Style

Style = Substance

Why are all these girls smiling?

The Joy Luck Club, 1993

“Damn. Do all Chinese people have such depressing lives?”

“Yep,” I said, because I was 13, and because no one had ever told me what you’re supposed to do if you’re in ninth grade and reading The Joy Luck Club for English class and you happen to be Chinese just like the main characters in the book, and apparently no one in your town has ever met another real-life Chinese person before, and now you are expected to speak for every single Chinese person who has ever lived or will live, even though you are still just figuring out how to speak for yourself.

“Huh,” the other kids said.

And just like that, my world, which had always felt so infinite and indescribable and complicated, was suddenly tiny, reduced to a simple and finite and false narrative to fit into the only story my peers knew about Chinese immigrants in America: that they had suffered a lot in a strange, exotic, and horrible faraway place before coming to America, where they continued to suffer.

But in reality, when my parents came home from work, they didn’t just sit around talking about eating bitterness. Although sometimes they did talk about the sad old times, there were other times when we cracked jokes or sulked around in our own moodiness, or farted at the dinner table and fell to the ground laughing, or farted at the dinner table and yelled at each other for being disgusting, or did things by ourselves and ignored one another because there were so many things that were possible in our family, as was and is, I’m sure, the case in your family.

And even when my parents talked about the sad, old times, it wasn’t immediately obvious that what they were talking about were, in fact, sad, old times. My dad often told me stories about the time when he was sent to work on a collective farm, which were these state-owned farms in Communist China. On this particular farm, my father and the other boys had to shit outside where the pigs slept and in the summer, they’d sit around scratching their bums thanks to the mosquitoes who feasted on them while they pooped. During one especially cold winter, my dad became horribly constipated from eating too much flour (he and the other workers would often eat this cruddy, pancake-like concoction made of flour, water, and soy sauce whenever there wasn’t enough food) and, after not shitting for a week, he finally felt the stirrings of what he thought might be a turd. He ran outside, where it was below freezing, pulled down his pants, and started to push, only to realize—mid-turd—that he was still constipated. The half-turd he’d had managed to squeeze out had frozen and had to be snapped free from his butthole like a twig. (I’m so sorry, Dad, for sharing the details of your bowel movements with Rookie readers.)

When I first heard this story, I thought it was kind of funny. And also kind of sad. But in the ninth grade, there wasn’t space for a story like that to be both. In fact, when I was growing up, there weren’t very many stories at all about people like me and my family. The few instances when I encountered a character who dimly resembled me on TV or in movies or in a book were often profoundly alienating moments— I mean what did a Chinese exchange student (played by a Japanese-American actor) cheerfully asking Molly Ringwald in broken English, “What’s happening, hot stuff?” have to do with me?

And that’s why the story of my father’s frozen half-turd means so much to me. It reminds me that the story of our lives can be wonderful and depressing and funny and banal and bizarre and terrifying and traumatic, all at the same time, because you and I and everyone else in this world are vast, and we contain multitudes.

***

My best friend in sixth grade, Lata, was Indian. She used to invite me over to her house in the afternoons so that she could copy my homework and eat her mom’s homemade samosas in front of me without offering me a single one. “Can you hurry up?” she would say to me. “I need to copy it before my mom asks me to help with dinner.”

“Hey,” I used to say. “Am I saint or what?”

“Fuck no. You’re no saint,” Lata would shoot back. “You’re shitting yourself if you think you’re a saint.” Lata swore and lusted after boys and she had a fine booty at a time when mine was still suffering from acute depression, but mostly how I remember her is that she was the most ruthlessly resourceful girl I had ever met. She somehow got away with not learning anything in school while still getting grades almost as good as mine. Sometimes I would go through the trouble of writing down the wrong answers to homework assignments at her house and then going back to my house and redoing everything the right way.

