Part I. KNOWING ABOUT ERASURE
This time it happened at the silent retreat. Even the know-it-all didn’t know it all. Even the big people falter. Even the teachers. It is so easy to believe. It is so easy to surrender my intelligence to them, my own knowing to theirs. Smile and say, yeah, like, like, I don’t know. Just like when I was a kid. Smile, and drop the grammatically correct English that newly arrived immigrants speak. If I want to fit in, if I want to be American, I gotta drop the intelligence. Smile and pretend I don’t know. Numb the mind and learn to say I don’t know.
[Step One. Learn to Say I Don’t Know]
But, that hurts. Forty years ago it felt demeaning, and it is happening again at this class for experienced meditation students. Someone just commented in front of the whole class that we have much to thank Joseph Goldstein because he invented Buddhism in the U.S. “Oh, I meant he brought Buddhism to the U.S.” The student quickly corrected herself.
But Buddhism wasn’t invented nor brought over to the U.S. by Joseph. Although we have much to credit Joseph for teaching and training many about mindfulness and Buddhism, he had learned it only in the 1960s when he went to Asia. What about our Asian American ancestors from generations ago that came from China and Japan to build the trans-continental railroads and grow the crops? What about the Buddhist temples that they built and attended generations before Joseph and other western-convert Buddhists? To be accepted as proper places of worship, those Buddhist temples had to be renamed as churches, but these early Asian American Buddhists were the first to seed Buddhism in the U.S.
I looked at the teacher’s face. How did she respond to this student’s comment? Her face appeared pleasant and calm, and her head bopped gently up and down as if in approval. Student and teacher linked to each other in mutual appreciation of a whiteness that could easily name another’s as their own; in this case, that Buddhsim was brought over by their white elders. Wait, but didn’t we agree on the precepts of non-harm and not taking what is not given? I felt shut out, obliterated by this mindless act of white supremacy - an insensitive remark that is at once unintentional but utterly disrespectful. How could my beloved sangha be so clueless? As seconds ticked on without anyone challenging this remark, my disbelief turned into doubt. Did I get it wrong? Am I making too big a deal? Shame and anger boiling into rage. Aawwwwwwuuuuuuggghhhh.
[Step Two. Learn to Stop Feeling the Ouch]
Breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, suck in the air. Breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, out. Breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe. You can do it.
No. Can’t. I can’t. Gotta go now. Leave. Leave. Leave this room. Hurry! The room is covered in whiteness. I’m burning!
Instead I stayed.
I didn’t smile but I didn’t speak either. I sat and I stayed. Heat inching up the back of
my neck onto my naked face. Feelings of anger, hurt, disbelief and rejection singed my cheeks. Staying still but breathing rapidly, the body roared helplessly within.
Eventually the breathing slowed, heart no longer pounding. Skin, flesh, and face cooled. I sat still like all the other sixty-some meditators in this dharma hall. None of them questioned the truth of what was said. Ninety-five percent of them white. Please note: it is no longer ninety-five percent of us white. With one swift comment, it had become us vs. them. The class divided and sliced apart: colonization re-established, and white supremacy reaffirmed.
Though I stayed, my heart is bruised. Betrayed by my beloved teacher. Erased by the class’s silent complicity that Buddhism was brought over by their white founding father Joseph, just like America was founded by Jefferson and Washington. This land is their land. There is no room for an Asian American woman who thought otherwise. I got quiet. Real quiet. Silence befitting of a proper meditator and a good team player.
Silenced until my heart turned numb and mind insensitive. Remembering to tuck away what made me different. Safety first.
[Step Three. Wear the Face of the Other]
But it was a precarious safety. Though seemingly peaceful and quiet on the outside, there was no rest or resolution for this heart within.
Darn. Not again. I’ve been asked to represent and speak about my birth culture. Why? Why do I have to stick out! Why can’t I blend in like everyone else? Can I tell them that I have lived here five times longer than my birth country? Do I have to explain that English has become my primary language because Chinese has fallen into dis-use and forgotten in this American life?
No. Not my story, but I still have to carry the weight no matter what day of the week, what time of the day. I wear the face of the Other, and I live the history of an Other.
They need me to be their token diversity yogi, employee, and student. They need me to make the minority quota and reassure them that they are kind, generous folks who do not discriminate. Yet, they continue to mark my Asian features as different and foreign. No matter how long I or my ancestors have lived in this country, I am still asked to speak about my culture.
My body restless, and six senses vigilant - see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and know. Accept the inevitable. Accept the relentless invisibility.
It is tiring, and I am going to sleep. I will find a place to sleep until this is all over. Or, I will leave and begin again bright-eyed and open-hearted somewhere else. Or, I will pretend none of this happened. None of the other sixty-some students will recall that moment anyways because nothing had disrupted their knowing. No one will believe that it was an act of cultural appropriation or an assertion of white superiority. A few days later when I brought up this incident in a private one-on-one interview with the teacher, she thought it was a benign comment. She continued to explain in her warm-hearted way: “Oh I know her. She meant no harm. She’s sweet, sincere, and a very kind long term yogi.” B ut it wasn’t true. She told a lie. “And, really she meant no harm. Don’t worry about it. Oh, but do speak up next time. I know you can do it.”
