of my life. What is there in your past if there was nobody in it? Friends, non-friends and enemies alike, they all make up the color and story of our lives.

leave or stay

In Diner Escargot, Rinko left her small village home at the age of 15 for Tokyo and lived with her mother’s mother in the city. Her mother ran the village nightclub and made ramen from a packet for meals. Her grandmother, on the other hand, was very traditional, elegant, reserved, quiet, gentle and yet stubborn in her own way. It was through her grandmother’s incredible cooking that Rinko discovered her own talent and passion for preparing food. In the absence of husbands and fathers, Rinko concluded that her mother acted out to defy a traditional mother, while Rinko herself acted out against a frivolous and wild mother and became exactly like her grandmother.

A year before reading this in Diner Escargot, as a struggling and exhausted new mom, I had wondered if I’d just made two of my life’s biggest mistakes. What people say turned out to be very true, that when you marry someone, you are also marrying their family. That was the first mistake. Then the second was to have a baby with this man, which was literally handing his family a piece of my own flesh and blood and beating heart. It turns out that letting them take a piece of me killed me. It turns out that we have known each other for years but we barely knew each other, because we’re masters at acting nice and acceptable.

When I was little, I learned that the reason I didn’t have a maternal grandmother is because she left. She left and abandoned her six children while they were still young. I thought about this grandmother. Might some things like personality trait and fate pass on every two generations? How much did it take for my mother’s mother to leave her children?

In the movie Anna Karenina, Anna’s husband pressured his unfaithful wife to stay in the marriage, not just for social and economical reasons, but also for their young son. Anna replied, “I can die for [my son], but I won’t live like this for him.”

Just as not every woman wants to have children, not every woman likes being a mom above being a woman and being an individual. Fathers and husbands who walk out seem to get away easier than women would. Mothers and wives are held against an impossibly high standard that can drive women crazy and possibly away from their families.

After Rinko’s grandmother and mother died, she found out that her grandmother lived in the city because she abandoned her young daughter to elope as a politician’s mistress. She loved Rinko dearly, perhaps to compensate for leaving her own daughter. Rinko’s mother, on the other hand, was, deep down, the opposite of the woman she knew. When she became a single mom, she accepted the job at the village club so that she could live a simple life there together with her daughter. Rinko also learned that her mother had never given herself to the man who was widely known as her boyfriend, because she devoted herself only to the first man she’d ever loved and sworn to marry.

At a young age, I didn’t care much about the absence of my maternal grandmother because I have a loving mother. As a new mom, I ache for the little girl who lost her mother. I don’t know that mother’s story but I did have a glimpse of a desperate impulse to leave.

like it came from nowhere

Coconut cream body wash splattered over her palm ungracefully like it dropped from a bird. She added some peach shower gel and rubbed the mixture over her body as quickly as she could. The goal was to leave as little time as possible for it to stay on her skin and for her mind to be skeptical and feel disturbed by the act. As soon as she realizes her mind already does both and this is a daily occurrence, she found it absurd to perpetuate. She thought, what if someone is using this for the first time? Someone who has never used a body wash. Someone who has not bathed for days and weeks. The peach gel works up a great lather and covers her body with bubbles. Just in that moment she felt like a young woman taking a hot shower in a nice house with a foaming, fragrant body wash for the first time, and she was overcame with joy for the luxury.

xxx

Right at her desk, leaned back in her chair, she slipped into the music in her ears. The half-written email can wait. Music circulates her body, waking up her muscles, which she used to enliven her joints. Right there in her chair, she lifted her knees, circled her head, arched her back, and took long breaths. That was easier to do with the music concealing her breathing sound from herself. Take another few seconds, and another few, because she felt such relaxation and joy, with not a care in the world. In the middle of a work day in the middle of an email, the music, the moving and the breathing carried her to her home within herself.

pleasure reading: Diner Escargot

Too much positive and self-help reading gets very draining, because collectively the authors sound like they’re urging you to get better, as if you are not enough already. There are also different names, theories and strategies for the same things so I’m getting off that hamster wheel to enjoy some fiction.

Just the opportunity to turn a beetle back on its back, to me, is a blessed encounter. Holding a fresh laid egg and feeling its warmth on my face; to find tiny jewels of morning dew on the leaves sparkling more brilliantly than diamonds, and tasting a miso soup made with the kind of bamboo fungus, found at the entrance of the bamboo forest, that is adorned with a beautiful white lacy skirt that gives it the nickname of ‘veiled lady’ – these are moments of joy that makes me want to give God a kiss on the cheeks to thank him.

– an excerpt I translated from a very lovely Japanese novel “Diner Escargot”

If it feels right I might be sharing more like this!