Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Tradition

This weekend, I went to a good friend from high school's Arangetram. The Arangetram is the solo debut of a dancer of the Bharatanatyam form of Indian dance, one of the most ancient dance forms. It goes back to around 1700 BCE, and used to be performed only in temples.

The performance was absolutely beautiful. I cried every other dance*. The music (live violin, drum, singers) opened a portal so that we sat in the auditorium and looked into another world, one richer and fuller and more colorful, in which an 18 year old senior in high school became gods and goddesses and the universe.

*I cry frequently at moving or emotionally charged performances. If you know me IRL and this seems weird to you, well, it seems weird to me also, especially since I don't think I cry more easily at sad things.

After the performance, my friend took the mic. "Dance is my passion," she said, "and it is also a deep way for me to connect with my heritage." She spoke about the struggle of being first-gen, about the difficulties in not being able to speak her "mother" tongue fluently, about what it meant to be able to keep in touch with her roots. Many members of her extended family were there as well and spoke about what she means to them, and what it means that she is genuinely passionate about such a traditional dance form.

It was all extremely beautiful and extremely touching. And, being on occasion a small-souled person, I found my thoughts turning to myself, and how of all that--extensive family connection, deep-seated tradition, genuine love of heritage--I have none.

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I will know that I have attained maturity when I can speak to my parents and not feel as though I have to fight. I do not believe that they believe that I am capable of doing anything worthwhile on my own. I also believe that I internalized that view the eighteen years I lived at home, and that one of the reasons I love college is that I am on my own and they need an excuse if they want to interfere.

Undoubtedly, they support me and I would not be here without that support. But that scaffolding can get in the way, and I need to prove that I can do things on my own. The job of becoming a real person becomes far more difficult when they are ever asserting their help in ways such that I cannot refuse without being rude. I will hit a point, I know, when I do be rude and refuse unasked-for help. I will hit a point when I will argue with them. But I am too complacent, too comfortable, and I'm working toward that point but slowly.

Chinese tradition emphasizes subservience and obedience. The parents have the absolute right, and the disobedient child always comes back to the fold, repentant and reformed. Am I being immature now, for daring to criticize the people who gave me life? Am I emotionally bankrupt, for not wanting to call home? Am I ungrateful, for being angry at gestures of support?

Perhaps I am all three; but this blog is meant as an honest record of who I am and what I am thinking, and if I look back on this post later with chagrin, then I will do that.

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For one reason or another I have never embraced my heritage. Internalized racism and a desire to distance myself from the thing that othered me. Rebellion. Apathy. Inertia. I never tried in Chinese school, took a perverse pride in my inability to conform and speak my "mother" tongue fluently. At this point, I can write Italian at a much, much higher level than I can write in Chinese. I never played a Chinese instrument, took part only reluctantly and briefly in Chinese dance at the despised weekly Chinese school lessons, stopped doing martial arts after a mediocre two years.

I have never had a deep, strong, personal connection to my heritage. Certainly I have no passion for any tradition reaching back thousands of years. I do not know many of the stories, myths, whatever. At this point in my life, I don't feel as though that is a huge loss, though I may change my mind later. I certainly felt a tug of envy as I watched my friend float across the stage, her face exultant, playing a young Krishna chased by his mother, who was about to find out that her son was an incarnation of Vishnu. And after the performance as she embraced her aunts, whose faces shone with pride and the awareness that we all shared of having witnessed something holy.

I am first-generation American, distanced from my ethnic heritage but just un-assimilated enough not to belong to wider American culture. I am atheist, and have no holy books or religious communities that connect me with a larger past. I will never have children and have a difficult time imagining myself loving someone enough to get married and join another family. Friends and mentors and companions have I in abundance, but this is lateral connection. What goes deep? What goes far? What connects deeply and purely to tradition?

Let me tell you: not my roots.

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I've been angsting about this for a long time: here is Heritage, a poem I posted over four years ago.

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