Live Through This

Odd Girl In

My lifelong commitment to my own individuality rendered me incapable of being part of something bigger than myself.

That whole day, I didn’t have a single conversation about how tired anyone was or how late they had stayed up studying or how boring last weekend’s parties were. Those learned pleasantries and inconsequential discussions were replaced by exchanges of knowing looks and appreciative smiles while everybody chanted together:

One, two, three, four
We don’t want your racist war!
Five, six, seven, eight
No more killing, no more hate!

Except I didn’t shout. I mouthed the words silently, but I couldn’t actually say them. The moment everyone started chanting and marching in unison, that old feeling crept back up. While everyone else was taking a stand against war and injustice, I was back at the pep rally, taking my own stand against being part of the group, even if the group was advocating for something positive that I agreed with. So what if the chant “No justice? No peace!” didn’t capture the complexity of what was happening in Iraq? No chant ever could. And yet I couldn’t join in. Once again, I felt myself refusing to become part of something larger than myself. But this time, I wasn’t proud of myself. I was ashamed.

~~~~

My first job out of college was as a field organizer for a healthcare workers’ union in San Francisco. I was responsible for the roughly 3,000 Chinese-speaking homecare workers in the city, most of whom were women were my mother’s age or older who spoke only Cantonese, making my fluency in Mandarin totally useless. To say that job was outside my comfort zone would be like saying Pluto is a bit far from Earth, but I had wanted to challenge myself, and this job definitely did that.

Luckily, the job kept me way too busy to think about myself. When I’d been there a month, the union organized a strike at three local hospitals that had been taken over by a healthcare megalith called Sutter Health that had instituted major cuts in wages and benefits while issuing lots of memoranda outlining expectations of increased “productivity” and “efficiency” (translation: “work harder for less money, mmmkay?”). Since I was the youngest and the most recently hired employee in the union’s homecare division, I was the first one given strike duty. I’d been assigned to the picket line outside the emergency-room entrance, known as the “Filipino nurse station” because, with the exception of one Burmese man and two Filipino men, everyone there was Filipino and female.

When I got to my station, I saw a couple of women setting down massive tinfoil pans on the communal table.

“Can I put these pamphlets here?” I asked one of them. “They’re for interested passersby.”

“Is it food?” she asked.

“Not really,” I said.

“Then no.”

Another woman, who introduced herself as Terry, came up and patted me on the back. “Don’t worry about her,” she said. “You’ll start to get our sense of humor soon enough.” She offered me a plate heaping with rice and eggs and Spam, then she pointed to the tinfoil covered pans. “Pancit, for later,” she said.

It was the best breakfast I had ever eaten.

Soon, a crowd of women—probably between 30 and 50 in all—had gathered around me. One of them said, “Are you our new picket-line leader?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You look 18,” another woman said.

“I’m 21.”

“Oh,” said Terry. “This is a good place for you to get started.” And it was. It truly was.

After everyone had filled their stomachs with Spam fried rice and pancit, I heard someone say, “It’s time.”

“Oh, like time to picket?” I asked.

“No, that’s later. First, we dance.”

Terry brought out her boombox and played Filipino pop hits by Otso Otso and Pamela One and Bulaklak, and everyone danced in line and egged one another on and had very elaborate dance-offs. I didn’t know how to swivel my ass in the shape of the number 8 like these women did, but I loved watching and learning from them. They joked about setting me up with their sons and told me I was an “honorary Filipino” because I ate more pancit than anyone else.

At times, it felt like one big, long-ass dance party, but it wasn’t. All I had to give up for the strike was my eight consecutive 13-hour days; the striking workers were sacrificing far more. One of the them first introduced to me as “the guy to know.” This was Bong.

“Bong?” I repeated.

“Bong,” he said, then mimed smoking weed out of one.

