I had been foolish, once again, to let my heart be torn open by men.
My mother had warned me about this once. Strict, autocratic, with a tinge of neuroticism dyed into her every nerve, she had ruled over my household with an iron fist. No wonder – she had escaped communist China with her family, shattered but alive. She had seen the horrors of war. There was no room for romanticism in a world that required survival. She had always talked about marriage in a practical way – marry rich, ensure a caretaker for your children and keep your bank accounts separate in case he ends up betraying you, as men are wont to do.
This was and still is the antithesis of my very nature. As a child, I started to rebel against the narrow guidelines of an Asian-American culture that my fellow first-generation children know quite well, in search of freedom where I felt there was none. Instead of math, I relished art and literature, consuming books by the dozen. In high school, when I was supposed to be studying economics and business, I worked for our theater department by day, then wrote short stories and plays by night.
Predictably, my mother and I clashed over my freewheeling approach to life. This included my relationships with other people. “Don’t give your trust so easily,” she advised, “and keep your heart not on your sleeve but firmly in your chest. Always smile. Keep a check on your temper. Never, never let people know how you really feel.” (And men – men, they will always hurt you.)
In all my loyalty to my truest of selves, I always balked at her advice. I hated wearing false masks, shunning duty for passion. People were something I felt unduly passionate about. As a writer, I understood that everyone possessed good and evil, that everyone was capable of hurting and being hurt. What was the point of human relationships if you couldn’t open yourselves to others and let everything good or bad in?
Of course, this approach has hurt me, time and time again. One may think I am masochistic for opening up my heart only to have its fragile contents trampled. I myself have wondered if it was foolish of me not to heed my mother’s warnings.
But I remind myself that life hurts. Life includes pain. I should feel so lucky, perhaps, to feel pain and be alive or to feel anger and fight for the things I believe in. It isn’t easy to concede that point, not after a good thing has started to crumble, and especially not after having to unstitch and unwind two lives that were deeply connected for two years, but here it is – I’m alive despite the pain.
And to be honest, pain and heartbreak has helped inform my writing and my art. I wouldn’t ever support the notion that artists must be emotionally tortured or clinically depressed to be successful but to know the depths of pain is just as important as knowing the depths of happiness in order to taste all the multitudinous colors of experience that we’re granted. It has allowed me to humanize others, to widen my understanding of humanity, and to search for solutions that benefit people I’ve never met. It reminds me that life is never a simple, straight line, but instead a road full of twists and tumbles. That to truly live fully, we must embrace all of its curves.
When I went to film school for college, my mother and I again fought viciously over my choices. Of course, she had wanted me to follow my sister into the world of finance, where the paychecks would be large and I would have no want for money, namely an easy and happy life. Art would afford me no comfortable life. In her mind, if I followed my sister, I could retire by age fifty and make art then, travel then, be happy then. It’s a sentiment that I would imagine is oft repeated to children of immigrants: toil now, reap the rewards later.
While that’s an honorable way to live, the more she suggested it to me, the more I resisted. No, I can’t make art later, when I’m fifty. I have to make it now, to save the parts of me that nothing else can save. Financial struggle is something I’m familiar with. It’s life without art that sounds inconsolable to me.
Of course I understood why she had been so insistent on my finding a financially lucrative career – after having a home and a life ripped away from her at age nine, then leaving everything for a new country where she didn’t speak the language, she had experienced poverty on the harshest of levels and didn’t want me to have to do the same. My mother didn’t want all of her sacrifices to be in vain.
“You”, she said, “you have had it easy here in America. You don’t know how much life really hurts.”
I thought of all the moments that had caused me pain in my life. Of all the friends who left me behind, all the lovers who said, “No” and thought me unworthy of love. Of all the mental illness caused by being raised by a mother who bordered on it herself. Anxiety, emotional dysfunction, neuroses caused by a war – who could name them all?
“Yes”, I said, “I do.”