Why Making Tawad Is the Only Reason I Want to Learn My Mother Tongue

Bargaining, I am convinced, is a superpower. Growing up in southern California, I would be entranced by my mother’s seemingly magic abilities to work down a seller to half price, even if we were just garaging on a Saturday morning. My baby hapa heart was thrilled. Even though by the time I was born she’d lived as long in the States as she had in the Philippines, her proficiency in the dark arts of tawad had been as pristinely maintained as Jane Fonda’s cheekbones.

It wasn’t until this year when I dropped everything to pilgrimage to the homeland that I really understood that bargaining is essential to the heart and soul of Pilipinx life: the palengke and tiangge (open markets). At the tiangge, the pearl stalls gleam with South Sea luster, glass cabinets, and blinding florescent light bulbs. I squeal in delight at the attainable luxuries that I may call native to my motherland. This, I am convinced, is where Filipina women forge their magic—trading aggressive banter for enormous baroque pearls that would give Sophie Buhai a run for her money. This, I decide, is my happy place: the place where priceless beauty and steely wills are celebrated amongst savvy businesswomen.

And yet try as I might, I have resigned myself to the fact that I might never gain the same satisfaction as my relatives from making tawad with the pearl vendors—from ruthlessly slashing at prices and volleying shock and awe at your suki in pursuit of that coveted best price. The buy-in to this exchange is fluency in Tagalog (bonus points if you speak Cebuano). I am woefully guilty of speaking neither.

I have learned much simply by observing what my Tita considers a perfectly valid spectator sport. The trick (well actually there are several) is to take ownership of the thing before you even ask for first price. You must envision yourself in them so passionately that your suki cannot imagine them going to anyone else. Once sufficiently attached to it, you go for half price, and you hold the like the diva you are until she exclaims, “Hay nako, I cannot even pay the divers with the prices you ask for!” And then you know she likes you. In return, she scribbles hasty figures on paper and keeps her voice low, so you know she’s betraying the informally agreed-upon price of her fellow vendors. You leave spending twice as much as what you planned on but still convinced that your champagne South Sea opera strands are worth far more than the price at which you bought them.

The final price might be the ultimate prize, but the familiarity with which that dance is performed is what makes the transaction ang sarap—so yummy. Since I don’t speak, I ask my Auntie to negotiate on my behalf. I chip in where I can, embarrassed of my role as the smiling, oblivious hapa. I can feel them talking about me. I flush, furious that I cannot clap back and advocate for myself. My Tita translates: “It’s your nose that gives you away.” (And here I thought it was my accent.)

The experience is nothing short of humbling. At home, I might be known for my loud-ass voice and feisty impression of the Olivia Pope Stomp-Walk™, but here the women I want so badly to joust with reduce me to a stutter. I am not worthy of their banter so long as my verbal signaling still screams WEALTHY WHITE(ISH) WESTERNER. I walk away, pearls in hand but heart in knots.

It’s enough to single-handedly motivate me to learn the language—a motivation that has never been so present and so urgent—and my chest begins to burn with a furious need to connect with these women. It’s weird—why would something so simple and off-key as haggling light a fire under my ass to learn Tagalog, and not something more intimate like say, connecting with my own mother? I realize quickly it’s because my way into my mom’s brownness is through clothes—her pearls, her bespoke vintage made by the Titas back home, her penchant for designer outlet sales. I realize my connection to my heritage is largely material, defined by the balikbayan boxes I bring home full of textiles, home goods, and jewelry.

And so I decide to intentionally make the spaces I inhabit and the clothes that I wear my brown space. If I don’t feel it inside me, I am damn well going to find it outside of me, (read: hoarding opera strands like nobody’s business). It’s funny, in the moment I don’t think I quite understand that learning a language is a life-long commitment, but I do realize it’s a way in to my family history that I didn’t have before. Sometimes that’s all you can ask for.