I am to believe that what I felt to be harmful was not. I am to believe that who I felt to be accountable was not. No way could it have been white supremacy in action. Silly me. The table turned, and now it was my fault for disrupting the status quo and up to me to correct the wrong. The teacher looked to me for fixing it: speak up next time. You can do it. But no, it’s not my responsibility to fix it. It’s not how I see it.
[Step Four. Double Consciousness]
What do I do then? Run. Gotta run. Run away to a safe place!
Have I been found? Do they know what I truly think? Here now at a different meditation center, they just denied my request for a POC space to sit within this retreat. Should I not have mentioned anything? Have I betrayed the establishment? If they know that I do not see myself white like them, what will happen? Will there still be a place for me?
I can’t be found out. I can’t be seen as a troublemaker. They must believe that I am one of their own. I want to belong, but at what costs? To assimilate, I must internalize the master’s tools, and I must be re-educated to protect their ethos. To survive, I must blend in, and that means erasing my different ways of thinking if they don’t serve the master. Or at the very least, I should keep them to myself.
But this pain of separation is harsh and forever present. How will I hold this truth that is different from the majority’s? Will it be easier to forget? Who else holds this double truth? In his book The Souls of Black Folk, African American scholar W. E. B. DuBois called it “a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity...”
When I spoke about these painful feelings of separation and alienation from the community, another highly-regarded white dharma teacher advised me: “It’s all conditioning. Just meditate and look deeply into those conditioning. Be free now. We see you, and we welcome you into our folds.”
While I appreciated her generous attempts to include me, I did not feel understood. I think she saw me white like her. She could not sit with my distress, and she could not fathom how conditions at her retreat could lead to my feelings of loneliness and isolation. Once again, the responsibility was mine - to sort through my conditioning and cut through my delusion of separateness.
It wasn’t until I began sitting with a POC sangha that I felt seen finally and fully for having a skin color, a minority experience, and a double consciousness. I was not alone, and my stories not uncommon. A sense of relief poured over every cell of my body as I began to hear other voices of marginalization, invisibility, accommodation, injustice, rage, and loss. I cried. I smiled. I felt. I knew. I relaxed. I am safe, and I am home.
PART II. ERASURE RESISTED: STAYING ALIVE TO THE TRUTH
[Step One. Staying Alive]
“Walk rather than drive. That’s what I do. I don’t want to be dead for driving while black.” My friend Derrin realized that he would be better off walking than driving. He wanted to blend in and not risk being targeted. A few years later when Derrin moved to a rural town in a predominantly white part of the state, he was worried. “I’m going to have to drive, and I’m going to be stopped by a police officer in the middle of nowhere. What do I do? How can I protect myself?” Derrin paused and ran his fingers over the thinning white hair on his head. “Well, maybe old age will be on my side now,” He smiled, hoping that he will be seen as a harmless elderly next time he is stopped for driving while black.
Although I’ve never been arrested because of my race, I am easily mistaken for another Asian woman - be it at my children’s school when I was asked about another Asian child as if I were their mother, or recently at a funeral where someone complimented me on my speech when it was not I who spoke about the deceased. I have also been ridiculed for my accent.
[Step Two. Pausing to Feel and Know]
“Ear! How many ears? Ha-ha! How many ears has it been?” Oh no, I’m so sorry. My accent is terrible. I can’t pronounce year. I can’t get the “y”. “That’s okay. It’s funny. I like it. I don’t mind. It’s really funny!” I look at my husband laughing at my mispronunciation in front
of our children. The children don’t say a thing, not sure if they found it funny too. There have been other times when people puzzled and sneered at my accent. “What? What do you mean you’re code?” And, when they understood what I meant, they would laugh and blast aloud each word very slowly as if I were deaf and dumb: “Oh! You mean YOU ARE COLLLD. . .”
Shamed and made to feel as if I should know how to pronounce such simple words, I’d smile along, hoping to suppress the reddening of my cheeks that would call out my vulnerability to the whole wide world.
One time I didn't even know how it happened, but I did not join the laughter. I paused and stayed silent until the jokesphere was over. I listened internally to my shameful feelings of hurt, anger, rejection, and exclusion. I hated not getting a joke, and worse, I hated being the butt of a joke. I felt my whole body deflating from exhaustion. Feeble and powerless. This is an old code reminding me once again that I did not belong. English is not my mother tongue. I was not born here. I could never understand. And there was nothing I could do to stop the mockery.
Yet, because I could pause, I did. Perhaps I had practiced meditation long enough to trust silence and take refuge in it. And in this moment of mindful silence, a rebellion against erasure was born. Instead of shoving away these difficult feelings, I stayed present and became aware of another truth. I did not find “ear” funny, and I did not need to pretend that it was funny. I did not need to collude in faulting this Asian immigrant for her failure at fitting in. It suddenly dawned on me that I was not the problem. Not me, not mine.
