A Journey in Self-Care

Hello friends, it’s been a while since I’ve given myself permission to sit down and write out my thoughts. As I mentioned in my last post, the past few months have been a rough ride. My department proctored finals a few days ago, and I submitted my last gradebook to the school. I knew the end was coming, but now that it’s here, it feels a bit surreal. I’ve sent each of my students a good bye letter telling them how proud I am of their progress and how much I’ll miss each of them. I just wish relations with my school could have ended on a better note.

Teaching through Covid long-distance has been one of the hardest experiences I’ve had to go through, and it’s been made all the harder without communication. I understand my colleagues have had to take on an extra load due to the school being unable to hire more teachers – the market is really good right now if you can get into China. I don’t fault them in the least, and I can understand the resentment, but it’s no excuse for the higherups to be incognito and unsupportive. Out of the blue, a lady from HR asked if I wanted to get started on my paperwork for next year, and it didn’t feel good, to say the least. My TA begged me to stay on, and it broke my heart to have to refuse her. Another TA was told to quit by the school in a bid to not have to give her unemployment benefits. It’s a terrible situation to hear about. On my end, it’s taken quite a toll just to even finish this stressful semester for my students, let alone want to do it all over again without feeling supported or appreciated.

Looking back, I wish I had known before coming to Beijing in the Fall of 2019 that my school was essentially divided into three competing departments. What was initially a department of seven teachers and three grades when I started has dwindled down to two teachers and one grade of six students for the upcoming Fall semester. Next year will probably be its last year in existence, which seems unfathomable.

Going from a year and a half of high stress to nothing, has been a hard transition. In trying to relax, I find myself plagued by past traumas and old fears. My husband suggested I write about it as I haven’t blogged in a long time. Thus, in an effort to take some of the weight off my chest, I’m sharing a bit about my background and struggles on this self-care journey. Hopefully, there’s someone out there can gain something positive out of my story, even if that is just to know that you’re not alone in the ups and downs of trying to move forward.

!!Trigger warnings: anxiety, depression, abuse, forced religious conversion, violence

This is not an easy topic to talk about or for people to hear about by any means. If you’re struggling with anxiety or depression, intergenerational trauma or gaslighting, you might not want to continue reading.

Why can’t I just relax?!

Time. I have free time. I should relax. Why can’t I stop crying? It feels like someone’s clonked me over the head and then sat on my chest. I can’t think. I can’t breathe. There’s a billion things I should do, but I can’t get up. Someone’s playing a crane game with my body, grasping and tugging at my organs and having them fall through only to start again.  Everything hurts. Dreams. Nightmares and flashbacks of my worst memories. Can’t stop thinking.  Can’t sleep. Constantly tense now that I don’t have any deadlines or grading to distract me. Racing heart, racing thoughts.

My mental health has taken a beating through the years. I often joke that my life has been one existential crisis after another, and that’s honestly not far from the truth. When I’m not keeping myself busy and distracted, little things have the potential to bring back sharp, painful memories, and it’s often a suffocating, heavy, desperate scramble to stay positive. These memories are sometimes so unexpectedly strong and clear that a seemingly good day can suddenly devolve in an instant into a panic attack and go downhill from there if I’m not careful.

  In American culture, I feel there’s more of an openness over the past decade to addressing mental health, but it’s still an ongoing struggle for it to be taken seriously in Asian cultures. In my case, being mixed and first generation, I tend to be ping-ponged between the two. It’s been an uphill journey to address. I have had so many experiences through the years that I’m still to this day working to process.  I know it’s not something in me that that can just be “fixed,” but the more I’ve learned to open-up, the more I’ve been able to realize how distorted my thinking has been and understand why I overreact to little things.

 Where to begin? Well, my story doesn’t start with me. It starts, at the latest, a generation before with a series of decisions being made that played center stage in my childhood development and subsequent recurring trauma as an adult.

A Far East Romance? Not Quite.

To give a very, very brief overview of a complicated situation: my parents married young. My father grew up poor in a divorced household in Michigan to an alcoholic mother and violent father. My Filipina mom was raised by her grandmother in Eastern Samar. In a very medieval turn of events, my teenage mother was one day taken by her father to marry the person who would become my father, a twenty-three year old enlisted White American. Pictures from this time are hard to stomach. My mother wears a racecar t-shirt, unsmiling as she signs the paperwork. She’s looked on by a gaggle of older men.

