The Pondering Grapefruit
a blog of moments
ooOn Thanksgiving weekend, I went to see The Color Purple performed at the Schubert Theater in Boston. I was surprised that I was able to go at all. A week before, as part of my new goal of being more connected to the world, I was looking up events in Boston and found that the show was playing for the next two weekends.
I knew I wanted to go but hesitated because I didn’t have anyone to go with at the time. None of my friends close by liked musicals, and those were did were out of town. After several days of mulling, I convinced myself that I needed to see it solo so that I could nurture more emotonal independence.
Unfortunately, I ended up going with someone. Before I bought the tickets I asked my housemate, C, if she wanted to go—I remembered that she enjoying going to the movies and had also helped choreograph a few dance performances. To my surprise, she said yes! In the end she managed to get us $24 tickets in the orchestra, so perhaps it was a fortunate thing after all.
As I sat in the theater, I first had an incredibly hard time paying attention. I had just eaten a very heavy meal, and my poor brain could not follow the storyline because all the blood was rushing to my stomach. However, after some food had cleared, I was finally able to digest what was occuring outside of my body. Soon I began to experience the full range of human emotions. By the end of the first part I was crying so much that C had to give me a hug.
It was hard to believe that the show was real because the singing was impeccable. I felt like I was watching a movie with an excellent soundtrack full of incredible, powerful black voices. We could hardly stay in our seats, yelling and wooping and rooting for Celie, Nettie, Shug, and Sofia.
The next day I found myself much more vivacious, making jokes and feeling like more wholesome. I realized that something in me had lit up after hearing so many black voices and seeing an all black cast alongside so many black people in the audience. All these voices reminded me of my childhood, where I grew up alongside so many black communities in Atlanta. Watching The Color Purple had uncovered a part of me that had gotten dusty in spending so much time in predominantly white spaces.
Because life, like food, is both bitter and sweet, I woke up this morning feeling quite down even though the past few days had been filled with much vitality from The Color Purple. I admit to calling my mother to speak about my woes. She recommended, as my spiritual antidote to heartbreak, a Vietnamese song about burying romance in a grave.
While we talked, I spoke very loudly in Vietnamese. It felt good to speak my language into the world without shame. If the landlady downstairs can shout in Chinese to her son, then I can match that with my own language and have it echo throughout the house.
I listened to the song while walking to work, and then on repeat for the rest of the day. It was good. In fact, I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Each language communicates sorrow in a slightly different flavor, and this song spoke to a side of my heartbreak that had not been heard before.
Growing up, I only engaged with Vietnamese music when singing karaoke at family events. After a while, I sang fewer Vietnamese songs and more English songs. Eventually, I stopped singing Vietnamese songs altogether. And while I had at points sung in Vietnamese, I never listented to it for pleasure. I excluded it from all my playlists so that I wouldn’t be fobbish—all I wanted was to assimilate and be American.
I’ve gradually learned over the years though, that it’s useless trying to be American. Most people will not see me as fully American even if I tattoo the flag on my forehead. I mean, I’ve already gotten a college degree from one of the supposed top institutions in America, and people still are surprised that my English is so good.
This morning was the first time in my life that I had listened to Vietnamese music for pleasure. Walking down the streets with Vietnamese words ringing in my ears, I felt rebellious, as if I was marching with a whole army of friends who were born of the same soil, and who spoke the same language. And because no one around me spoke Vietnamese, it felt like a secret that I could keep in my pocket as a warm reminder that I am not alone here. As long as I can speak, hear, and sing in Vietnamese, there will always be a home for me away from home.
Someone once told me that any song that gets stuck in your head actually is giving you an answer that you need at that time. It sounded ridiculous, but as I’ve paid attention to the music in my head, it made uncanny sense. Whenever I’ve been brooding and gently existential, I hear Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto. Recently, after my breakup, I found myself constantly singing Bjork's "It May Not Always Be So." Tonight, I began singing a song in the shower that was from my teenage years, “Listen” by Jennifer Hudson, about finding one’s own voice.
It certainly seems that I am finding my own voice, now that these forgotten halves of myself are being brought out again. I’ve discovered how much I missed hearing certain voices in my life, and hearing those voices again brought me back to the voice that I’ve missed the most: my own.
I find myself speaking louder, sassier, less apologetically. I’m growing less afraid of my own voice, and as I gain more confidence in it, there is less and less need to substitute other people’s voices for my own. I had been letting others speak for me so much these past few years, that my voice dwindled without me even knowing. There is also less need to remain quiet in order to maintain peace. I’m discovering more and more how to be angry, to be upset, and to still be ok in the midst of emotion.
Of all the things, voice is perhaps one of the most unique traits of each person. Not just the quality and tone of the voice, but the way it speaks, the cadence, rhythm, language, and volume. Voice is the genetic imprint of the soul, and to find your own voice is to connect ever more deeply to your soul.
In a few days, I will be performing a Vietnamese song in a world music concert. After all these years, I’m singing again.
This story begins with an encounter I had while grocery shopping (Lately it seems as though most of my insights have come while grocery shopping. Perhaps it's because I love doing it, and in a happy state I am more able to connect with others) a few weeks ago at Market Basket, the greater grocery store on the planet, during the busiest time. The people in front of me all had fully loaded carts. While I was waiting, a bald, portly man roughly in his early forties came up behind me in line. He seemed restless, and I heard him mutter to himself, "Oh! I can go in the 20-item lane, I think I have 20 items."
