Editor’s Note: This is the first of a multi-part post about stories, listening, and reflection for social justice. There are stories within stories in this so settle in with a cup of tea and give it a read, then reflect, and read it again. Like a good vinegar the taste and depth change over time. Enjoy. -Erin
By Jondou Chase Chen
An old Chinese story tells of a time when the Buddha, Confucius, and Laozi were in deep conversation and came upon a jar of vinegar. They paused their debat * ahem* discussion to each take a taste. The Buddha went first, tasting the vinegar’s sour acidity, next frowning, and then sighing. Confucius and Laozi laughed, and the Buddha looked up and said, “I thought you were my friends, why are you laughing at me?”
To which Confucius and Laozi responded, “Because you are the Buddha and of course you would frown and sigh as you believe life is suffering that must be resolved.”
The Buddha laughed and said, “Yes, you are right – we must acknowledge that life is suffering to then free ourselves of it. You do know me!”
Then Confucius took a sip of the vinegar, scowling at first before a look of epiphany came over his face. The Buddha and Laozi laughed, and Confucius turned to them and said, “I thought you were my friends, why are you laughing at me?”
To which the Buddha and Laozi responded, “Because you are Confucius, and of course you would scowl and then look excited as you believe life is a challenge to be solved.”
Confucius exclaimed, “Yes, you are right! I was designing what to do next to make the most of our situation. You do know me!”
And finally, Laozi took a sip of the vinegar, not making any facial expression for a while before the subtlest smile came upon his face. The Buddha and Confucius laughed, and Laozi completed the circle, “I thought you were my friends, why are you laughing at me?”
To which the Buddha and Confucius responded, “Because you are Laozi, and of course you would seem to respond not at all until you found contentment.”
Laozi smiled just a little more, “Yes, you do know me! The world is ever changing and so must we to find stability and peace.”
I remember this story growing up and passing by it any number of times. As a child from a closely-knit Taiwanese-American family, I just figured it to be another one of the sayings and stories I would hear from my elders. I couldn’t appreciate its meaning or how much of a northstar it would be in my own cultural, racial, and social justice identity development. Nope.
In AP Art History during high school, I memorized what I needed to about that same artwork and moved on as quickly as possible. I strove to avoid the stereotype threat of “Confucius said” platitudes or assumed expertise that my classmates would seek me out for. Absent from my thinking was any analysis around why this was one of the few pieces of non-Western art that we studied or why I was rushing to return to the never-ending Western canon.
I sat with the tale a bit longer in college when I took a class on Confucian Humanism for my single non-western history requirement. It was there that I realized that whenever my family claimed to be quoting Jesus and the Judeo-Christian Bible, the morals they were pulling (e.g. honoring our parents and there being a season for everything) were more often than not the same as the Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist traditions that our family had practiced for centuries longer. This gave me pause and a wry smile as I filed it away as a point to raise later when resisting my parents righteousness. Yet again, my reflections fell short as I couldn’t yet see that I am part of a multigenerational tradition of understanding and subversely preserving our Asian selves even as we are constantly pressured to submit to Western influences.
A few years later as a young teacher, a non-Asian colleague gave me a copy of Benjamin Hoff’s Tao of Pooh to try to connect with me. I did find some resonance as I sought to better understand my own name story (the Dou in Jondou is the same as the Tao in Taoism). And at the same time, I was finally awakening and increasingly aware of the ironies of cultural appropriation. Why was it okay for White Americans to talk about Confucius but not Asians trying to be American? I didn’t mean to ask this question rhetorically, but my own self-doubt and guilt at not knowing my own culture made it so. If this White writer could know my own culture better than I did, then how could I claim it to be my culture at all? This is a diabolical aspect of imposter syndrome: that we can feel like imposters no matter where we go and who we try to be, even in our own spaces and not just in dominant cultural contexts.
Discouraged, I dove deeper into my work and what seemed further from my vinegar tasters. I would prove my worth through my work in social services, education, and community organizing. It was in these spaces where people offered me challenging words or stories, and I learned the importance of asking, “How would you like me to hear you right now?” This ran counter to my urge to solve their problem as quickly as possible, for wouldn’t this prove my effectiveness as a practitioner? It took me time, including my work in therapy and in men’s groups, to recognize that I didn’t need to find a solution to every situation. I’m not always going to be the answer, try as hard as I might. Many times, people wanted just to have someone recognize and hold their pain. Other times, people wanted to hear that they are not alone and things are going to be okay. Even though I had no conscious awareness of it, my vinegar tasters had followed me and took up residence in my ears and consciousness.