Figuring out how to live my best hyphenated life has always been the struggle. I am still uncomfortable with how little I have to show for being the hyphenated Pilipina, and most days I feel as authentic as a night market Prada. It occurs to me as I pass by counterfeit Kylie lip kits and Ralph Lauren knock offs that the tiangge is my happy place because it is the closest I will ever get to an authentic Pilipinx experience. Vendors crow “Ma’amsir,” at you as you pass by, middle-aged women tout their Louis Vuittons of both dubious and authentic origin, and whole families replenish their wardrobes with bargain-priced deadstock. It’s not the mango-slinging streets of the local palengke, but the spirit of it gets damn close.

And as I sit in the traffic, brooding in my pearls as we crawl through Manila’s twisted streets, I realize my experience at the tiangge is strikingly demonstrative of hapa duality. It’s like wanting to make tawad but having the words stuck in your throat. You understand how to speak but without the courage of having done so. It’s the space between having played the expression in your head a hundred times and being able to execute it flawlessly. The squeak you make instead—the moment you crack from the pressure like you’re suki’s somehow morphed into a blinding apparition of Beyoncé—that is living your hyphen.

 

Written by: Lindsey Twigg

About the Author: Lindsey Twigg is a behavioral technician, theatre professional, and lyrical poet based in Santa Barbara, CA.  She writes vigorously about hapa identity, the female body, and the importance of wearing pearls.  She’s a friend of the pod, a hoarder of (coffee table) books, and a connoisseur of very large pants.  You can find her ramblings about fashion on her blog, The Filipino Grigio.

The Protocol

Trigger Warning: Spiritual and Emotional Abuse; Purity Culture

Act 1: Membership Class at Church

Scene 1: Membership Class

Scene 2: Members’ Gossip

Scene 3: Rebuke

Act 2: Counseling Scheduling Office

Scene 1: Making an Appointment

Scene 2: Meeting Love

Roles:

Fidel: Pastor

Martha: New Member/Enabler

Joy: Leader

Tom: Skeptical Member

Casy: New Member

Angel: New Member

Love: Counselor

Act 1: Membership Class at Church

Scene 1: Membership Class

Fidel is leading a membership Class. Joy is facilitating it. Tom and Martha are new members.

Fidel: Just go ahead and write down in the box how much you earn on average per month. That way, we’ll know how much to look out for in your monthly tithe.

Tom: Okay.

Fidel: Also, don’t forget to take out 10% from your housing stipend if you get one. For example, if you make 2,100,000 KRW per month and are given 400,000 KRW for housing, you would want to tithe 250,000 KRW. Not 210,000 KRW.

Tom: Oh…

Fidel: Yes. And if you aren’t able to give, or are late, we will go ahead and check in with you. If you don’t tithe for two months straight, your membership will be cancelled.

Martha: But if we don’t tithe for just one month… we will be okay, right?

Fidel: That’s really between you and God. Everything we practice here is biblical. If you look at Malachi 3, there is an actual curse on the land because of the lack of tithing. That’s why we do it.

Martha: That makes sense.

Joy: I’m so excited to be part of a church that keeps track of these things. That way I know we are all buying in and there are no freeloaders.

Tom: That’s true… (To himself) but something about this just doesn’t feel right

Fidel: We will always send you a confirmation message to let you know that we’ve received your tithe… So don’t worry at all about that.

Martha, Joy, and Tom: Okay.

Fidel: Okay. So, let’s go over the most important aspects of today’s membership class so we can go ahead and get you all sworn in this coming Sunday. How many consecutive absences can you have before your membership is revoked?

Martha: 6.

Fidel: That’s right, Martha! 6 absences before a revoked membership. Remember, this is not to harm you. The rule is there so that we can check in and basically phase you out in the event that your participation shows that you don’t want to be a part of this community.

Fidel: Let’s see… What should you do for every uploaded sermon by one of the head pastors?

Joy: We have to put on a detailed comment that shows that we digested the message. We should also write several statements talking about the most important aspects and how it applies to our lives.

Fidel: That’s right, Joy! And how long should it be?

Joy: It shouldn’t be too short, but it shouldn’t an essay. Like a solid paragraph or more.

Fidel: And where do you post those comments?

Joy: On the public facebook page. You can just see where everyone else is posting their comments.

Fidel: Good. Good. Alright, now let’s go to the most important piece of today’s membership class: Restoration. Who can tell me what restoration is?