“Nice to meet you, Bong.”

Bong had just bought a house with his wife in Sonoma County, a two-hour drive from San Francisco, which left them pinched for money. They had two young kids, one of whom was a newborn, and Bong had started working double shifts at the hospital.

“A few times, I fell asleep at the wheel on the drive home. It’s a long dark commute, you know?” he told me.

Striking workers got 70 percent of their regular pay, which wasn’t enough for Bong to make ends meet. He confessed that if he didn’t somehow come up with more money by the end of the month, he would default on his mortgage. “How am I supposed to go home and be a man?” he said. “How am I supposed to be a father and a husband and tell my family we might be homeless next week?”

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32 Comments

  • TessAnnesley May 27th, 2014 12:41 AM

    “A-women”

    GOLD

  • maddyr May 27th, 2014 12:48 AM

    This is AMAZING, oh my goodness. Jenny, I really like your writing.

  • red flowers May 27th, 2014 1:18 AM

    I really really like this! Thanks for bringing it into my day! :)

  • clocksheep May 27th, 2014 2:38 AM

    Jenny, I’ve missed your writing for Rookie so much! This is wonderful.

  • ashmado May 27th, 2014 3:02 AM

    This is really powerful and relatable, I almost cried. Thank you so much for sharing this, it’s beautiful!

  • shelley May 27th, 2014 6:05 AM

    Just wow! That was amazing.

  • kimchi May 27th, 2014 6:41 AM

    I always love reading pieces from you Jenny. Our lives have been very different, yet I feel that I can relate your experiences with groups to my own life. In school I liked doing sports because it was a way for me to clear my head, but I never felt like I really belonged with the athletes. I was never going to care about victory as much as them. To some extent I went along with the charade, but the glitz felt meaningless. The thought of groups of people collectively caring about something meaningful felt very foreign. Even though there were many clubs for charities at my school, I found it hard to take the people in them seriously. Everyone was so worried about college applications. Even when they put on the performance of caring, few seemed to genuinely care about anyone besides themselves.

    I remember in elementary school I coughed up a ball of phlegm during the pledge of allegiance. I kept it in my mouth because I knew I wasn’t supposed to move. It was disgusting.

    I like to wear long skirts without underwear too. It is way more comfortable, and it can be very fun for the reasons you mentioned.

    http://glitterous-clitoris.blogspot.com.au/

    • Jenny May 27th, 2014 4:06 PM

      You sound like the raddest person & yr blog is out of this world ♡

  • AnarchyAndrea May 27th, 2014 7:24 AM

    This. I’m supposed to be writing an analysis on Lord of the Flies right now but this. I have tears on my face as i write this because I understand this so well. Growing up mexican-american in a predominantly white small town which I NEVER felt a part of, I completely understand this mindset. Now that I’m going off to college in the fall I can’t begin to describe my frustration on just how to go about translating my passion for social movements, my blind desire to be an activist into a sustainable career. The end of this piece is what got me. Because as soon as I read it, all I could think of was being 9 years old, at a marching rally for immigration reform with my parents and hearing all around me, the ringing of voices resounding, “LA GENTE UNIDA JAMAS SERA VENCIDA! LA GENTE UNIDA JAMAS SERA VENCIDA!!”

    • Jenny May 27th, 2014 4:06 PM

      I have tears in my eyes… the thought of you as a kid shouting with the adults at an immigration reform rally. That’s beautiful ♡

  • fluorescentyesterday May 27th, 2014 7:30 AM

    This was amazing to read. Thank you Jenny, your writings are always my favorites, partially because I’m half Chinese and I feel like I can identify with you in many ways (even though I’m only a high schooler).

  • i-skreeeeam May 27th, 2014 7:30 AM

    Wow jenny ive always been to shy to comment but this has really moved me .. this blew me away. IM so incredibly humbled by your honesty and rawness and talent in everything you write. I can relate to this so so much and it has inspired me in a very big way to get involved in activism. Thankyou thankyou thankyou xo