[Step Three. Insight That Frees]
The story is that others have found my differences unsettling. Whether that made them feel superior and wanted to put me down, or it made them feel annoyed and frustrated, break out into hysterical laughter, or even sweet compassion, that is their story, and I’ve felt it all. I’ve felt the dismissive rolling of the eyes and the shoulders’ turning away, and I’ve also felt the giddy laughter as well as kind words of compassion. “Hey mom, look at my mouth. Say old with me. Old... That’s right! Now, add the c, the k sound. C-old.” C old... “You got it! Yay!”
But this story of responding to differences is not just theirs to tell. As an immigrant girl, I did not like how my speech, action, and thoughts differed from the majority’s. I could sense people’s discomfort over these differences, and their aversion made me feel awkward and embarrassed. Differences made me an outsider, and I wanted in. If I could be rid of my accent, then I’d belong. If I could meet the cultural expectations of a minority Asian female, then I’d be accepted. Be it that I blend in by laughing at the jokes, or be it that I stand up for all Taiwanese people or the POC at a diversity panel, that was my role. That was my ticket in.
No. But no more. I did not need to play this game anymore. I did not care to be co-opted into this drama of the colonizer and the colonized. Where did this shame over differences come from? Why was it necessary for me to speak perfect English? Why did it become all my responsibility to adapt and accommodate? In this meeting of differences, who has the power to dictate the terms of our conduct? What stories do we make up about what happens? And how do those stories inform who we are and what we do?
The insight that it is not my story and not my problem allowed me some distance from others’ perceptions and projections. I could experience their reactions without feeling as if I were solely responsible and that I needed to do something to fix their discomfort. American novelist and voice of the American civil rights movement, James Baldwin, noted: “One of the things that most afflicts this country is that white people don’t know who they are or where they come from. That’s why they think I’m a problem. I’m not the problem.”
I did not need to compensate for my “deficiency” by attending Harvard, Stanford, and M.I.T., or by overachieving in myriad other ways in order to have a place at the table. I could simply show up just as I am. That is enough. Of course, if there were any possibility of physical harm, I would happily remove myself.
[Step Four. Metta That Frees]
For my friend Derrin, he minimized the risk of physical harm by removing driving from his life, and to combat his rage over the injustices of racial profiling, he practiced metta, the Buddhist meditation of lovingkindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. He lived the daily assaults of negative perceptions, and he was well aware of the growing rightful rage that was eating him up internally. Metta, however, fed him an unconditional regard for his loveliness and wellbeing even if society saw him as a menace. Metta defused the rage and graced his heart so that the fullness of his humanity was not erased. Both of us knew that our happiness could not wait until social justice is achieved. We had practiced long enough to know that our dignity and inner freedom could not be dependent on external conditions. As the Buddhist teacher Ajahn Sumedho said: “Of course we can always imagine more perfect conditions, how it should be ideally, how everyone should behave. But it is not our task to create an ideal. It’s our task to see how it is, and to learn from the world as it is. For the awakening of the heart, conditions are always good enough.”
PART III. FREEDOM FROM ERASURE: SOVEREIGNTY
This time it stopped at the workshop. I woke up to the Buddha leaving my heart, and I said no. Stay. Don’t flee. Stay awake to the knowing. You know that comment was exclusive and harmful. You can’t assume that the teachers know and will take care of it.
This time it stopped at the joke that I didn’t get. Instead of smiling along as if I knew what was going on, I stopped pretending. I asked for an explanation. I am entitled.
This time it stopped when they did not respond to my question. I stopped pretending that it didn’t matter or that I did not notice their disregard. I repeated the question louder because I cared.
This time it stopped when the white male teacher put his arms around me. “May I give you a hug?” he asked. Instead of waiting for consent, he had already wrapped his arms around my shoulders. I felt the twisted pressure to accept this well-intended gesture, he who had such eagerness to support the POC folks. But the hug positioned him as the powerful and me the powerless. I stepped away: “No thanks. I’m all right.” I did not need to appease him. Not my story to play the weak female minority and comfort his ego.
This time it stopped when I did not accept an invitation for yoga teacher training. I did not need another credential to shore up my worth. I did not need to add another commitment just so I could feel important.
This time it stopped when I almost ignored a request for a donation to support a LGBTQIA+ group. As a cisgender woman of Asian descent, I thought: What do I have in common with this group? Why would I care about a group that I did not identify strongly with? Maybe someone else could make the donation. Noticing my perception of difference and apathy, I gasped. Ouch! It doesn’t have to be this way. These attitudes of Othering tighten my heart, and I don’t need to respond this way. I don’t want to turn away. I already know from years of personal experience how it feels to be excluded, marginalized, and objectified. Breathing with the dukkah of erasure, knowing its insubstantiality, my heart body softened. Separated no more, I am delighted to connect. .
This time it stopped when I was no longer embarrassed by my pronunciation. No need to apologize. Not me. Not my story.
This time it stopped when I did not explain why I needed to take space.
I am here, and I belong. ***