Tom: Restoration is a process of bringing someone back to wholeness when they’ve fallen into sin.

Fidel: And what reasons would cause someone to get into restoration?

Tom: Um…

Fidel: Well, first of all… Restoration is not something that is initiated lightly. We have a process where members are first approached about their misconduct. In the case of stubbornness, or rebellion, the chances of restoration are a lot higher. That’s why it’s best to just ‘fess up about any sins you’ve been involved in. Now what are the big things that might cause a rebuke?

Tom: I think it might be sexual…

Martha: I know. It’s sexual sin. Not masturbation, but oral sex. Of course, anything beyond that would be cause for restoration. It also is case by case, I heard.

Fidel: That’s right! It is definitely case by case, so I don’t want any of you freaking about any of this.

Tom: What else might we get put on restoration for?

Fidel: The main thing we look for, which may also be a case for removal is divisiveness. Deliberately maligning the leaders, especially the head pastor, would be a cause for dismissal from our community. But in cases where there is contrition, we may be able to put them on restoration.

Fidel: Well, that’s about all the time we have for today. Hope you enjoy it out there. Please be careful going down the hill with all the rain. Let’s also be quiet and mindful of our volume as we walk down the neighborhood.

Scene 2: Members’ Gossip

At Casy’s house

Casy: How was the membership class for you all?

Tom: I thought it was pretty good. I love how the church keeps a strong record of everything and how their expectations are clear. It sort of makes me feel safe in a way.

Angel: But did you hear about the Dating Protocol?

Tom: Yeah, I’ve heard of it. But I think it’s a good thing. I mean, we all know the expats struggle with temptation living out here in Korea. Expats in Korea need a lot of accountability.

Angel: That’s a good point. Thanks for sharing that, Tom… But do you think it’s weird that people have to be secretive about dating when they start?

Martha: Isn’t that to protect the community in the event it doesn’t work out?

Angel: It just all feels like so much pressure to me. It’s a bit too much. What if it doesn’t work out? Is it always supposed to work out? I’ve heard you even have to write reports about your dates so that the pastors can check. Isn’t that a bit much?

Tom: It’s probably just their way of checking and making sure everything is accountable. Accountability is a huge need for men in the church.

Casy: What I want to talk about is the freaking End Times thing. Do you all really think that we need to plan our finances based on this prediction that it could happen soon?

Everyone: It’s probably good just to be safe.

Tom: I just bought like 20 gallons of water, boxes of batteries, and nonperishable items, like canned tuna, and ramen.

Martha: And toilet paper. Goodness, toilet paper is so important.

Angel: Is anyone else going to actually pull out stocks?

Tom: I am. Just in case. It seems like the Pastor is on to something.

Angel: Wait, wait, wait. I need to ask Tom about something. Tom, don’t you have something to tell us? Angel winks.

Tom: What are you talking about?

Angel: Oh, come on. So… Did you ask Jasmine out on a date?

Tom: Oh… that. Well, I asked P. Fidel. He said that he would check to see if Jasmine is in season and whether I can ask her out on a first date.

Angel: In season? Do girls have to be in season? Would the pastors even tell us if we’re in season? I’m probably not even in season.

Tom: Yeah… well, you know. Like guys, we have to have 10,000,000KRW saved up and stuff before asking a girl out. It just shows that we can be serious if we want to be.

Martha: That’s weird.

Angel: I mean, I get it, but it’s a little bit much. Well? What about Jasmine?

Tom: I’m waiting on P Fidel. I mean, I can’t just ask… maybe I should check my e-mail. Looks at phone.

Tom: Oh wait… oh shoot oh shoot… oh shoot. Reads e-mail.

Tom: I got the green light. P Fidel asked P Adam and they said that I can ask Jasmine out! Whaaaaattttttttttttttt…. Spins around in a daze.

Martha / Angel: Eeeeeeeeek!

Casy: Dude, congrats!

Scene 3: Rebuke 

7 months later…

Fidel via Kakao: *Kakao* Hey, Tom. How are you doing. Are you free to catch up?

Tom via Kakao: Oh hey P Fidel. Sure, can you give me a few minutes?

