Well, if you just look at this girl, you would quite easily come to the conclusion that she is liberal. I mean, come on. I wear flowers in my hair. I steal unnamed flowers from old churchyards and leave them at the feet of sleeping homeless people. I’m a writer and an artist and well, I went to Harvard. I’m an English major. When 2008 rolled around and I heard Obama’s speech on race, I was so stoked I went with a bunch of yuppies I met on the Obama campaign website in a flock of Priuses to offer rides to the polls in New Hampshire. This was the first time I did anything even vaguely political. I took Divinity School classes. My very first year, I took Professor Gomes’ Christian Bible course, which is the bane of fingers-in-ears-lalalalala-I-can’t-hear-you-Christian-conservative parents everywhere (Gomes put this far more elegantly, but you know what I mean…). I self-identify as Anglican, probably the most wishy-washy denomination there is, containing a whole gamut of priests who, among other things, are the most openly non-celibate gay priest in any denomination, simultaneously Muslim and Buddhist, the current C.S. Lewis, respected leaders of the African church, etc etc. As they say, the one good thing about being Episcopalian (we can’t even agree on “Anglican” in the US!) is that whatever you believe, there is always at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you. (Although I must point out, we very very often agree to disagree). And oh, we drink actual wine at communion, not that lukewarm Ribena stuff. And have you had those little wafers? They melt in your mouth, those little wafers. But I digress.
Yes. Five years of Cambridge, Massachusetts with its white steepled churches and its air of vague Unitarianism has definitely rubbed off on me. There are bits I’m personally not proud of – play-acting the New Yorkery sophisticate dodging the hard questions, swirling cheap wine in dirty glasses, trying on different affectations, flipping through fashion magazines with a worshipful intensity that made me hate my body, and above all, intellectual snobbery and pure, blind prejudice. Prejudice that made me hold anyone who called themselves Republican or tacked up a Bush family photo in their dorm in mild contempt, when it was always my philosophy to treat everyone as equal, beautiful, and valuable. I guess it was not until I shipped myself off to my supposedly dream-job in Manhattan itself that I realized this stuff would crush me. The refinement, the condescension, the pretty phrases turned at elite tables, the self-congratulation on one’s own openness and cosmopolitanism. The ironic conviction that you are the most tolerant of the tolerant, and that therefore everyone else should be like you.
But I am liberal. Because beneath that supersubtle veneer, I am dispossessed. I am poor. I am needy, and I need help. I need lifting up.
I glower with resentment that my particular gifts and vocation have always immediately conjured pictures of abject poverty (cf. Avenue Q’s opening number…”What do you do with a B.A. in English?” Seriously, the most depressing 3 minutes of my Manhattan summer…). That is, unless you throw in the towel and become a consultant. Not that I have anything against consultants, it’s the salary that’s the problem for me. You see, I would much rather carry the burden of poverty – for now – than the burden of riches. It’s simply a matter of what temptations I’m more liable to yield to. I know myself. I would be a workaholic. I would not keep the Sabbath. As it is, my eye for beauty gets me into all sorts of trouble with gluttony and lust and pride – I do not need to stoke those fires. I would get obsessed with fashion. I would be filled with anxiety. I would die a slow death in Manhattan, like Madam Bovary, surrounded by exquisite things. I loved New York, but New York couldn’t care less. And I’m not mature enough to opt out of something my dear friends will no doubt find themselves legitimately enjoying – the wonderful restaurants, the museum openings, the fabulous fashions, the privileged refinement of the thing.
How is it fair that my friend is gifted with the vocation of being a Goldman Sachs trader, who enjoys every second of making 20% profit on any given capital, who fits easily in with the New York set, and I am equally gifted but in the bizzaro-artist-writer vocation? Why should I pay for the sins of a society that values one category of gifts more than another? Why should I pay for the fact that I am simply a very very long term (as in, in undiscovered time, a couple of centuries later, when they unearth my poems from a little drawer, if at all, sort of long-term) investment? Or that ultimately, my work will only be recognized in heaven? I mean, I would simply be happy with the dole. But nope, no dole. Also, I’m not even a citizen. So even though I’ve been through this marvelous Harvard education, in two months, grace period on my visa is up, and yup! Deportation to Mexico or Canada.
And I come from a long line of those who were dispossessed, sometimes very obviously because of this artistic disposition. My great grandfather, who goes by the label of “useless poet” in the family oral history, eloped with someone else’s betrothed. To avoid being drowned by the village, they escaped from China to Malaya, where they scratched out a living (or rather, she did) selling cakes and writing name-poems on commission. They gave away two daughters because they didn’t have enough money. Their only son was snatched away by a wealthy landlord. My great-grandmother died of a broken heart, and her husband walked distractedly out of the house, trailing my grandmother and her sister, aged 5 and 7. They walked all the way down the peninsula to Singapore, only to have the girls kidnapped and sold off at a temple where their father had left them in trust.