The next year, I moved away to a nicer, wealthier town in Long Island, and we lost touch. At my new school I was one of two Asian kids in my honors class. Everyone else was white. In ninth grade, after we finished The Joy Luck Club, we read this book Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind, about a feisty twelve year old Muslim Pakistani girl who must marry a wealthy but horrible older man for the good of her family. That same year, our social studies teacher was handing out readings on arranged marriage in Indian society. I remember one about this woman who set herself on fire in an attempt to escape her abusive husband. God, I thought, it must be, like, the saddest thing in the world to be born Indian. (Also back then, I did not know how to distinguish between Indian and Pakistani.)

While I was filling myself with what I thought was totally commendable pity for all the poor, suffering Indian girls in the world, it never once occurred to me that my friend Lata, who never took bullshit from anyone, was also an Indian girl. It was almost as if the inclusion of Lata would have spoiled my ability to feel singularly sorry for Indian girls everywhere. I didn’t feel at all sorry for Lata. I wanted her to give me a freaking samosa and stop asking to copy my homework.

***

Here’s what I wish I knew back when I was in high school and so proud of myself for being the exceptionally compassionate, caring person I believed myself to be: focusing only on the pain and degradation of any oppressed group of people does another kind of damage to those individuals. It turns them into stereotypes of pain and damage and ignores everything else about them, including whether they’re funny, or stupid, or weird, or brilliant, or irreverent, or stylish, or creative, or boring, or selfish, or anything else that people are capable of being. It takes away their complexity and vastness and reduces people to one-dimensional figures. So yes, this is a post about style, but more than that, it’s a post about not denying these girls the dignity of their multitudes.

In that spirit, I present to you a selection of photos of black and brown and yellow girl gangs in American history whose stories will not be pinned down or relegated to the same old stereotypes, and whose poufs seemingly never flatten.

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31 Comments

  • Kathryn November 28th, 2011 11:26 PM

    This is a wonderful and really interesting post! What inspiring, badass ladies.

  • Chimdi November 28th, 2011 11:34 PM

    UGH I totally relate! I happen to be Nigerian, not Chinese, but whenever slavery comes up in class (and I am one out of like, three black people at my school) it is SO terribly awkward!

    • Jenny November 30th, 2011 12:16 AM

      Ugh, I’m sorry you have to deal with that bullshit.

  • Leilani November 28th, 2011 11:37 PM

    This is magnificent! I love the way it was written and the way it was presented. Thank you for this, really!

  • fizzingwhizbees November 28th, 2011 11:45 PM

    ooh, those flapper ladies are so cool it hurts.

  • neelybat November 28th, 2011 11:46 PM

    thank you so much for this post. these stories need to be told. xo

  • go.outside November 29th, 2011 12:31 AM

    Amazing post.

  • Catelyn November 29th, 2011 12:56 AM

    Whoo! The best post yet. I got chills all the way through. :)

  • Ellie November 29th, 2011 1:26 AM

    Bless this post! Women of color unite!

  • hollysh November 29th, 2011 2:19 AM

    What an excellent article. I actually almost shed a little tear of sentimental joy at the end. Thanks Jenny.

  • Ayla November 29th, 2011 6:12 AM

    So inspiring to see ladies of color be so dramatically fierce in the face of adversity.
    Other than the great sense of style on the surface, it just shows that they refused to go down without a fight.

    Also! colored flapper girls! who knew?

  • geriballmeow November 29th, 2011 6:34 AM

    This gave me chills! You make such a great point, that treating victims as victims KEEPS them victims, instead of opening our eyes to see them as fierce, wonderful, strong, diverse people. I already felt strongly on this point, but it’s a point that’s not often made. And you make it so well! Beautifully written.

  • Cahhhhhs November 29th, 2011 12:36 PM

    Jenny -

    Thanks for this post. The photos of the Japanese-American women going to/in internment camps reminds me of Linda Grant’s book, The Thoughtful Dresser (which I would highly recommend), in which she writes a short piece about the a pair of red heels which I believe is on display at the Holocaust Museum; she uses the shoe as a launching point to show that fashion, far from being trivial, helps to humanize us.

