How can two people so closely related have such different outlooks on life?
1. Quit day job.
2. Sell eggs.
3. Go to India and Sri Lanka.
4. Change everything.
I knew my Asian father wouldn't understand. He sees my life in the long run, wanting to make sure I'm not on the streets selling my vagina for meth in 20 years, because when you don’t have a 401K, that’s what happens.
Dad: “Whatever you do, don’t quit your job.”
Me: Hey, Dad — I quit my job. And I'm going to India and Sri Lanka."
"No — traveling is not something you get out of your system."
"Don't worry. I have a plan."
After graduating from Harvard, I crushed my father’s Americano-Chinaman dreams by working various social service jobs for $8.00 an hour, then volunteering with the Peace Corps, and finally, becoming a baker. Apparently, the Asian Father Consortium frowns upon baking and the word “non-profit.” But Dad was right: underneath my apron, my Peace Corps pin, I wasn’t a do-gooder. I was a writer.
Dad: “Can you make a living writing?”
Me: “Probably not.”
His firstborn, wise investments, and home ownership weren’t in the overlapping part of life’s Venn Diagram. To make matters worse, my boyfriend Ryan — while agreeably Asian— is also a writer and performer with an artistic temperament. We are a match made in DSM-IV heaven, and while Ryan impressed my father with his musical gifts and ability to talk anyone under the philosophical table, he had bad credit. My father maintained a positive relationship with Ryan by never talking about stock portfolios or interest rates, at least not literally.
I didn’t show my escape plan to my father, as it was not in the form of a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, but as a Post-it, inside my head. I didn’t adhere to proper plan protocol, as my goals were not SMART — Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely — but were instead RIDU — Reckless, Irresponsible, Delusional, and Unbecoming of an Asian. Still, it was my plan — to pave a new road towards happiness, even if that road was dark and potholed, and involved planes, tuk tuks, and general anesthesia.
#1. Quit my day job.
For the prior year and a half, I had been working as a vegan baker at a health food market. I made the most of it by complaining and occasionally trying to overdose on organic brown rice syrup and/or Lithium. You think you can manage a 40-hour-a-week day job involving gluten-free flours and egg substitutes and still find space for creativity. You can’t. It’s mathematically impossible. The day job cancels out all possibility for joy, and carries over hope into the dark hole of minimum wage, exponentially multiplied by your high school teachers who all happen to shop at your market, and say, “Can I have some vegan banana-walnut bread, student who we thought would be the next Sedaris meets Plath?"
I did love my boss at the market — she was always there for me, even if she did control my money. I'd often cry at work, into Organic Acai bowls, or while making my famous vegan "O Snap! Ginger Snaps!" She'd ask what’s wrong, and I'd say I hate my life I hate my life I hate my life. Of course, that second I hate my life meant I hate my job. And that turning 30 exists. But she'd cry, too, because she thought she was a mediocre cook and writer and I wasn't, or because she has a mansion and a Mercedes SUV, but her cage felt as small as mine. Because she thought I hated her for firing good people, or micromanaging, or taking advantage of immigrant laborers — or whatever people think you hate them for when you really don’t, because you understand it’s all shit, and we’re all doing our best to pretend we love shit.
In one year, I traveled so far from happiness in my own head that I felt it was a place I'd never been. I had all my needs met — shelter, food, love. However, in America you have to earn your keep. There is shame in moving back in with your parents, eating their food, using their electricity, gas card, last name on Medicaid applications. (My shame sounds like Bea Arthur, too — weird.) Every night I slept on a slanted futon couch. I dreamt of falling off cliffs. Of leaving this life behind. I had to escape my imaginary one-woman Panopticon without knowing if freedom existed on the other side — if freedom could exist in a multiple-choice world at all. I tried to keep my head on straight. There was somewhere, I mantra’d, there was somewhere.
#2. Sell my eggs.
I am philosophically against the reproductive aspect of sex. I am also poor, and am willing to go against everything I believe in for a quick $10,000 and a plane ticket. So I sold my eggs. It wasn’t the first time. I hate the hormones, hate feeling as though it's the only way I can make immediate money, hate disappointing my sister, who says, “What if your eggs turn into a baby that gets abused?” To which I can’t say anything without saying everything, such as, “Everyone who has a child is selfish.” We are all abused, some by our own door-knob shaped fists, some by peers, by strangers, or anyone who doesn't understand the Acme-anchor-from-the-sky crush of unhappiness.
But anyway, this is not something I'm really passionate about.
