My parents and I bear three different last names. My last name, Kuang, comes from my biological father (it translates to openness). Zhang is my mother’s family name. Given that my step-father’s last name is Krantz, they decided to stick with culturally apparent designations for themselves. Giving our identities a twist, I think, invites a lot of questions. We are Americans, with a twist.
Growing up, nothing was settled for us. We weren’t religious. We created our own traditions for major holidays. We maintained a multicultural identity based on choices and impulses. It provided an untold air of freedom, but it was also very complicated for the same reason. Unlike the lens I saw through my homogeneous upbringing in Beijing, nothing here was black-and-white. Which means we have to choose our colors. It has led to many disagreements and at times, a stubborn attachment to being right. We have been incredulous about our different ethics and at times, it has felt deeply personal.
Recently, my family with three last names voted for two different presidential nominees for America. If we’re sticking only by labels, one might think my Jewish-Chinese-immigrant-LGBTQ-American hotpot family would find an existential common ground looking at the four candidates. As we exchanged E-mails in the aftermath, it made me remember the golden rule about our fellow humans: Never underestimate how different we are, nor how important it is to understand it.
My love for my family didn’t shut down because they voted for Donald Trump. My love for my grandfather did not stop after he passed away. Nor did my love for my partner switch off when they embraced their non-binary gender identity. They are vastly different contexts, but they require the same things for me to move forward—time for contemplation, time to understand through dialogue, and time to take action based on my beliefs.
I am not confused about where I stand, but alongside the grief, the frustration, and the disbelief, I’ve noticed a few things.
Work It Out
Whether it’s a neural pathway, a part of the soul, or something beyond knowing, I still visualize empathy as a muscle. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but my household was a fantastic fertilizer to grow, exercise, and hone that muscle. It was frequently infuriating and difficult to understand, but where were we going to go? We are a family.
This muscle is the reason I am able to support Black Lives Matter, although I am not black. It is the exact same muscle that I use to understand economically depressed middle-Americans and their plea to be heard, although we live very differently. Sometimes I call this muscle my sanity, because it can withstand human lives beyond political and socio-economic differences.
Now that I can consciously deploy this muscle, I don’t need to be around people who agree with me all the time. In fact, it’s quite interesting and educational to find other perspectives. The thing we all seek—to have us listen to each other—has become actionable rather than costly. Given the rise of hate speech and hate crimes, I have to clarify that I believe in self-defense and being cognizant of danger. My empathy and vigilance live alongside each other in complex, multifaceted ways that allow me to stand in my conviction.
Bills, Bills, Bills
My parents have resources. They have a fence. They own guns. They don’t live in the South. This has allowed them to vote based on real estate tax rates above the dangers of bigotry. They will enjoy the finer things in life for the rest of their lives. Between a Jew of Russian descent and a survivor of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, it is what I want for them.
As their child, I’ve given advantages and privileges that can be purchased, the most valuable being my education. I majored in piano performance, film production, and dramatic writing throughout my higher education, but they’ve insisted (insisted) that I take continuing education classes in economics, finance, accounting, and business law. They promise to pay for every single class I take in these fields.
Every few months, my father mails me a book penned by his favorite economist, Thomas Sowell. He’s made me read books on capitalism, democracy, and the founding of the nation. I have fought and stalled every step of the way (Ayn Rand is the worst), but even as I’m falling asleep in my bookkeeping class, I am grateful to him.
Do I agree with everything I read? Nope! But if this election has taught me anything, it’s that I will never achieve the social justice I seek if I cannot engage in tangible conversations on the topics my parents find important as well.
I am a big supporter of civil disobedience and peaceful protesting. I do not think positive thinking alone will affect public policy. I have also seen, as most of us have, disengagement and fear validated in the name of faith and love.
I do not believe policies are people, just as I don’t believe corporations are people. On matters of policy and governance, anger is an incredibly useful tool to deploy when action is called. It is also very costly and hard to sustain for the individual. If the desire is to change policy, please use anger to your utmost pragmatism. If the desire is to change people, I have never once heard or seen anger lead us to “the beloved community” without three big bummers—submission, resignation, or more anger.
I have thoroughly tested the effects of anger with my parents. Furniture have been broken because of it. We have not spoken for months because of it. We have gone to counseling sessions that have ended in tears because of it. Looking back, what do I think anger has given me? A good education, I suppose.
My current theory is that anger functions like money—be very clear about how much you’re spending and what you want to receive in return. And like money, sometimes all we can do is to make our best efforts, and live life through witnessing our choices. I’d say I regret all my purchases while inebriated, but that’d be a lie. These boots have spikes, for crying out loud!
One challenge of being an immigrant brought up in a multicultural family, is that I can be wary of change and fitting in, two things that take up a lot of energy. Looking back even a year or two, it’s hard to recognize who I was, or who I thought I wanted to be. If there is a blueprint for my authentic life, I am still trying to grasp it.
I have been completely apolitical. I have chosen not to vote when I could have. I have been judgmental of people, only to realize I was envious of them. I have hidden and abused myself. I am grateful to people who have kept up with me as I ran from one revelation to another, trying to understand why things felt so very wrong. I have not been flawless, and finding fault in my parents’ views does not change that. We have that in common.
I’ve had several phone calls and exchanged E-mails with my parents since November 8, more than usual if you can believe that. We have argued and debated the validity of our news sources (I won that one). It has been difficult to listen to them at times. Sometimes I’ve teared up, feeling a deep chasm between us.
Ultimately, we’ve ended every conversation with, “I love you.” It’s a start.
When I hear people asking the other side to consider the plight of minorities, when I hear people asking the other side to prioritize job stimulus and economic depression, this is my thought process.
*Paces around room
*Vent to friends
*Orders junk food to process feelings of resistance
*Work myself up to exhaustion
[Long sigh] Okay. I’ll do my best. It feels just like home.