This idea of allowing others – and especially those with socially targeted identities – to determine how I heard them took on even deeper meaning when I moved to Seattle five years ago. Seattle was home to Bruce Lee’s first studio and his tomb site still garnering flowers, food, and donations from visitors each day. In contrast, my parents never enrolled me in any martial arts class, arguing that I was big enough to take care of myself and also being leary of Western treatment of martial artists. I also couldn’t go through a year of school without someone, generally white, asking or assuming I knew martial arts. I was asked for lessons, offered impressions, and goaded into schoolyard fights because of this trope. Growing up, I couldn’t and wouldn’t touch Bruce with a ten foot pole. It was only as an educator that I developed a soft spot for martial arts films and their spinoffs with many a colleague asking to borrow my copy of “Shaolin Soccer.” Coming to Seattle, my appreciation for martial arts and Bruce Lee went one step further and came full circle when I heard him say, “Be water, my friend.”
In Lee’s words, something resonated deeply. Again, I had never taken a martial arts class in my life. I also had grown up only hearing about Bruce Lee’s brawn and not his brains. Why were his words so familiar? In a moment not unlike realizing that my parents’ Jesus was deeply Asian, I came to understand that it was these same traditions that served as the philosophical framework for martial arts. And in Lee’s description of water as fluid in its form, I saw a mirror of my own understanding of my life, my work in listening to others, and my own storytelling.
I remember growing up, walking along the shoreline with my grandfather, and he would always ask me, “你看到了什麼？What do you see?” I remember at first thinking this was a game, where my goal was to say as many things I saw in, on, or surrounding the water. Then when I ran out of things to say, I thought that this was some sort of puzzle with a single right answer. I finally learned that my grandfather was asking a question that anyone living by the water must ask every day and sometimes every moment. What the water is, can be, and brings into our lives might be stable from moment to moment. It can also change in an instant, and our responsibility is to be ever vigilant to those possibilities. As I grew older, I remember going to those same shorelines with my friends, checking with the water conditions to determine what we would do that day – swim, snorkel, spearfish, kayak, surf, or more.
In the same way that the water and the vinegar allows for different possibilities, so too does sharing stories, both in the telling and in the listening. This has been especially true for me in social justice spaces. When people in targeted identities chose to share their stories, of pain, of resistance, of calling for solidarity, I need to be mindful of what ears I am listening with. When am I to listen with the Buddha’s ears, sitting in the suffering and needing to acknowledge it before seeking to resolve it? When am I to listen with Confucius’ ears, seeking to develop a solution to the challenge in order to aid the speaker? And when am I to listen with Laozi’s ears, giving space to the story and appreciating and amplifying its truth without bringing attention to myself? How can I be the most powerful listener by holding these three possibilities – and seeking out other possibilities as well – whenever I listen to others?
These questions also hold true for when I share my own stories. I tell stories for any number of reasons. Sometimes, it’s to check in with those who care about me, to let them know where I am in life and journey. Other times it’s to illustrate a point as clearly as possible or to move my listeners in a very specific way. And still other times, I am seeking to ask a question or to complicate how we understand or navigate a situation or some body of knowledge. It is this last intention that brings up the vinegar tasters for me. Yes, there are those moments where the most basic storytelling is required, i.e. to demonstrate that social injustice exists. At this point, though, I don’t know any amount of storytelling that will move those who have already refused time and again to believe us. In fact, the more powerfully I attempt to tell these basic stories, the greater risk I run of putting my own and my community’s systemic oppression on display – retraumatizing my fellow community members and invoking pity and guilt rather than learning and action from dominant culture listeners. It has been my need to push back against such responses, that has driven much of this self-reflection around how I want to be heard – to be the vinegar that shapes the taster rather than vice versa.
As such, I would rather tell more nuanced and more complicated stories that move those who already believe to a place of deeper understanding, more powerful analysis, and more precise actions. For years, I have told the story of playing at the park with my cousins one day when I was eleven or twelve. An uncle came to pick up those he could fit in his car – a new white car with golden trim and lettering – leaving the rest of us to walk back to our grandparents’ home. I raced to jump in the car and to claim a seat, only to be chastised by my younger cousin, that uncle’s son. “Dou! Don’t you dare get in this car with those dirty shoes! This is a Lexus. Do you even know what that means?” I remember feeling deeply embarrassed for being called out, and even more embarrassed because I didn’t know what a Lexus was. This story has worked well for years, highlighting how social class can even penetrate families and often does.
To raise up another dynamic, though, I then add that my desire after feeling that surge shame was to turn around and punch my cousin, tapping into the toxic masculinity and adultism that urged me to flip the power paradigm to get back at my cousin. The story is no longer as neat and tidy as it was before. I’m no longer an obvious victim of social injustice. For the work that I am seeking to do with my story, though, I have hopefully increased the real-ness of my experience by bringing in multiple intersecting identities and demonstrating one way that hurt people can use their hurt to hurt others. This way of social justice spaces are so often unsafe and painful because of how we internalize the pain we’ve experienced.
This the power of vinegar, to bring out different responses in different people and at different times. To be our most powerful selves as listeners, as storytellers, and as change agents, what does it mean to tap into all of these ways of being in relationship with each other and the broader world? What does it look like to recognize our sensemaking of this world and its systems is always done through our cultural frameworks including my own of connecting with the elements and the spiritual and physical world around me.
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