He soon darted away to that other lane. Before this I hadn’t known that such a lane existed, just the 12-item express lines. It struck me as a wonderful balance between people who weren’t just grabbing a few items but also weren’t stocking up for the entire winter. After a few minutes, when I saw that the carts in front of me were not moving any faster, I decided to give the 20-item lane a try too.
I ended up standing right behind the guy. We caught eye contact for a little bit, and then he continued putting his items on the belt. "19!" he counted, with a lot of excitement.
The grocers seemed to know him too. A woman from the next register gave him a few extra paper bags. He took three paper bags, opened them up, and then carefully placed them inside plastic bags.
"Looks like you got a good system going on," I told him.
His face lit up, and he smiled. "Oh yeah," he said. “With this system, I can all this home with me on the bike.”
"You can take all that home in a bike?" I asked, incredulous.
While we talked, I glanced at the things he was getting. He had donuts, milk, coke, snacks and ice cream, all items that I wish I ate more of but would usually never buy.
He went on to explain how he maneuvers the groceries on his bike: He puts some in the basket in the rear and then attaches the rest to his handlebars, securing them with cables so that they don’t hit the tire.
I was impressed; I also bike to get my groceries but can carry whatever can fit into my backpack. Usually that’s nore more than 60% of a handheld basket. This guy had enough to fill a car.
"I've had ten years to perfect this system," he said. "But don't get me wrong, accidents have happened,” he said, and started to chuckle. “Once, the bags fell, and, oh god, you can just imagine--coke and milk spilling down the streets! That hill over Washington street is just awful!”
I knew what hill he was talking about because I bike over it all the time. I could imagine him on his bike, with his mound of carefully wrapped groceries dangling precariously on either side. Suddenly a bottle of coke falls to the ground, exploding in a frenzy of foam, closely followed by a fallen gallon of milk; and soon streams of coke mixing with the puddles of milk as he throws out a slew of curses.
I was about to make a comment about how coke is a really good for cleaning blood off of streets, but decided not to, as he was already almost done paying (and it didn't seem quite appropriate for any social context with strangers).
"Have a nice day," he said as he left. I wished him the same.
For the next few days I thought often about him and how proud he was, not just of his system of transporting groceries either, but for his knowledge of how to navigate Market Basket. Every time he comes to mind, I think, “How wonderful.”
Our little encounter reminded me of the things that connect us: The need to feel proud of ourselves, and how much joy can come from healthy pride.
About a week after that Market Basket encounter, I found myself walking down a road close to the hill of spilled milk. I was strolling with my hands in my pockets, enjoying the rare sunshine, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a girl about my age walking quickly in the other direction. She had a brace on one of her knees and a slight limp. Yet that wasn’t stopping her from getting where she needed to go, and fast.
I glanced at her for less than a second. When she passed me, I was suddenly struck by how much willpower it must have taken for her to move so fast. And not just that, but she was well dressed and well groomed.
I was so proud of her. In the past I’ve rarely felt proud of other people, even when I saw people with prosthetic limbs totally owning it in the rock climbing gym, but somehow with this girl, I really felt it.
Our culture does not cultivate pride. We are taught that we can only be proud of ourselves once we’ve achieved certain standards in our relationships, careers, education, bodies, even our minds. More often than not these standards are out of reach and vague, that even if we did reach great lengths of accomplishments in any field, it would still not hit the mark of pride.
But life, is so hard, so so hard, to the point that it’s almost intolerable (quoting Mark Epstein). Just waking up and giving another try at life is deserving of the utmost pride.
All this reflection has led me to meditate a lot on my relationship to pride. I was raised to understand shame as distasteful arrogance and bashful humility as honorable. I don’t think my parents ever once praised me for anything, no matter how big the accomplishment. It wasn’t just my family either; this was a trademark of almost all Vietnamese immigrant families. I supressed any longing for pride, but that made me desperate for pride. As a result, I became scared of taking any risks that might result in failure—another reason to not feel proud.
Very recently I went to a talk given by Judith Herman, the queen of trauma research. She presented this theory that trauma is a shame disorder (please don’t ask be about the specifics, I understand very little about the mechanisms and physiology of pride and trauma, so my understanding of this is very poetic). But it made sense to me. That a good amount of shame in life is useful for learning and in social interactions, but when an event happens that overwhelms you with shame, it becomes trauma. And then there is only shame that is comrehensible.
Judith said that the antidote to shame is validation by one’s peers, a reminder that “you aren’t a bad person,” that “nothing is inherently wrong with you.” The answer is, essentially, pride.
Where am I going with this? I’ve gone from grocery shopping to coke and milk, then to limps, pride, and now to trauma research. It is leading me to happiness.
It will take years before I actually am proud of myself, but I can start by taking a top-down approach. The first step is to learn how to be proud of others. Just as how it can be easier to be kind to others than to yourself, so too goes the relationship with pide: If I can feel proud of others, as I have with the man in Market Basket and the girl walking with a limp, the feeling will become familiar enough (or synaptically reinforced enough), that I can start directing the pride at myself, first with actions, and then to the self.
It makes sense to me, both experientially and theoretically. I think Judith Herman and Bessel Van Der Kolk would also support me in this.
So I guess it’s almost Thanksgiving. However you celebrate this holiday, it might be nice to practice, alongside gratitude, feelings of pride as well (These two are cousins and go well when served together). Wishing everyone a good holiday, and to end, here’s a toast to healthy egos!
About this Blog
I have no idea how to describe what my writing is about. I just write. I post when I can, which can be weekly or monthly depending on where the universe is taking me. As for the Grapefruit, my Vietnamese nickname, Buoi, means grapefruit.