Ophelia's Complaint: A disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme hermetic longings, often of a perverse nature...*
Being Chinese: Praise be the Sufferer
I suffer from self-love and self-loathing. Growing up I learned to bite down on the proverbial stick and suffer in silence. When I was 6, I was given a gift of a pair of luxurious Italian red boots. After a week of wearing them, my mother noticed that I was limping. She took me to the doctor and he looked at my feet and saw a red wound at the bottom of my foot, he looked at my boots and found a nail that had pushed through the leather sole. My mother still tells me how I suffered through without complaint, that I wore the boots as to not insult the gift giver, and to me that was praise. I wasn't happy about the nail, but I put up with it because I didn't want to upset someone, but when it was finally pulled out, I was relieved and the gift giver made sure the next pair was perfect. I equated suffering to praise. It was a strange way of growing up.
Throughout my teens, I suffered through pinched nerves, menstrual cramps, nose bleeds, a staph infection and other ailments in silence. I wasn't going to be the one that put a downer on my family, nor did I want to interrupt my parent's lives for me. I forged forward, and even got myself to the hospital to remove a cyst and laid there for 9 days watching TV by myself (my father visited a couple of times, but mostly I kept company with the woman next to me who had terminal cancer).
Us Chinese, we are a hardy bunch. We pride ourselves on never speaking about what is sticking into our foot, lest we upset the dynamics of the group or worse yet bring attention to ourselves.
Being UnChinese: Silence is Not Golden, but Dwelling Isn't Either
As I grew up, I realized that I had to pull out those nails, suffering silently wasn't going to do any good, except delay the inevitable blow up from bottling it in. Through trial and error I have learned to push forward with mixed results, but I preferred to move forward rather than remain static.
American men are encouraged to "suck it up," while American women are in touch with their feelings, wants and needs.This brings me to my fascination with how people like to tell me about the nail in their shoes. I listen to my friends, I offer advice, but mostly I listen. I can see that the nail can be pulled out, with some effort and a bit of pain, but it can be done. As each encounter ends, I watch them hobble away, and undoubtedly they return with the same nail in their boot. Unlike me in my childhood, they don't suffer in silence, they continue to focus on that pain like it was their motivation for living. They like having that nail.
My Nailed Foot In My Mouth
I have shoved my foot into my mouth a few times, and I have had my foot shoved in for me. On my Facebook, I have had occurrences where I have offered ("mouthed off") my opinions on people's nails. I am learning to keep my fingers to myself and to not inject my "why don't you just pull it out" onto their walls. As I grow older, I see my circle getting smaller, small enough to hold the ones that have moved forward in their lives and to walk unhobbled.
There is a happy medium between silent suffering and public soap boxing, where that is, I don't know. For me, if you see my eyes glaze over, you know its time to move on.
* Inspired by Philip Roth and his "nail".
Artist, designer and teacher Ophelia Chong explores her adopted city of Los Angeles with an eye and ear for the small moments that tests the duality of being an Asian American. Join her on her journey every Thursday on KCET's SoCal blog
Image: Chong Archives