“Keep the kitchen clean and everything else will fall into place, “ my father would say, if I ever moaned to him about how life was falling down about my ears. “Do the tasks at hand.” He was always coming out with these Confucian flavored comments. Right after he died, I found his diaries that spanned the course of about 6 years, the time he and mom shared our household. Missing him terribly and seeking comfort, I closed my eyes against tears, opened the journal randomly and pointed. ” The page was dated 10-10-08 beneath which was written, ” A LESSON IN CHINESE, followed by a line of Chinese characters. Literary translation: Eat bitter in bitterness, then become man above men. Endure the ultimate, be a man for mankind.” Gee, thanks, Dad, very comforting.
On certain days, to place one step in front of the other took all the energy I could muster. Or to wipe the next dish clean with my sponge, the warm soapy water doing its best to soothe my nerves, like an emissary of my dad’s concern for his youngest daughter. Without a doubt, he was the steady rock of my childhood. I don’t remember him ever losing his temper, yelling at us, or even being irritable in those days.
I do recall him crying once.
I was ten, and my parents had just discovered that my seventeen-year-old sister was taking drugs. Back in the day of protests against Viet Nam and LSD was the new sometimes deadly fad. Even though I earned good grades, I didn’t want to go to school. My stomach ache was a perpetual one. But I loved to read and Dad knew it. That was his bargaining chip. He had just bought me a book I loved, called The Yearling, by Marjorie Rawlings. I yearned for that book when I saw it in the store. I loved the lush, watercolor illustrations rustling between its covers. It was a beautiful thing and I wanted to dive into it. It cost all of ten dollars. All 405 delicious pages of it. It still sits on my bookshelf. But that morning my stomach hurt and I didn’t want to go to school. My poor father pleaded with me and finally put his head in his hands and sobbed. I wouldn’t budge.
I suppose that after all he had been through with my mother and sister, a diminutive ten year old with a stomach ache and folded arms who was determined not to go to school was a formidable obstacle. For my dad, I think that the rational outlines of the day, going to work, keeping the kitchen in order, urging us to get our homework done, and providing the living for the family was his salvation of sorts. As an immigrant, he was utterly alone in this country. Though he took me to church religiously every Sunday morning, he did not believe in God, nor even that the angels could help him. He studied catechism in the hopes that he and my mother could be married in the Catholic church. At the last minute, ever the scientist, he could not in good conscience be baptized. I asked him why he so faithfully brought me to early morning services. I want you to be around people who are striving to be good, was his answer.
Things got better after we settled in New Jersey. Mom went to see a psychiatrist who found a medication that seemed to work. For a good seventeen years, she and my father enjoyed a peaceful marriage. Mom stayed out of the hospital and her paranoid delusions, on medication, mellowed down to the tolerable, if irritating manifestation of simply being an overprotective mother. My parents developed the endearing routine of Mom reading aloud to Dad in the evenings after dinner. This tradition continued until days before their passing. I have been very proud of how they persevered, remaining faithful to their wedding vows: for better or worse, in sickness and in health.
On this icy, foggy, frozen in day, I put my energies into Dad’s old moniker: Keep the clean and everything else will fall into place. I’m suspecting that this is a remnant of the Chinese Kitchen God, translated through the heart and hands of my engineer father who always had a word of wisdom, albeight practical and earthbound. Have you ever found that the best ideas come to you when your hands are in hot soapy water? My thoughts turned to a current graduate school project: my cultural self portrait.
The creative problem given was to fashion an aesthetically cohesive self portrait using your choice of media that reflects your cultural identity, values and experience. For those familiar with the multicultural counseling acronym: ADDRESSING, you will know that the following elements are considered:
A for Age and generational influences
D for Developmental and acquired
R for Religion
E for Ethnicity
S for Socioeconomic status
S for Sexual orientation
I for Indigenous heritage
N for National origin
G for Gender (1996, Hays)
Just reading through this acronym, for me, opens up perspectives of the various facets making up the unique identity and experience of any one individual.
For my own portrait, I found that I see myself as heavily impacted by the religious and ethical values of my parents. Mom’s Catholic upbringing resulted in my lifelong education within the Catholic school system with teaching nuns figuring strongly in my learning and academic experiences. Dad’s Confucious based system of ethics was infused in so much of our homelife, this was a silent education communicated through decisions, actions and interactions of daily life. Living in a biracial household with one immigrant parent and one parent living with mental illness was isolating. It is no wonder that my support came from these value based and more or less spiritual elements. To communciate this more directly, and to accentuate the dark figure from the dark background, I surrounded her in phrases that reminded me of my parents, and places with strong personality where my parents lived or where I lived that contributed to my cultural identity.
One thing that did startle me was the appearance of a skull as my artistic process emerged, and in particular its central placement as the face of the figure. Even though I am a person who thinks about death often, one who has experienced loss, and am currently working in a hospice program learning about art therapy with bereaved children and adolescents, I was STILL surprised to see this grinning skull appear. It rather gave me the creeps, the chills and the full on heebie jeebies. This is supposed to be a “Self Portrait” emphasis on self, note the skull face. CREEPY.
But after reflecting and reading up on the archetype of death as transformation, I suddenly felt surprisingly good, warm, even affectionate towards my little skull faced figure. When I view death or ending as creating the space for beginning, as part of a circular cycle of life that happens rather frequently as we grow, explore, learn and change, I feel empowered rather than devastated, interested rather than in despair, hopeful and energized
What would your cultural self portrait look like? Which archetype are you feeling resonance with these days?
Image: by me, rendered in chalk pastel on black drawing paper. words included as follows: Keep the kitchen clean, Joi de vivre, Be kind, Be kind to others, Love you lots, Eat the bitter in bitterness and become man above men. Thank you, world. Places included: Shanghai, Topeka, NYC, Riverside Drive, Chicago, The French Concession, San Francisco, Soo Chow, (and how funny I did not include NJ where I have lived so many years – I must be in denial, ha ha )
Information on the ADDRESSING Acronym : Hays, P.A. (1996) Addressing the complexities of culture and gender in counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development, 74, 332-338.