Fidel via Kakao: *Kakao* Sure. Kakao video chat me in 5 minutes.

Tom via Kakao: Sure thing.

Video chat starts.

Fidel: Hey Tom! Thanks for talking. Are you alone? Is this your place?

Tom: Hey P Fidel. Yes, I’m alone. This is my place. Would you like to see it?

Fidel: Sure. Give me a little spin will you?

Tom: Well, that’s my bed, and my balcony, and a small kitchen. It isn’t much, but it’s a nice cozy place here in Seoul. I like it.

Fidel: Great! It looks pretty nice!… Listen, I wanted to talk to you. I know that we have been talking about your dates with Jasmine. You mentioned that it has been tempting to get physical, and that you all have made out a few times. You also mentioned that you touched her rear. I read your message from earlier about your trip to LA coming up. When did you plan that?

Tom: Oh right. Well, I just planned it two days ago. I was thinking of going to see Jasmine’s hometown and introduce her to my hometown as well. Just light stuff, nothing big.

Fidel: Listen Tom, I know that you’ve been struggling with depression and mental health. And on top of that, you all have really been riding a fine line between spiritual health and sin. I just think this trip is a bad idea. Is there any way that you can call it off?

Tom: Call it off? I mean, I’m scheduled to fly out later today.

Fidel: Right, you’re scheduled to fly out later today, but you only informed me two days ago of your plans. That’s not really that much time to react, and I don’t feel honored in the way that you’re going about this. Look – I’m gonna be honest with you. I’m not happy at all about this. I think it’s a bad idea.

Tom: Well, I’m sorry you feel that way. My plan is to go ahead and go through. I promise that I won’t get involved with Jasmine there.

Fidel: What’s the rooming situation? Are you staying in different places?

Tom: Well… sort of. We were gonna stay at each other’s homes. Obviously not in the same room.

Fidel: Okay, Tom. I’m gonna be very clear. 95% of people that have stayed in the same place when travelling have had oral sex or more. This is a stupid decision. We, as a church, cannot bless this move. Think about what people would think when they saw pictures of you on social media travelling together. So, if people ask me, did I bless Tom to go and travel with Jasmine, the answer is going to be ‘no’. I don’t want you posting on facebook any photos.

Tom: Okay, I won’t. I’ll book separate hotels.

Fidel: Okay, well, I just want to be clear, I don’t agree with this decision. I wish you had told me sooner. I don’t think it’s a good idea at all.

Tom: I understand.

Act 2: Counseling Scheduling Office

Scene 1: Making an Appointment

Sprite: Welcome to the counseling office.

Tom: Well, I’m an English speaker, and would like to request counseling in English if possible.

Sprite: Sure, there is an English counselor. Her name is Love. Would you like an appointment?

Tom: One more thing… Is there a Christian counselor? That’s actually kinda important to me.

Sprite: Oh! Actually, Love is a Christian, I think. She is, right? Yes! She is a Christian, so you should be all set! Your appointment is scheduled for next Monday at 1pm.

Tom: Awesome! Thank you so much. (Bows)

Scene 2: Meeting Love

Love: Hey Tom, it’s nice to see you today. What did you want to talk about today?

Tom: Well, first can we pray? I always like to start my sessions with prayers. It makes me feel like the Holy Spirit is guiding this session.

Love: Oh, absolutely.

Tom bows his head.

DEAR GOD…


About the Author: Tom* spent several years living in South Korea. They originally went to Korea as an ESL teacher. Originally from California, they has since returned home to teach near Los Angeles.

Finding Hope When I’m Worn Down By Injustice

Content warning: homophobia

I realized that I was in need of hope when it confronted me at a gathering of LGBTQ+ Asian Pacific Islanders (API). There, I heard the stories of Filipino Christians advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, LGBTQ+ Southeast Asian refugees combating police brutality and deportation, and Pacific Islanders fighting for queer and trans justice. As I sat in the back of the room listening to different individuals share their stories and witnessing their existences, I felt filled with hope because of them. I was brought to silent tears, feeling overwhelmed and raw, because their existence reminded me of what I haven’t dared to hope for.