    • Jenny November 30th, 2011 12:16 AM

      Thank you for the recommendation! I am going to check it out for sure.

  • KayKay November 29th, 2011 3:11 PM

    I really loved this post!
    Maybe being a quarter Hong Kong chinese myself has something to do with that, who knows..

  • Shaynah November 29th, 2011 4:44 PM

    This is one of the best pieces Rookie has delivered so far. I cried for every woman, ever. So inspiring.

  • rhymeswithorange November 29th, 2011 5:51 PM

    “Here’s what I wish I knew back when I was in high school…: focusing only on the pain and degradation of any oppressed group of people does another kind of damage to those individuals”
    Which brings me to this video:
    http://blog.ted.com/2009/10/07/the_danger_of_a/
    We watched this in my asian history class at the beginning of the year. Because everyone was like, “yuck, asia!” No one should have to deal with single stories, yet they are so common.

    • Aine November 29th, 2011 6:22 PM

      XD I love that we both brought up this video. Great minds think alike, no?

      • rhymeswithorange November 29th, 2011 10:52 PM

        haha I’m glad someone else knows about it! It’s an awesome video. I love TED talks

    • Jenny November 30th, 2011 12:16 AM

      Yes! I originally had a section in this post about Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of the Single Story,” but ended up cutting that part out of the essay. I love that speech so much and I watch it at least once a month and try to show it to everyone I know. I’m so happy that you brought it up! Everyone should watch it!

  • Aine November 29th, 2011 5:59 PM

    Rookie, I do not think it is possible for you to be any more awesome. Thank you for showing me these fantastic ladies.
    This post actually reminded me of a TEDTalk about “the danger of a single story.” It’s really fascinating; check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg

    • Jenny November 30th, 2011 12:17 AM

      Yes! Everyone should check it out. It’s so relevant and beautifully presented.

  • jeanette November 29th, 2011 7:19 PM

    Thank you

  • Whatsername November 29th, 2011 7:24 PM

    This is awe-inspiring.

  • Jenny November 30th, 2011 12:17 AM

    Thank you everyone for getting behind this post and these girls. Lots of love from my tiny corner of the world to all of you!

  • MaggieMae November 30th, 2011 2:55 AM

    I cannot tell you how much I loved reading this article. Your comments on the 2nd page about the hispanic girl gangs in the 1940′s. I read a essay in history last year on the impact of Latina women in history.

  • Bren November 30th, 2011 5:46 AM

    Thank you for posting this, I love seeing pictures of Mexican-American women back in the day being totally fierce. Of all the different women, no matter the race. I’m Mexican myself and I don’t know, those pictures are just amazing. I love how the women at the internment camps still dazzled themselves up. It’s just breathtaking.

  • diana94 November 30th, 2011 7:43 PM

    definitely one of the best rookie articles ever! im Mexican and i was an exchange student at the US last year, at first i was scared of people being racist but everybody treated me so well!! im glad all this stupid laws have changed

  • unicorn November 30th, 2011 9:51 PM

    not only are they all amazingly fierce, and not only is this a wonderfully written article that showcases the fact that white women were not the only people who wore fantastic clothes throughout history, BUT ALL THESE WOMEN HAVE AMAZING LEGS.

  • Pashupati December 16th, 2011 8:57 PM

    Holy cow, this is awesome.
    I found out recently about the chicanos while searching about another youth movements, but this definitely makes me want to learn more about it, and made me learn about other stuffs, and I saw the sheer awesomeness of People In The Universe.
    Awesome.

  • SonjaIrene December 20th, 2011 7:46 PM

    This post is amazing! I’d love to see more writing about ladies of color on Rookie. The content is great, but it definitely doesn’t always seem the most accessible to girls of color. More like this, please!