I had the operation to retrieve my super-sized eggs as soon as I got back from Sri Lanka. But before I left Hawaii, I went to an IVF doctor to make sure my ovaries were ready for grotesque manipulation. Dr. Wang turned out to be the father of my classmate. While maneuvering the condom-covered ultrasound wand around my cho-cha, he gave me the Asian-father inquisition, which added a new dimension to the clichéd exchange:
Why are you donating your eggs?
If you have no money, why are you going to Sri Lanka?
Credit card debt is very bad.
Why are you working as a baker if you went to Harvard?
Why don't you get a real job?
What do you mean, now you're a writer?
What do you write?
What does your father do?
What does your mother do?
How did you turn out so smart?
Why don’t you have a gynecologist?
Planned Parenthood? You go to Planned Parenthood?
You need a real doctor.
I don't care if you move a lot.
You don't have health insurance?
My daughter is graduating from an Ivy League med school while mothering her infant son.
My daughter has a gynecologist.
I can't find your uterus.
My daughter has a uterus.
You probably can't have children.
If you were a supermodel, you could make $100,000 on your eggs.
Your egg donor agency is taking advantage of you.
You're too naive. People must always take advantage of you.
I drew a pyramid depicting the various levels of condescension involved in the 10 minutes we spent together, folded it into a paper airplane, crumpled it into a paper airplane trash ball, and threw it away. I am all those things: naive; not a supermodel; egg donor with an MIA uterus. I have no witty comeback for the truth.
This leap outside the box landed me on an operating table, legs spread in stirrups, wondering if Sri Lanka was worth it's weight in ovum, and why do people always say life is worth it, without defining the “it” — but I never figured it out. The IV hurt and suddenly I slipped into the peace of nowhere.
#3. Go to India.
Summary: Ryan and I visit our friend Jason, who studies at the Sera Je Monastery in southwestern India. He is hot — a hot monk. I find it strange to be in a village surrounded by 2,700 men who wouldn’t even touch me with another man’s prayer book. I have a vagina identity crisis. I contemplate the pros and cons of monkhood as related to the pursuit of happiness. I denounce Jason as crazy for his choice to vow against romantic love. I realize I am Jason’s Asian father — judging him the same way my father judges me for my financial and ovarian decisions.
#3.5 Go to Sri Lanka.
Summary: We visit Nick, the founder of Orphan Sponsorship International and spend two weeks with impoverished children in the tea estate village of Nayabedde. Nick’s dad is diagnosed with terminal cancer. I feel guilty for leeching joy off the back of strangers. The kids are Tamil and wonderful and I am awed by their happiness in the midst of having nothing. Nick’s dad dies, and feels he cannot concern himself with this loss, as he is surrounded by children who have faced seemingly insurmountable losses, and surmounted them, still smiling.
4. Change everything.
Travel throws you back into life, days are days long, and because there’s always an end, every moment counts down through a megaphone, pointed straight into your ear. It’s overwhelming, to decide what’s important. I flip through my notes — details more than impressions — because I don't want to forget. Not the 100-rupee veg rice and curry. Not the names of the sisters whose mother killed herself in May (Lillyshiromia, Christina). Not the music I listened to on seven-hour train rides though the hill country. (Bjork, St. Vincent, Iron and Wine). Not the clouds that matched the music, our trash that someone threw out the train window into the forest, the feeling of standing at the edge of the train door wide open, leaning into the icy blur of tea estates, line houses, bats and monkeys. There was freedom in Sri Lanka, freedom from being unemployed and having no room of my own. Freedom from red lights, because in India, red lights are meaningless. Freedom from fathers who tell you not to leave your job as a wage slave because times are tough, and no one wants to dream with you.
I can try to tell my dad how Ryan woke me up in the middle of the night after our first 24 hours in India, crying because he ran away from beggar children as if they were diseased with more than poverty, and because of the naked babies cribbed in filth on the sidewalks — the legless, the scarred, the mauled and mangy street dogs. All in sight, all in mind.
How do I explain the joy of living without itinerary? Ryan, spotting his old friend Tom — sticking out in an intersection like a white thumb in a sea of brown thumbs. We spent a week with him on the East Coast surfing. On every tuk tuk ride, he’d ask the driver to stop at roadside piles of rubble and rock. Tom was collecting stones. I loved this absurd mission — loved when locals stared at the three foreigners searching trash for unburied treasure; loved when it became natural to watch for large, flat rocks, and to feel completely satisfied when we found them. I didn’t know what Tom was building with his stones, but I was satisfied collecting them every day, certain there was a purpose. For the first time the purpose didn’t matter — the joy was in the collecting — the pieces were the whole.