Lately, I’ve been worn and tired of trying to find answers to injustice. For too long, I felt consumed with seeking resolution, going in circles in my mind about uphill battles: the pastors and leaders who will never be held accountable for attempting conversion therapy and for outing me, Inter Varsity leaders who won’t be held accountable for firing LGBT-affirming staff, friends and family members who will never affirm queer and trans people, a god who I don’t know truly cares about me or is real. I felt overwhelmed and tired just thinking about people whose lives have been taken or broken apart by police brutality, deportations, unfair housing conditions, lack of access to medical/ mental health resources.

I’ve been shelving my heavy emotions around these injustices for a time so that I can recover and enjoy life. Life has been pretty good: I’m financially stable these days; I have the luxury of working part-time and working on music the rest of the time. I have friends who care about me, and my mental health has been drastically improving in the past year. I’m glad I’m taking the time to enjoy life and fill my headspace with things besides pain.

But sometimes I feel the temptation not just to shelve my feelings about injustice, but to pretend that I’m done with it. I’m reminding myself that I can enjoy my life, but also revisit and confront pain and injustice. I can’t pretend that I don’t need healing or that injustice doesn’t continue to affect people around me.

I still value taking time to recover from engaging deeply with injustice, but I don’t want to give into the desire to forget about it. I’m challenging myself to stay connected to the hope evident in the resilience of LGBTQ+ APIs around me, who I am so grateful for. I’m challenging myself stay hopeful that a just world is possible, not just for myself, but for everyone who needs it.


About the Author: Yiann grew up in the Bay Area and is spending most of their time between youth education and music right now. They sing the kind of soulful, reflective songs that belong to a rainy day, and and their songs are most often about unanswered prayers. Yiann performs around the Bay Area, and you can keep up with their music @kapwatheband or @yiannc.

Instagram: instagram.com/yiannc

Photo credit: Matthew Evearitt at beholdcreators.com

Growing Roots: On Finding Voice and Belonging

Trigger Warning: CSA, sexual abuse, domestic violence, gender-based violence 

____________________________________

They taught me in church that it is part of our Christian duty to be a “voice for the voiceless.”
I heard it at white church.
I heard it at Korean American church (But we just called it Korean church.)
I regurgitated it and I believed it and by the time I reached my late teens years I was ready to go out and do it.

They praised me, they celebrated me, they paraded me around as the future of the Church.

They did this until the moment I began to dig into this question:
“Who exactly are the voiceless? And what do they need me to say?”

Because it turned out “the voiceless” were actually people like us who had voices of their own. And they didn’t need me to say anything for them, because they were already speaking for themselves.

We simply weren’t listening.

As I started to share what I was learning, the church began to back away from me. I was breaking rank. I was no longer a poster child, because I was no longer using their collective language. As I moved away from regurgitating their voice and began to dabble in using my own, I became less predictable, and that made me a risk.

At first this rejection hurt, but then, it was freeing.

Because, it made me realize that the reason I had been all too willing to agree to speak for others was because it meant that I didn’t have to use my voice to be truly brave. If I was busy using my voice to speak for other people, I didn’t have to use my voice to speak for myself.

I had been taught that silence was safety for so long that I had built a home for myself almost entirely on the foundation of keeping the truth quiet.

“No one can do anything to you that you don’t actually want them to do.”
He told me this while in the act of molesting me. I was eight years old, but it had already been happening for as long as I could could remember. I wanted to run. I wanted to scream. But it was too late. I had already learned long before that my voice had no power.



“He pushed me up against the wall,” I told her. “But it was because he wanted to protect me.” I added that because I wanted to protect him too. I didn’t tell her how the mirror broke when my tiny body crashed into it. I didn’t tell her how I couldn’t breathe with his hand on my neck. She told me it was just between us. But, it wasn’t. And when he found out, I learned just how dangerous a fraction of truth could be. Total silence was the only safe retreat.



“Other people won’t understand,” and, “All families struggle like this, they just don’t show it,” my omma told me. They always told me in church not to lie. But, at home, my omma taught me that lying to protect my family was what good girls did. Because, if I told the truth people could get hurt. People could get taken away. I would be alone. The truth will set you free—unless you are an abused little girl. Then the truth will strip you of everything and everyone you’ve ever known and loved.