On the other side of my family, my great-grandfather came to America as an indentured laborer from China. He planted rice in Hawaii, then made good and opened a small tailoring business. He sent for my great-grandmother, and they had a whole string of children who were born American citizens. Not wanting them to lose touch with their culture, he sent them back to China for schooling. Then America passed the Chinese Exclusion Act (I still remember reading about this with tears in my eyes, in the Tozzer Library at Harvard – in that moment, history became unbearably personal – ), and my great-grandfather hurried back to prevent losing everything he had built. But then war broke out, and the family in Asia lost their papers. They had no proof they had ever lived in America. Eventually, my great-grandfather died alone in the mountains of Hawaii in 1940. He did not know what had happened to his wife or children. His grave is there – I visited it, left him a freshly-cut bird of paradise. Meanwhile, the family moved south and south as the Japanese advanced from Manchuria into Hong Kong and into Malaya and finally Singapore. They lost two brothers along the way. They starved in that war, getting bloated cos there was only tapioca to eat, but my grandmother also fell in love and married my grandfather.
So you see, between slavery, immigration, kidnapping, debilitating depression, war, sickness, separation, homelessness, spontaneous poetic elopement and the final, inevitable fall, I can’t help but sympathize with the poor, even though I was born into the fortunate generation that attained comfortable upper-middle-class-ness. It is my legacy. I am homeless myself – but in good company. “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head. (Luke 9:58)”. Jesus lived a life of radical dependence on charity, sponsorship, donations – often from rich women, who would open their homes to him. This is not to say he wasn’t also royal, authoritative, just, wholesome, honorable, and the greatest warrior who ever lived. But he was gentle as well as severe, merciful as well as just, beautiful as well as terrible. I wouldn’t say he was liberal – I prefer the word Generous. In Chinese, there is a proverb that says a good man is one with a stomach so big it could hold a boat: this is a picture of generosity. A boat is also a generous thing – it is always headed outwards, its prow facing the world – it represents hope, always containing something else for someone else – Jesus was like that. He was a truly Generous soul.
And His Generosity is wise and extravagant. Of course if you give the homeless man on the corner a quarter you don’t know if it will go towards drugs or his next meal. But if you give him a sandwich, or even better, piece after piece of the most exquisite Swiss designer chocolate, you know exactly what he’s going to do with it, and it is a tiny glimpse of the Kingdom of God. I mean, it’s actually a completely sound application of Diminishing Marginal Returns. How monotonous that chocolate is to someone who feasts upon it every day! But to the homeless man, it is a revelation! Because so much lies buried, so much human potential, so much light and heat and power that goes untapped and is dispersed dimly because of a lack of opportunity. But beyond lack of opportunity there is a larger sin at hand – that ancient sin that blinds us from looking that crazy muttering bag lady in the eye and seeing Jesus.
My grandmother, whom I have never met, passed on to me her insatiable hunger for knowledge. Sold into slavery, she listened secretly behind the curtain as the two sons of the household were educated, and taught herself to read and write. By the time she was married at 16, barefoot and pregnant with 6 children and one adoptee, she was reading the Chinese classics – Dream of the Red Chambers, Journey to the West, and her personal favourite, the epic of war and war strategy, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Did she go to Harvard? Nope. But she sure deserved to be here. I mean, talk about admissions essay material.
I am their representative. My grandmother was one of the most generous people I know. She gave her house to the church when she died – she was my maternal grandmother, and my paternal grandfather was the one who founded that church and served as its first pastor. My parents were married in this church founded upon the backs of their two families, whose stories magnificently intertwined. I am their daughter.
And I realize it is only because of them that I can afford to be generous. It is only because, by a complicated string of Providences, I don’t have to worry about supporting my parents or my siblings, despite being the eldest child (and suffering subconsciously, through no fault of my parents, from the Chinese First Child syndrome). How can I, with all I have received from my family, my culture, my country, fritter it away on acquiring rather than giving? It is a calling that has blown through generations, a realization of the hopes and dreams held beyond even them by unknown, nameless, illiterate ancestors – to tell stories, to discern the meanings of names, to sing hymns, to love wisely and fiercely and well, to read and to know and to do and make new things –
How can I, knowing these things, then turn away and ignore such a siren call? How can I, seeing these things, then turn away and not spread my wings? Hopefully, by the Grace of Christ Jesus our Lord, by the Grace that calls men and women to Himself from generation to generation, the apple will not fall too far from the tree.