Editor’s note: Last week we shared Part I of Jondou Chase Chen’s Vinegar Stories. Here is the second and final part. This is a longer than normal post, but I wanted to publish it as a long piece so you can read the final two stories together. Be sure to read part I and reflect on how all of the stories go together.
By Jondou Chase Chen
The easy way to describe in English the way I am talking about vinegar and water would be to call it “metaphor work.” This is only superficially true, though. Again, growing up, I heard countless cultural references to the natural world as instructive for how I was supposed to live my life. Through college and into my career, I gained a reputation as a person who explained things through story and example. One of my colleagues even gave me the name “Mister Metaphor.” When I asked why, they explained, “You always have a metaphor for everything. Even if I don’t agree with your metaphor, it always helps me to understand how you see whatever it is that we are talking about. Is that cultural or something?” I replied that I wasn’t sure, and promptly called my mom to ask.
I still remember being surprised when my mom responded, “What’s a metaphor?” At that point she’d been in the U.S. for over thirty years attending graduate school, volunteering thousands of hours in her children’s schools, and writing and translating hundreds of articles in English and Chinese for school and church newsletters. I knew my mom knew what a metaphor was. Was she toying with me? Was this my grandfather asking me what I saw in the water?
I responded with, “You know, it’s like when you …” and proceeded to offer a technical definition. Unsatisfied with my answer, my mom sighed and said that she would think about it.
She called back the next day and said, “Yeah, okay, we use a lot of metaphors.”
Her tone signaled something was off, though, and I asked her what she was thinking.
She responded, “In English, you use a metaphor or a simile to describe something, right?”
“So it’s a description.”
“Well, what we do isn’t just describing something in a superficial or temporary sense. We are trying to say something deeper. It is about the whole situation. What we are saying is supposed to guide how you understand and how you respond to what it is that you are talking about.”
As she said this, I recalled a time a few years earlier when my mother witnessed me paying attention to someone in our community. She casually commented, “Why does that person spend so much time on the way they look? You know, we have a saying, the prettiest rose has the sharpest thorns.”
I retorted, “So what are you saying, Ma?”
“Be careful.” That was it.
As I reflected on this memory from the past, my mother continued, “I tried to do some research. Instead of saying ‘metaphorical,’ I would say ‘mythical.’”
“Mythical?” I asked, surprised.
“I know, I know. The dictionary says myths are supposed to teach you something about life. It is still not the right word. It is English. But you know your Old Mama’s English is not very good.” And she went back to whatever it is she was doing.
And so did I.
In my facilitative practice, I extend Bruce Lee’s directive by asking people to use water to describe their experience of race and racism and talking about race and racism. In linking water to life, I lean on and share my own cultural way for seeing, speaking, and being in this world. In teaching classes that are often 50-60% Asian and 80-90% students of color overall, this has provided a familiar framework or an accessible entry point for many through which we can better understand our own lives and experiences. I am often asked, and it is often assumed, that what I am asking people to do is metaphor work. I wince when I hear or even find myself saying that it is. I have tried a number of times to explain my conversation with my mother, but upon receiving blank stares back, I’ll acquiesce and say, sure, call it a metaphor if that lets you do the work.
After people have described their own water, I then ask them to consider what it is that they want their water to be or do or how they want to feel in the water. Next, I ask what does it mean to be in community or relationship with people whose water differs from yours. In what ways can we acknowledge and hold different water? In what ways is our water shared? In what ways, though, do our institutions, organizations, and communities center only some water and some people? In what ways do they try to homogenize people’s experience of water? When does this result in further colonization and erasure? When does this result in further exploitation and appropriation?
Depending on how quickly the groups I facilitate take to this water work, I offer a model before or after people provide their own answers. I share my experience of growing up by the Pacific. Despite living thousands of miles apart on different continents, my family has always called this ocean home. It nourishes us. It holds us. It keeps us humble. Swimming in its waves from an early age. I was taught to recognize the power of the water – both the danger and wonder of it – and understood in countless ways, that water is life to quote the Standing Rock Sioux.
The two most dangerous elements of the water, I learned, were myself – if I entered water I wasn’t prepared for – and others – and especially those that entered the water they weren’t prepared for. During the summer, this latter challenge was realized in the form of tourists who would enter the water in large numbers, often not appreciating their impact on water traffic and their own limitations in the water. In swimming around tourists, I learned to be weary and to always be on the watch for people who might knock into me on the next wave or who would get in too deep and then potentially pull me under when I offered to help.