By the time I reached young adulthood, I had built a fortress for myself and my loved ones out of my own silence. I had been burying my voice for so long that I had forgotten what it even sounded like.

I left the white evangelical church in America. I left the Korean church in America. And I got on a plane to South Korea.

For the first time in my life I did something just because I wanted to. It was the first time I heard my own inner voice, and trusted it enough to listen. I had a vague hope that I would find a sense of connection and a better understanding of my mother, and that was enough for me to pick up and move.

What I found was that distance from all I had ever known gave me the power and freedom to begin to use my voice— first to speak truth to myself, then to speak it to others.

I had been in Seoul a few months when I was first asked,”Are you Russia saram?” I didn’t understand then but quickly learned that Russian was code for sex worker or sex slave, and that that was code for subhuman creature to whom a man can do whatever he wants. I understood this as the drunk ajjushi chased me home, clawing at my body, and pounded on my door shouting curse words that I only somewhat recognized from my mother’s angry outbursts, until the police came and told him to go back to work.

The only consequence that day was me completely turning inward and bombarding myself with self-loathing and shame.

But, it was that reaction, plus the distance, that allowed me to admit to myself for the very first time that I was not just a trained “advocate” and “ally” for women who had been or were being abused, but I too had been a victim. I was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence, and that had had deep effects on me. It was a jarring realization, and I felt like I was being cracked open—a splitting pain but also a relief like never before.

The next week would be the first time I ever said the words aloud to another human being. That was the beginning of my becoming a truth teller— a becoming that would assure that I could never return to “home” as I had known it. But I didn’t know, or care, about that then.

I was a newborn tasting air for the first time.



“We can no longer support you.”
“Your history of being abused makes you unfit to work with women who have been abused.”
“You are being used as an instrument in the hands of the devil.”
“You need to let go of the past, and be reconciled.”
Once I returned to the US and began to speak my truth, I was bombarded by ignorance. But, I really didn’t care. I was finally free, and there was nothing and no one that could silence or hinder me.

Except for these words, from my mother, my halmoni and my emo: “But, he is still your family. You have to honor him.”

I refused to see him. I had made my peace. I had decided that he was old and ill enough that he was not a risk to other girls so I would not waste my time in the courts. I was done with him.

So everytime they would meet with him and tell him what was going on in my life, I felt my agency and my voice being stolen again. He did not deserve the access that they gave him, and it was a clear transgression of boundaries that I had finally learned to set. Besides, he was related through my father’s side by marriage and even my father no longer had any contact with him. Why would they continue to hurt and betray me this way when they knew what he had done?

These were the women who loved me most in the world. They had been my sustainers. To them, I had always been and would always be the most precious thing in their lives. They love me with a kind of burning passion and depth of affection beyond my comprehension. They had always been fierce in their protectiveness over me.

And yet.

I just couldn’t understand what was missing. How could they love me and still hurt me this way? Would we ever understand one another?



More than six years passed before I returned to Korea again.

I had spent those years re-learning how to speak. Getting to know my own voice, deconstructing and reconstructing it again and again, and little by little mining out gems of truth that had been hidden for far too long in that old home-turned-prison called silence.

In those years, I burned that prison to the ground, cell by cell. And while I now found myself free, I also found myself uprooted and homeless. I often wondered if that would be my new reality, and had decided that I would be okay with it if it was. Home had never been a safe place, anyway– if it had ever even existed at all.

This time when I moved to Korea, it was for work. I was now nearing thirty, married, and confident in my identity as a biracial Korean American woman — a nomad living in the in between spaces in nearly every area of my life. But, I still carried with me the old familiar hope that this move would bring me deeper connection and understanding with the women in my family. The women who loved me but, who were in so many ways beyond my comprehension.

The community that I formed in Korea started with my work in the red light districts, and spilled over into the community of young Korean women activists who asked myself and other foreign women residing in Korea to come alongside them in their fight for gender justice.