 I feel like it’s pretty obvious what my grandfather was hoping for out of their marriage, and I can’t say I blame him. My mother’s family needed money desperately and this union offered an opportunity to potentially not only bring his daughter stability, but also a means of uplifting the rest of the family. Sadly, arrangements like these are all too common in the military. I mean, it’s not far off from having a mail order bride, which, in a way, my first Egyptian American stepmother later was, but I digress. That’s a wild story for another day!

By the time the abuse started, it was too late. My Filipino grandparents saw for themselves what an explosive temper my father had. Once, as a baby, I’m told I accidentally knocked my head into a corner of a table while learning to walk, and my father dumped a pot of boiling coffee on my mother in front of my grandparents. Sadly, divorce wasn’t legal in the Philippines and still isn’t to this day with even separation being seen as shameful (fun fact: the only other country where divorce isn’t legal is The Vatican).

I often think about how my parents were too young and immature when they had me. Not in any way excusing them, but it’s a fact that they didn’t really know how to take care of me, let alone themselves. I was told from a very young age that the reason my parents stayed together was because of me, so each loud fight would fill me with a huge amount of guilt as a child. Any issue they had, I would be brought in between them. I was privy to so much information no kid should have had to bear. However, like many children, I grew up both fearing and idolizing my parents.

While I can now sympathize with my father’s need for guidance/purpose and lack of trust in anybody given his upbringing. As a teacher, I’ve seen some crazy parent-child behaviors and have had time to reflect a lot on the way parents treat their kids, and I cannot excuse the behaviors and choices he and my mother have made. I was raised in a jealous and violently dysfunctional household. I know now that as adults, they had it in their power to shield me from their problems and give my siblings and I a decent childhood. It is frustrating to think about.

Talking with my father’s sister for the first time a few years ago, I learned she had bewilderingly assumed he was trying to break their cycle of abuse like she was and couldn’t believe some of the things I told her about her brother. In a way, I think my father did try, just in an entirely different direction that ensured himself maximum control.

Because God Said So!

Our old Muslim community back in Yokota, AFB, Japan. You’d rarely get the men and women together outside of prayer time. I’m the girl in the headband towards the middle left.

You could say that my father is a serial religious convert. When I was around four years old, my father came back from his first deployment to Saudi Arabia with a new religion. At the time, we were living at McCord AFB near Tacoma in Washington State. We were practicing Buddhists then with a local Korean temple. I was baptized Catholic under my mother’s religion as a baby, but my father had embraced Buddhism while in the East. After my parents’ divorce years later, he would go on to become Greek Orthodox, among many other things.

Our conversion to Islam felt quite abrupt and stark from one day kowtowing to giant Buddha statues to suddenly having all the eyes on cd covers and vhs tapes inked out because we couldn’t have depictions of people anymore. In my little kid mind, the worst part was having my favorite pork baloney taken away as haram. It wasn’t all bad, though. I had fun choosing a new Arabic name, and my father would proudly have me memorize and then recite the holy Arabic Surah’s to old bearded men. When we moved to Japan and found a small religious community of Indonesian and Turkish Americans on-base and more at the Tokyo Islamic Center.

Visiting Masjid Putra and looking very “Handmaids Tale” in the visitor’s robes in Putrajaya, Malaysia 2015

I have nothing against Islam today, but the particular sect that my father had us in was very strict. As a kid desperate to please, I absorbed a lot of harmful ideas they supported about gender inequality and subservience in the household. Much of the time, it felt like I was living two identities: my religious one at home, and then the one at school. When I was elementary, I got into a few arguments about the role of Jesus and would tell classmates they were going to hell. Yes, I was that kid. I would later learn that’s its better to blend in and excuse myself from things like touching pork at Japanese camp by telling teachers I was allergic.

It wasn’t until my first summer in grad school while interning in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2015, with an international Muslim women’s rights group called Musawah, that I would revisit this period of my life. There’s a fascinating battle against the “Arabization” of Eastern liberal Islam’s views currently going on, which in a strange way, felt oddly familiar to my father’s Arabization of our household in the mid to late 90s.