In sharing this model, I am sharing my lived experience of being in relationship with water. I am naming how this shapes how I engage with race and racism and talking about race and racism. This is especially true in “progressive” spaces where many want to enjoy the water but place this desire and their own comfort and discomfort above being in just relationship with the water and with others in the water. I share this truth to signal that I’m aware of the risk of swimming in mixed spaces and I want others to be mindful as well. Water is life, and water can take life. My cultural, ethnic, and racial identities are so much of what gives my life meaning, and racism can be and has been painful to the point of death for people of color.
Indeed, I have had to learn to be prepared for how real and immediate these traumas can be surfaced in this water work. I recently co-lead this meditation with a community partner in a space with a number of community organizers, educational leaders, and academics of color from across the U.S. While I knew some folks well and everyone knew at least a few of the folks in the room, many people had only just met. We came with the common cause of sharing and co-designing new strategies for family and community leadership in education. Given this, I offered the water work as an example of our local efforts, feeling quite confident, too confident really, given how many times these conversations had been generative in other spaces with other folks.
Pressed for time and because I was humbled to be in a group with so many leaders of color, I didn’t offer my own model this time or my comment about water work being so much more than metaphor. This was my mistake. While folks reflected quietly and began sharing in small groups, I assumed that the water was working as it so often had. When we began our large group share out, however, I realized that I wasn’t prepared for this water. Some group members shared about how the questions felt off to them because of the water crises in their communities, crises that could be directly linked to systemic racism. Others talked about how the questions felt inappropriate because of the sacred place water had in their cultures and that disregard for their rights to water had trivialized and traumatized their relationships with it. One person kindly sought to synthesize what was happening by saying, “What we can clearly see is that the places where we come from shape how we’re responding to these questions!”
Rushed for time, I wasn’t able to regain my balance until later. I wasn’t able to name that I experienced these responses as powerful answers to the questions people were protesting against. In describing their water, they lifted up both its importance to their cultures and communities and how racism has violently impacted these cultures and communities. I wasn’t able to do this because I was also stuck under the weight of my own pain in that moment. I felt caught in wanting to push back that each of these critiques was made on the explicit or implicit assumption that we were asking for only metaphor rather than the myth. I wasn’t able to emphasize the power of myth-making, of the swirl of real lived experiences and deeply held cultural beliefs spun into learned lessons and practiced meaning. And for myself, I was caught up in my own process of mythmaking, having noticed that none of these critiques came from people who shared our Asian cultural framework, and I wondered if this was another moment where non-Asian people of color see us, read us, and react to us as if we were white.
Reflecting back, I’ve continued to marinate on that moment. I’ve thought about the ways that our individual and collective waters were troubled in coming together and having to rely on unexplained English to share of ourselves with each other. That as a group of people fluent in English we still needed to translate our cultural ways of being with each other, and how I, and perhaps others, forgot this. How vulnerable do we have to be and how much risk do we have to undertake whenever we do this? And this pain wasn’t new to me then or even now as I have continued to ask these water questions and found the language of “metaphor” to regularly return to others and even to my own lips while facilitating. This is how the colonized tongue gains power through our coerced commonality. I need to remember the importance of translation and interpretation even in presumed fluency and shared cause. But I am also left wondering if this extra work only adds to the trauma we are left with in the wake of racism, if it is a necessary part of the resisting white supremacy, or if in these moments we can find healing and even joy in the labor of building solidarity?
As a facilitator, I’m still processing the vinegar of this moment. I’ve tried to sit with all the pain, my own and that from other communities with whom I seek to be in just relationship. I’ve thought about how I wished I had facilitated differently or been able to get others to listen to me differently. I’ve shared this story as an example of how much pain and power we bring to this work and that even in the healing and liberation there will be dynamics and processes like this. This is the water and the vinegar. This is not wordplay for the sake of illustration. This is myth-making where English words must be recognized as inadequate fill-ins for the words that each of us carry in our own languages. This is storymaking for the sake of deeper understanding. This is vinegar tasted in a multitude of ways. This is the possibility of listening, life, and justice more deeply realized.
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