I had arrived in Korea at a moment when the fight for gender equality and taking a stand against gender based violence was a tide beginning to swell. It was a moment where things that had long between whispered between women, behind walls, in the darkness, were spilling over into the light. Those whispers were collectively forming a roar, brought to a head by the murder of a woman in a public restroom by a man whose only criteria for targeting her was her female body. The momentum would later be spurred on by the rising tide of the burgeoning global #metoo movement.

In this context, a small group of women and I found one another. We were diverse, a mixture of Korean born women and expats from different ethnicities, nationalities, backgrounds, belief systems. And we decided to do a bilingual Korean and English production of the Vagina Monologues.

As we met, practiced, shared, I found elements of myself yet undiscovered. I found it especially among other women with Korean mothers and grandmothers and aunts who loved them, and who silenced them. Who chose their brothers first, who ignored their cries, who couldn’t protect them, who wanted only for them to be strong and to survive. I also found it among Korean women of my mother’s age, who were unafraid to embrace me and to call out bullshit, regardless of cultural norms and expectations.

In our shared commitment to storytelling as activism, I realized that my voice, intertwined with the voices of each woman who shared her story, and woven together by the voices of the women whose stories we heard and held, had formed into roots. Rather than finding my roots, I had in fact taken part in creating them.

Before then, my voice alone had been a powerful force in setting me free, but had left me without a sure footing. But now, our voices together formed a power even greater; our voices together were connection, they were community — and what are those things, if not the foundation on which home is built.

And the wonderful thing about a home with roots, as opposed to one with walls: it expands and grows as you do.

I saw my mother again last year. Bolstered by the strength of the roots I had grown, I had the courage to be vulnerable enough to tell her exactly what I had suffered, and without my usual protective defenses up, how she had hurt me. And through tears she told me things that showed me that she actually understood from experience more than I had ever known.

We are still reaching out to one another for connection, one revelation at a time.

It is hard. It is messy. And I have great hope.

Now that I am secure in my voice and my place, I am able to hear her voice more clearly; and not only that, I am content to carry between us all of the things that will likely forever be left unsaid.

Because finding the words to tell the truth can be one of the hardest things we will ever do. It is also one of the most freeing and sacred; for no matter how long we are silenced, none of us is voiceless. And none of us have the right to rob another of the chance to discover that for themselves.

Elizabeth is currently most likely to be spotted exploring South East Asia with her husband Marc and her dog Mr. Chi.

Photo by Patrick Schneider on Unsplash

Learning to Speak

I am a soprano. I have trained for years to use my voice with precision and with freedom; with agility and with richness; with my heart and my body; with articulation and with color; with diction and with meaning. I lend my singing voice to communicating words penned by mostly men (and once in a while, women), modulated through tones composed by mostly men (and once in a while, women). The meaning I convey is sometimes sculpted by a coach, sometimes mediated by a director, sometimes charted by myself.

Sometimes—these are the best times—my collaborators help me uncover compelling truths beneath the musty layers of repertoire consigned to the antique shops of Western art music, also known as “classical music”. And sometimes I have the added great privilege of communicating fresh truths, just written, to even smaller audiences willing to come out to experience something novel in the marginal world known as “New Music”.

I am more comfortable using my singing voice, mediated through all this technique and all these intermediaries, than I am in using my unvarnished speaking voice.

To me, my speaking voice sounds naked, colorless, flat, hesitant. Nobody ought to take this voice seriously.

I am also a writer. I have always had a facility with language. I began editing school newspapers at age 12. I was a newspaper journalist for over eight years, switching to academic writing after leaving my first career. My written voice has also not been my own: deployed at the service of the day’s news; telling others’ stories; or assuming the voice of a researcher putting a fresh spin on old facts.

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I was raised, like many in Asian families, not to use my voice, but to submit to the rules around me. I grew up in a Chinese-speaking home, in an English-medium school founded during colonial days, in an authoritarian post-colonial city. My identity was forged in the tension between the sophistication of “Western” liberalism, individualism, freedom, and logic; and the “Asian values” of conservatism, communal good, pragmatism, and paradox. (I have since come to question all of these assumptions.)