  • flocha May 27th, 2014 8:20 AM

    my god this is so beautiful. I have trouble relating to stuff and everything you wrote here perfectly describes everything I feel x

  • elliecp May 27th, 2014 8:45 AM

    this is so amazing. It just goes to show that we as individuals can change things if we put our minds to it. so inspirational to read!

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • soviet_kitsch May 27th, 2014 9:35 AM

    “You’re not touching any of my members. I’m going to get you fired for threatening a peaceful picketer. You’re a thug and a coward for intimidating someone half your size, and now you’re trying to threaten a 21-year-old woman?”

    “I was so quick to equate solidarity with intolerant jingoism, I assumed all loyalty was blind. I didn’t see, until those people were kind enough to take me in, that being part of a group could be enlightening or beautiful or good.”

    jenny, you continue to be one of my all-time favourite writers anywhere.

  • callie May 27th, 2014 10:17 AM

    THIS IS COOL
    just asking, how did you get that job? i mean im from the uk so its different but id still like to know. thanks!
    callie xoxox

    • Jenny May 27th, 2014 4:07 PM

      I think I actually find it out on idealist.org But at least here in the US, you can just go to any union’s website and look to see if they are hiring under “Employment” or “Job Opportunities.” Labor is always hiring… so it seems.

  • Eileen May 27th, 2014 11:14 AM

    I always love what Jenny has to say. I literally wait around for a Jenny article to pop up. This was really, really cool.

  • obeykid May 27th, 2014 1:01 PM

    This is a really nice depiction of what growing up in the USA is like when you’re immigrant and kinda broke.

    I relate to this a lot. Thank you for this.

    This is great. I can’t even express very well how I feel about this except that it’s great.

    https://www.etsy.com/shop/obeykid

  • Vlada May 27th, 2014 1:24 PM

    Jenny your writing is out of this world as always.
    OMG I really enjoyed today’s articles, I feel like it was one of the best days

  • Maria Clara Santarosa May 27th, 2014 2:39 PM

    This is so good and accurate and meaningful and beautiful. Well done, Jenny. Well done.

  • doikoon May 27th, 2014 2:55 PM

    Jenny, I’m going to tell you something. One time you said something in an interview… you said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I think deep down everyone likes themselves, or else why would we keep doing it”. I Identify that and discovering rookie in general (via Rosianna on youtube) to be imperative to of getting me out of depression. Thank you :)

    • Jenny May 27th, 2014 4:08 PM

      Wow, I kinda remember saying that, but I’m so happy you found Rookie and we found each other ♡♡♡

  • Jenny May 27th, 2014 4:09 PM

    Thank you so much for your ^^ comments, it honestly makes me so happy to read em that I feel embarrassed I can’t say more!

  • blueolivia May 27th, 2014 6:25 PM

    jenny, you’re such an excellent writer. this had me breaking down with inexplicable tears at four in the afternoon.

  • spudzine May 27th, 2014 7:53 PM

    Hello! I REALLY loved this piece, because some of it mirrors how I feel about life now. I sincerely hope things get better after high school, because my peers are kind of similar to the peers described above. They don’t care about being racist and misogynistic and bullies, the people in charge of them don’t care, and I do, which makes me feel like a miser. My hope isn’t lost, though! Also, not to be disrespectful, but on the second page there seems to be an error in ‘two things I so sick of thinking about’ on the second page.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/
    http://emotwins.tumblr.com/
    http://rockogirl.tumblr.com/

  • Amy Rose May 28th, 2014 1:45 AM

    i mean, holy shit

  • rahima May 28th, 2014 4:05 AM

    I love this story. It was kinda quirky and at the same time, inspiring. Sending my support from half way around the earth. Thanks for thisss <3 :)

  • avisanti May 28th, 2014 9:24 AM

    This is a great piece. I love your work, Jenny! And I’m glad you enjoyed your Pinoy breakfast. :) sending my love and support all the way from the Philippines. <3

  • gentleman honey farmer May 28th, 2014 12:16 PM

    Jenny knocks it out of the park, as always. What a remarkable human being.

  • Jes May 28th, 2014 5:59 PM

    tears