To be a lost child

by Anti-Racist Parent Columnist Michelle Myers

“. . . well, enough rage and helplessness, and your love turns to something else. . . . It turns to steaming piss.”
-Mitchell Stephens in The Sweet Hereafter

“I’m telling you this . . . because we’ve all lost our children . . . . They’re dead to us. . . . Something terrible has happened that’s taken our children away. It’s too late. They’re gone.”
-Mitchell Stephens in The Sweet Hereafter
I am a lost child.

I recently had a birthday. However, when my parents called to wish me a “Happy Birthday,” I wasn’t really glad to hear from them. I actually was irritated with them because neither had called on my son’s third birthday, which we had also just celebrated. I’d been thinking they didn’t call because, despite whatever excuses they might give, he’s the darkest of my three children, and I suspect they don’t feel very connected to him. Probably to them he’s the one grandchild they would identify most as “black” although he’s also the most Asian-looking. I didn’t say this to my mom, though, when she asked me why I hadn’t called in a while. I simply told her, “You didn’t call to tell Victor ‘Happy Birthday,’ so I didn’t know what was going on.” Her response was that “He’s too young to know it’s his birthday,” so “What difference does it make?” I told her that not only did he understand it was his birthday, but he would have been excited just to talk to her on the phone. She had no response, and I have learned over the years that it doesn’t pay to argue. So I said nothing else. When my dad got on the phone to wish me “Happy Birthday,” he said, “I can’t believe my little girl is 35.” I wanted to say, “I haven’t been your ‘little girl’ for a long time.” But instead, I just said, “Uh-huh.” Before the conversation ended, my mom told me I should call more often.

I want to be there for my parents because, despite things, I do love them and have a sense of duty to them: they aren’t getting any younger, and I live close enough to be there in case of an emergency (my brother lives in Colorado). But after so many turned down holiday invitations, missed birthdays, inappropriate criticisms, and uncountable years of “history,” a part of me has distanced myself from my parents so that I could cut them off—if I felt I had to. Too many unforgivable things have happened over the years. And while I may not hate them so much anymore, I am lost to them on many levels.

The last time I wrote a post, I had asked a question about parental accountability: as parents, how can we conduct ourselves in a way that won’t cause our children to hate us? First, I should be clear that in asking this question, I’m not saying that parents should yield to their children’s every desire and whim to make them happy—I’m not saying that at all. I’m talking about something totally different, something deeper. I’m talking about not appearing as hypocrites and cowards to our children in matters of race, ethnicity, culture (and even religion, gender/sexuality, morals/values) so that they come to question their own identities and even come to hate themselves, for please understand that oftentimes when children recognize that they hate themselves, they place responsibility or blame for that foremost on their parents.

I also don’t want to come off sounding like this is some self-righteous sermon. I think I should be clear that my context for asking these questions and raising these points comes from my being a mixed-race daughter of parents who, despite being in an interracial marriage, held/hold hypocritical and racist views about others, especially in terms of telling me who I was/am and who I should/could have relationships with. I had asserted in my last post that I would use myself as an example of how children can develop feelings of anger and hate (or hate-love) for their parents, but as I’ve been thinking about this more, I’ve been unsure how to adequately explain why I have hated my parents at various times during my life in a way that would illuminate the concerns and warnings I’m trying to present to readers of this blog.

In trying to figure out the best way to start off these discussions without it disintegrating into some “poor me” sob story, I came across one of the first poems I wrote as an adult. Never did I think I would share this poem like I’m about to; originally, it was something I had written specifically for my students at the time, many who had lived extremely difficult lives throughout their childhoods, for trusting me with their most personal stories. But now I post it here so perhaps you can know, just a little bit, where I’m coming from as I continue to talk about this issue of anger and hate (I’m planning my next two posts around this topic). You have to realize there is a huge community of people (children from interracial relationships, children from transracial adoptions, 2nd generation children of immigrant parents, children of racists, etc) who are angry and full of hate. If left unresolved, they are willing to destroy all family ties. In the end, they may destroy themselves. I know some of you might think this won’t or can’t happen to you, but I’m sure most parents do not imagine that their children could grow up to really despise them.

Anyway, I wrote this poem when I was 23. Obviously, it provides only a fragmented picture in many different ways, compresses all these bad events together to seem as if there were no happy times (which there were), and is more critical of my father than my mother even though my mother’s racial views were not much different from my father’s. I also don’t want to come off as trying to project myself as a complete victim or to make excuses for myself: I know I have faults of my own which are not presented in this poem. Therefore, I don’t want anything from you for myself—no sympathy, empathy, pity, validation. But the poem is indicative of a frame of mind and a kind of relationship, and I just hope that, as parents, you learn something productive from it. Finally, these life experiences inform my own struggles as a parent trying to determine ways to help my three mixed-race children as they navigate through the challenges of being mixed.

I am a lost child, but my children don’t have to be.

Untitled

I was born—
Seoul, South Korea. My mother is Korean; my father white. American.
Coming to America. I am about a-year-old.
Salem, NJ. Carpenter Street. A lot of black people.
My father is an alcoholic. He hits my mom. My brother and me too.
Whippings, belts, buckles.