The “Asian values” part of my upbringing clashed with my internalized Western aspirations. They clashed at home, where personal success and family responsibility were stressed at the expense of following one’s dreams; and at my girls’ school, where correctness, modesty, and conformity were enforced even as the curriculum, filled with Western literature, cultivated an inner hunger for voices that were true to themselves and tried to change their world. I lapped up the stories of Jane Austen’s heroines, who asserted personal happiness in a world where women were little more than property; Charles Dickens’ orphans transcending the cogs of the Industrial Revolution; George Eliot’s nonconformists whose singular minds provided a way out of the strictures of Victorian society.

When, at 14, I turned to Jesus and the Christian faith that has defined my adult life, I was also converted into a post-colonial evangelicalism, which added to the tension with its emphasis on correct belief, right living, eternal membership, and institutional power. Never mind that the Bible tells a story of prophets calling out injustice, culminating in a power-subverting Messiah who submitted to ultimate humiliation to restore the cosmos to its original state of wholeness.

Because I yearned to be among the authentic, prophetic voices, I left home, during the Clinton years, for an America that appeared to welcome the stranger with open arms. Someone like myself, colonialized, apolitical, silent, elite; comfortable in the role of model minority; more facile in English than the average American; brandishing educational power; protected by religious identity; and completely blind to the country’s beleaguered cultural, historical, religious, and racial dynamics.

In America, I honed my stage voice to acclaim, moving audiences, chalking up successes, learning to live with failures as I grew in age, resilience and self-confidence.  But outside of my inner circle of trusted friends, my speaking voice stayed mostly silent, unwelcome in my family, my hometown, and, I subconsciously feared, in my adopted and hoped-for new home.

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It was in relationship that I began to find my voice. Through true love, a partnership with someone who has encouraged me to embrace who I am, and to pursue what I believe in. And through motherhood, shepherding two young ones into my dream for them: a life of wholeness, overflowing in love.

I have learned lessons in watching my children learn to speak. A child is born with a loud voice. She has the words, too, deep inside her. When a typical child’s articulators—the muscles and organs that govern speech—grow and become coordinated, the words tumble out. My job, as my children’s parent, is to help them continue to stay true to their voices, to help them chart a path to use their voices in ways that are healthy and kind.

The election of 2016, having belatedly exposed for me the yawning fault lines of American society, has provided the impetus for me to start using my voice.

On the one hand, my spoken voice is like a young child’s. My vocabulary, tumbling around unexpressed in a fearful mess just below the surface, needs work. I’m learning anew the rules of language, of conversation, of respectful communication. I’m learning to break those rules. My voice is tentative, it is lisping, it stumbles often. But here it is.

My speaking voice is also a mother’s voice. It is tender, it is ragged, it is loud and louder; it is wisdom, it is folly, it is music, it is noise; it is healing, it is hurtful, it can comfort, it can kill. It can sometimes roar. I am learning, sometimes painfully, to marshal this voice for truth anchored in love.

My voice is finding its expression: in person, on paper, scrolling across your screen. It wants to speak up for those with no voice, against those loud voices that keep others’ silent. For fellow immigrants, sisters and brothers of color, those in the LGBTQIA+ community who have suffered immeasurable hurt in the hands of the Church. Against systems of patriarchy and whiteness, unjust leadership, and a Church that has through the ages been drunk with power instead of leading with humility.

I am finding my voice, to show my children they too can use their voices, whether in song or in speech, in cursive or in print. My Asian-American children need to make themselves heard, to claim their space in a land which may not accept them as truly its own.

I can’t protect them with my voice for long, but I can show them what a strong and loving voice sounds like, so they, and their children, can speak for themselves and for the voiceless. They can speak, so that there is room for more people like them and unlike them, in America and in the world, where everyone can use the voices God has given them.

Sometimes, the voice inside of me, that creaky and unformed voice, tells me I am too old to go through, for the second time, this process of taming, of shaping, of unleashing with skill.

But another voice, the voice growing in confidence, tells me: It’s never too late to begin again.

 

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Jennifer Lien has worn several hats in her life in two continents: newspaper journalist, opera singer, music professor. She is also finding fresh meaning in doing justice and loving mercy in her roles as mother and community volunteer.