Three things happened in the past few weeks or so that have me noodling about the way we present ourselves to the world.
- A friend, upon seeing me at a panel with my accompanying headshot, said, “Well, that’s pretty glam.” I said back, “Well…it has to be. It goes on my publicity materials and on book jackets.” “I didn’t expect that,” he returned.
- A friend asked to adapt my book as a screenplay. I returned the request, as far as I can recall it, thus: “I’m flattered, thank you! What are your thoughts as to royalties and rights agreements?” His reply: “Whoa, tiger.”
- Making some calculations one day with another friend, I said, casually, “I’m absolute shit at math. I know, I’m a terrible Asian.” Some minutes later, he said, “I have a question: Aren’t you, by making that comment, just perpetrating a stereotype?” Stymied, I said, “Ummm. Yes. Of course. But it makes people laugh.” “Ahhh,” he said, and didn’t need to say any more.
- Years ago (okay, this is a bonus), when Jim and I were training for Ironman, we kept on meeting people who would say, “That’s AWESOME. I’m so impressed,” or some variation thereof, and I’d inevitably counter, “No. It’s stupid.” Someone challenged me once. “But it’s great,” he said. “Such a commitment.” “And idiotic,” I insisted. “But amazing,” he returned. “Really dumb endeavor,” I said. He finally capitulated. “Okay, fine, it’s dumb.”
I find myself revisiting these events. They’ve made me consider the way I present myself, and the advice we often see to be proud, to be not afraid of the greatness we can accomplish, to [insert whatever roaring Pinterest quote you want here about being your best you, or something like that].
Oh, sure, it’s easy to encourage that. The reason we must do it is much more complex.
I am surprised every time someone else is surprised by the fact that I have a professional headshot. Or that I’m asking about royalties and things like contracts for use of my work. Or that I demand to be paid for my work. The immediate internal rejoinder is this:
- Of course I have a headshot. What’d you think, I was going to just slap some selfie on my book cover?
- Of course I’m going to ask for a contract. Whaddya think this is, some kind of Mickey Mouse operation?
And yet, when you look at the way I’ve presented myself over the years, it looks like some variation of the Ironman conversation, or this:
[Waits for someone else to bring up my novel. Someone asks about it.] Me: It’s just a debut novel. Tiny press. Tiny but mighty. You won’t have heard of it. It’s a very slim book. Some say it’s funny. It’s taught on some college campuses. Yes, there will of course be a second. But! [weakly] It’s a semi-finalist for a major humor prize!
It’s no wonder folks are surprised that I’m asking for a contract, or that I have a pro headshot. I have set them up to expect something less than professional.
The last two examples I give you, I think, are more complex. They’re still about the way we present ourselves, but they’re tied up in that elephant in the room, the issue of not wanting to rock the boat because immigrants already look different. If we keep our heads down, the common wisdom goes, we’ll be safer.
(Additional background: In my parents’ culture*, it’s bad luck to praise your children, ever. It’s thought that the spirits will hear you praising them, and take the lovely, over-achieving children away. So we weren’t ever in the habit of hearing praise. And getting it always made us feel pretty embarrassed, like we didn’t know what to do with ourselves.)
That third one is tied up in a sentiment I read a loooong time ago in a young adult novel (was it _The Cat Ate My Gymsuit_?) about getting in the jibe about yourself before someone else gets to it. You see, it hurts less coming from yourself.**
When you look different, you’re an automatic target. Your parents want the best for you, so they tell you to keep your head down and just quietly achieve. But quietly achieving things doesn’t make you any less of a target, when you are any kind of minority in any kind of society with any kind of pre-determined ideas about who you are and how you are supposed to behave. Heck, I’ve never been a great achiever, either in the quiet department or in the regular achievement department, and I’m still trying to keep my head down. It’s baked into my DNA.
And so, you get this: “You’re loud, for an Asian.” “Over-achiever, right? Typical.” “Lemme guess, your parents wanted you to be a doctor.” “You’re a writer? Wow, that’s…unusual, for your culture.” And, of course, “You can’t do math? I thought Asians were supposed to be good at math!” sometimes preceded by, “Your English is really, really good.”***
And, from my family: “Shhhh. Good girls don’t laugh like that.” “Don’t get into an argument with that person. They’ll make life hard for you.” “Just let it go.”
And so we come back to the advice, every piece of blithe cheer we get that’s meant to motivate and inspire:
You are enough
You are worth it
You are beautiful
No one is going to love you if you don’t love yourself.
People, that shit is hard. You don’t just wake up one day and go, “Hey! I’m going to love myself!”**** And yet, we struggle to get there. The internet is awash on how to do so. But no one ever tells you why you should.
Now look, because we are logical creatures and like things to fit together, there must be a reason we are willing to do this. We don’t just up and do these things.
Here’s why it’s important to represent yourself with pride, to give your accomplishments due credit. It’s easy: It’s really very tedious to backpedal from everything you’ve ever said about yourself before. It’s also an uphill battle, and one you might not ever win.
Trust me. I know.
So here’s your friendly tip for the day: You don’t need to love yourself every day. You don’t need to go around Wonder Woman-posing every chance you get, and you don’t need to stick up those lovely inspiring quotes from Tiny Buddha or Muse or Buzzfeed or whatever at eye level all around the house.
But you need to be able to recognize your achievements for what they are. Call them as you see them. Neither aggrandizing them nor minimizing them will do any good at all.
Eventually, you’ll get used to seeing yourself with clarity.***** And that’s a very, very good thing, even if there’s no meme-quote-illustration thing out there for it.
*This is a shift. I’ve always referred to it as my culture in the past, but let’s be real. I’m very Asian-American, and my parents are very Asian.
**This makes me sound like a snowflake, but there’s nothing I can do about this.
***I confess one of the most joyous, freewheeling exchanges I’ve ever had was with a close Jewish friend. We were sat at an Ukranian restaurant having lunch. The check came and I struggled with the tip. Alan barked, “What the hell kind of Asian are you? Here, give it to the Jew!” and snatched it from me. The WASP we were with looked utterly horrified, and we laughed and laughed. It’s different if you’re saying it about yourself, do you see?
****This leads down the rabbit-warren to ever more motivational quotes. “I am a work in progress,” “One day at a time,” “Today is a new day,” yadda, yadda, yadda.
*****c.f. above motivational Work in Progress. Heh.