The dogs chase the black people as they walk passed the yard.
We move out of Salem—away from the black people.
Now in Woodstown.
I am four.

My father is an alcoholic. He comes home and passes out on the lawn.
My mom gets beaten. We get beatings.
But my mom drives around all night looking for him when he doesn’t come home from work. Sometimes she leaves us alone. Sometimes, we go.
I am the oldest so I go in the bars to get him.

Starting elementary school. I am not allowed to have black friends.
Many birthday parties I did not go to.
It is a week before my birthday. I am seven.
My uncle is eighteen. He is murdered. By his best friend.
Shot in the head.
His body is found behind Salem High School.
My dad identifies the body.
My family can’t stop crying.
We move away. Running.

No more public school—too many black people in Penns Grove.
Catholic school—we are not Catholic.
Everyone else is Catholic. Everyone else is white.
Suddenly, I am a “chink.”
Not many friends. Just books.
Year-after-year of seemingly non-stop reading.

I am ugly. So ugly.
They tell me. My mom tells me. No one loves me.
I hate my mother.

My father is an alcoholic.
He wakes me up in the middle of the night. He talks about my uncle.
He cries. He scares me when he is drunk, either hitting or crying, us never knowing which will come.
He hates my mother.
I hate my mother.
It’s all her fault no one likes me—I want to be white.
She has messed up my life.
My “chinky” eyes—I am so ugly.
I want to be loved.

Eighth grade graduation—party. Alcohol.
I am almost gang-raped . . . by five guys I grew up with.
They stopped because my screaming turned them off.
I’m fourteen.
My parents find out. They are humiliated. They blame me.
“You shouldn’t have been drinking”
“You shouldn’t have been alone with boys.”
No charges filed.

Public high school—no money to send me to Catholic school anymore.
I’m scared. So many black people.
First “real” boyfriend. He is white.
I lose my virginity, reluctantly.
I am still fourteen.

My father is an alcoholic. I am on my way.
Drinking with my father. Cool.
Wake up one morning covered with my own vomit.
I could have died. I will not drink again.

My goodness . . . he has a nice smile.
It’s wrong—all wrong. They’re supposed to be “bad.”
“Dirty”
But . . . he is so nice to me.
My first black boyfriend. I am fifteen.
Now I am a “nigger-lover.”
My dad and my mom and me constantly fight.

My father is an alcoholic. He is violent. Even when he is not drunk.
One night, I call him a “motherfucker.” He
bashes my head into a towel rack in the bathroom.
I run way from home (first time).
I stay with my aunt.
My grandmother calls—the white one.
She’s sick—in the hospital.
But my parents have told her.
My aunt’s crying. My uncle’s yelling—
“You NIGGER-LOVER!”
“I won’t have a NIGGER-LOVER in my house!”
He’s an alcoholic too.

I go back home. I date. I lie.
I say forget it. Hatred all around me.
My white grandmother begs me to get along with my dad.
She cries. “Your dad has had a hard life,” she says.
“He needs to be happy.”
Feeling guilty, I make a promise.
She dies soon after.
Cut off black friends. Puerto Rican friends.
A new white boyfriend—from another town.
His family tells nigger jokes. Spic jokes. Chink jokes. Dot-head jokes.
My parents are so happy. I am seventeen.

College by chance—full scholarship.
My father is still an alcoholic. He still hates my mom.
My mom is so miserable. She cries all the time. I listen to her.
I begin to love my mother.
Korea—stories—a world, a people. It’s all me.
I want to know more.
My Korean grandmother visits.
My white boyfriend refuses to say hello in Korean.
You will not be my father. I will not have a husband like my father.

Racists. Hypocrites. Racists. Hypocrites.
Not for my children.
They will be proud. They will not want to be white.
I really hate. I am twenty.

I want to be strong.
I want to be strong.
I want to be . . .
So much to deal with—just get good grades. Graduate. 3.959 GPA.
Full Fellowship to Temple. Get me out of here.
I am twenty-three.

My father is still an alcoholic. He threatened to kill her.
I’ll take her away someday. I have strength enough to do that.
I try not to hate, but I am angry. And I don’t trust.
I try to make myself untouchable.
You can’t touch me.
It’s all for the better, I think.
Then I won’t feel the burrs, stones, or teeth as
I run with the wolves inside of me.

Michelle Myers holds a Ph.D. in English from Temple University, specializing in Asian American Literature. She is a founding member of the spoken word poetry group Yellow Rage, which was featured on HBO’s RUSSELL SIMMONS PRESENTS DEF POETRY, and which recently released its second CD: HANDLE WITH CARE, VOL. 2. She is also a founding member of the performance collective Asians Misbehavin’. She is currently an Assistant Professor at Community College of Philadelphia and Grants Coordinator at SEAMAAC (Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition). Michelle lives in NJ with her husband, Tyrone, and their three children: Myong, Victor, and Vanessa.

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