I can try and justify why I'd spend what little I didn't have to find myself at the Chennai Central Railway Station--hating how the air and ground seemed to be in competition for Most Polluted and Generally Disgusting, hating the molesting 4 a.m. heat, hating that there were as many bodies sprawled on the ground as there were mosquitoes, the smell of too much humanity and having to carry all my expensive American REI shit on my back, especially the camera equipment — who's idea was that?--to make films for Tamil orphans? F the orphans! How do I explain hating myself for such easy discomfort, for cursing what I have. Days later I too curl up on the floor somewhere filthy, because what did I expect? This is not Paris, or Disneyland, or wherever people go to get away from it all, not to curl up and dig into the places people suffer, DSLR in one hand, handshake in the other.
I can say, Dad, I can’t explain it to myself. But I am a traveler. I have to leave to deconstruct my sense of home, of identity, of enough. I will not come home and live the same way, pressured to expand the size of my life to make room for more and more. More is nothing to me, because Americans, we are fat and never full. For a month, Ryan and I stepped out of the few-block radius of our problems. We learned how to say “happy birthday” in Tamil, and said it all the time, when someone gave us tea or instead of good-bye. It was our secret password into a magical village, where homes were small and hearts huge, and clichés filled us up like brimming cups of warm milk tea.
It’s easy to have daddy issues when you have a idyllic life. Still — I want the people who brought me here to be happy with how I turned out. Why do I want my dad to tell his friends, my daughter’s a wonderful writer who travels the world, instead of — she doesn’t have a real job, thinks I owe her $30,000 since she graduated from college a year early, and travels because she's stupid about money. At least he's not arranging my marriage to a 60-year-old stranger. At least he doesn’t care that I’m never having kids, that I don’t believe in God. At least he never beat me into a lifetime of trust issues. Is it too much to want more from life than at leasts? At least the kids in Nayabedde had a little food, sometimes. At least the Tibetan monks found refuge in India, at least they have a home, though it's not their country. I am alive whether I want to be or not, and my dad will never understand the “or not,” because he knew how to put his life puzzle together. Every piece fit — his home, his wife, two golden retrievers, and his effortless ability to find the joyful parts of living. I see the puzzle pieces and the big picture. But I can't sit quietly at the table for a lifetime of years and shuffle responsibilities, safeties, and practicalities in the form of tiny cardboard cut-outs when there's a bomb where my heart should be. The tick of my pulse gets louder the more I try to run. To my dad, the collective suffering in the world is just background noise. This doesn't make him a bad person any more than it makes me a bad person for hearing it, when I can't hush my mind long enough to sleep. I feel too much, I’m agoraphobic in my own skin, and traveling is my only sanity. He will never understand how much I fight for my life, even though it looks like I’m barely moving. Of course I feel guilty for every discontentment I experience. The guilt just mixes in with what's already flowing through me. I'm not ungrateful for my life. I'm just not grateful for it either.
Back on the exam table at Dr. Wang’s for a post-procedure follow-up, he was different. He asked me how I was doing, helped me with other health problems, free of charge. Sitting up in my exam gown, his hand on my hand, we talked face-to-face, rather than face-to-vagina. He asked about Sri Lanka, respected my choices, seemed impressed that I could be so free-spirited. Asian fathers have two sides — the side that freaks out at apocalyptic levels when you don’t have health insurance, and the side that wants you to succeed at the dream that is happiness.
You’ve seen so much that we’ve never seen.
You’re going to write about your experiences, I hope.
Are you a good writer?
Where are you going next?
If you get sick, come in, we’ll take care of you.
I see your uterus, now. It was just hiding.
Sometimes you just have to remind people that there’s more than one way to live.
Sometimes I have to remind myself.
It's even easy to forget that my Asian father had an Asian father. My grandfather told my dad not to start a business — Too risky! Engineer more stable! Not to be in a band — too many shenanigans! Musician like drug and sex! Not to buy a plane or a Harley — too dangerous! And definitely, under no circumstances whatsoever, marry a white woman. Canadian devil no good! My father had to decide what he could and couldn't live without, what choices would make him the happiest. He chose my mother, a small lighting business, long hair, tight pants, guitars, flying, and me.
Dad: "Don't write about me."
Me: "Don’t worry — I’ll change your name." • 29 January 2010
Jennifer Meleana Hee is the editor of the Hawaii Women’s Journal, travel columnist for Chromatic Magazine, and has been published in Worldview Magazine and innov8. She is a rock climber, former Peace Corps Volunteer, vegan baker, and the proud owner of the only Bulgarian street dog in Hawaii.
Photograph by Jennifer Meleana Hee.