Unlearning Self-Hate

Many of the harmful views I have of myself I gained from watching my father treat my mother poorly. My mother is the most beautiful woman in the world to me, but as a child when my father would threaten to cut off my mom’s hair during particularly nasty arguments, I took it as normal. It was my normal. I would listen to him tell her that she was ugly and no one would want her. I accepted that I, too, had to be ugly because I look so much like her. Like a sponge, I internalized many such ideas upon myself. There’s so much looking back that I took in stride – my parents’ fights, my father’s threats that he would have her deported, and being dragged out to the car in the middle of the night by my father to drive around and look for my mom ( she would have a night shift at work that he often forgot about). I would often feel queasy because I knew that if they did divorce, I would most likely stay with my father because no way could I have educational opportunities in the Philippines. I remember telling my mom this one day, and how heartbroken and disbelieving she looked.  I know now that no child should ever have to witness such things, let alone think about them as much as I had to.

My father’s paranoia sadly shifted focus to me when I got my first period. I was eleven and developing early. It was confusing being told that you were inherently dirty for being a woman and that bleeding down there changed what you could do, etc. Arguments about wanting to go to sleepovers and him accusing my friends of taking me to church would end with a belt. I would stand up for myself, and at thirteen he first started accusing me of sleeping around. It would be another two years before we’d finally get the courage to leave him for good with help from our local domestic abuse shelter.

To this day, it’s hard for me to accept compliments and feel like I’m ever good enough. Growing up, my father would grow frustrated when I would ask for homework help, constantly bringing up that he skipped three grades and he couldn’t understand why I was a stupid cow. I know I am smart, just not in the way he is. I have other great talents and accomplishments.

You don’t have to suffer alone

My freshman year of college, I met Mark, who encouraged me to go to counseling for the first time. He saw my struggles and rather than grow frustrated or angry with me, treated me with kindness and respect. Mark helped me realize it’s really not shameful to seek professional help. No one else had ever taken an active interest in me before, and it was really hard at first to not just open up, but admit to myself that I was suffering. Mark became my first boyfriend and is now my husband. I’m lucky to have someone so caring and considerate. He’s supported every decision I’ve made and has been there for me even when I’ve felt at my lowest.

Through reaching out and learning to opening up and communicate, I now understand that it takes time to heal. Grieving what could have been is part of that. I envy people who have had wholesome childhoods, who were raised around family and continue to have great relationships with them. I used to dream that family would someday come and rescue us, but reality is different. I also realize that part of not feeling like I belong anywhere is having to come to terms with memories of not just feeling like I don’t have a safe space, but of people telling me I don’t belong, whether that be because of my former religion or not being fully any ethnicity. It’s okay that I didn’t have a good childhood or a sense of what home means. I have great examples of what I don’t want to be or become, and I’ve tried to incorporate the kind of person I wish I had growing up into my role as teacher the past few years.

What’s next?

We are more than the sum of our past. I apologize if this entire post seems like a stream of consciousness ramble, but please, if you’re struggling, I really encourage you to reach out to someone. I read somewhere that if deep unhappiness is not dealt with, it’ll cause physical trouble within five years. So please, please seek help. You don’t have to keep the pain inside, and you ARE worthy of taking up space.

In retrospect, I’m grateful for the perspective these experiences have given me.  I’m currently working towards being kinder to myself. Growing up walking on eggshells and being told multiple times as a kid that I needed to be smarter, needed to be a better daughter, a better sister, etc. still takes a huge toll on my self-esteem and relationships. The past few years in China, it was a bit easier not to accept complements, because it was polite not to. There, you just deal with constant criticisms on your weight and skin color in stride since it is part of the culture. I’ve felt responsible for so many things growing up that it’s hard to let go and set healthy boundaries.  

 It’s still crazy to think that I’m done with the nocturnal teaching schedule I’ve maintained the past year and a half. I’m working toward getting back on a decent morning schedule now, which is rather painful. In the next week, Mark and I be traveling to see our families in New Mexico! I cannot believe it’s been two years since I’ve seen my mom, stepdad and brothers!

Looking forward to these blue skies!!

Honestly, I feel like I’ve been living so long going full steam ahead from position to position, that I am at a loss of what to do now, let alone what I want to do next. And that’s okay! A lot of people are reassessing their life now, and I’m grateful to be in a spot where I can afford to take some time to figure things out.

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