Once, during my freshman year of college, a friend and I decided to take the bus home—my first venture into public transportation. We caught the bus at the transit center downtown, climbed in like kids going on a field trip and made our way down the aisle to the middle. The seats were hard on our butts, but neither of us complained because we were in air conditioning. We watched people get on and get off and on and off. The light above the bus driver’s seat flashed and I heard the ding that signaled him to pull the bus over, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how this was happening. In the end, my friend and I just watched our street pass by. We sat there as the bus took us all the way back to the transit center, where the driver parked it with a lurch and stepped out for his break. Then we quietly got out off and walked home. Neither of us spoke up, neither of us asked for help, and to this day I still don’t know why.
When the world exploded
When I was a little girl, I caught bits and pieces of conversations between Mom and the aunties that made no sense. They talked about when the world exploded—thaum teb chaws tawg. As a kid, I’m like, “How could the world have exploded? We’re still here, aren’t we?” I now know they were describing the fall of Saigon, when the Americans pulled out of Laos, and our people had to run for their lives. After the 2016 election, I felt a little bit of what Mom and the aunties were talking about. To me, the 2016 election felt like an explosion. The night of the election, I texted my siblings to tell them that I loved them, and I went to sleep with a knot in my stomach. The next day, I woke up to a world I didn’t recognize.
That day, I went to a support group at the Cross Cultural Leadership Center on campus, and I listened to others’ fears—real, painful, and terrible fears—and I cried with them. Then things got worse. People walking on the streets were told to go back to their own countries when they were born in this country. Places of worship were disrespected and destroyed in a place that was built upon the idea of freedom of religion.
And I retreated.
I stopped watching the news. I stopped listening to NPR. I was overwhelmed by the screaming matches on Facebook and Twitter, the name-calling and ignorance, the hate being spewed everywhere, and I retreated to protect myself from the overwhelm.
Not long after the election, however, my mind began to come alive with responses to this explosion. I even dreamed about standing up to a racist person with no face, the words streaming out of my mouth like that kind of courage came naturally to me. I realized then that my stories wanted to be written. So I started playing around with microblogging sites like Tumblr and Twitter. Eventually, I found my voice again in the form of the Cultivate & Refine blog. I found a place where I could explore topics I’ve been too scared to explore, where I could “speak truth to bullshit” as Brene Brown puts it in her latest book, Braving the Wilderness: the Quest for True Belonging. Where I could shout as loud as I wanted—in writing, of course.
Speaking up means undoing years of learned behavior
Dr. Brown’s latest book is a response to thaum teb chaws tawg—not in Saigon in 1975, but in the U.S. in 2016. It’s a map for all of us, those who were affected negatively and those who were affected positively, to find our way through the dark. In Braving, she lays out an argument that we can have
a world where we can make and share art and words that will help us find our way back to one another. Then instead of yelling from afar and refusing to help each other when we’re struggling, we’ll find the courage to show up for each other.
This quote made me cry, and it made me think of all those times I should’ve spoken up but didn’t.
“What are you so scared of?” Dad asked me once after I refused to translate something at the hospital. “Speak up.”
I didn’t know at the time, but maybe it has something to do with being an introvert, or never seeing someone who looked like me speak up, or growing up in a culture that encouraged and continues to encourage girls to listen passively instead of participate in deep discussion. I’m sure it’s all of these things combined. At the age of 32, I’m just beginning to unlearn some of these deeply ingrained behaviors so that I could show up for myself and for those who need my voice.
Letting go of the need to be liked
To unlearn cultural and community behaviors that have shaped part of my personality, I had to start with letting go of the need to be liked. This was and is the struggle of my life. As a rule follower, a recovering perfectionist and a people pleaser, each time I know I’m going to displease someone, my body goes into panic. My heart starts racing, my breaths come out in small bursts, and I can’t stand to be in my own skin. It’s uncomfortable to go against what comes naturally, like when you swim against the current or when you switch the left and right sides of your shoes.
When I first started blogging, I was careful not to offend or make anyone uncomfortable. I wrote tentatively and generally, skirting around topics that were true to my heart. Then, a few months in, I poured all my truth out in a post about waiting to have children, about my frustration with the pressure placed on me by everyone around me. In that post, I let go of the fear of being judged. I let go of the need to be liked. And I embraced the ability to speak heart to heart to those who needed to hear my story (and to those who didn’t need to hear my story as well). I wrote from the most vulnerable parts of me, and to my surprise, it connected with women (and some men) across the country. But even better than that, I connected with my true self. My full self.
According to Dr. Brown,
We are complex beings who wake up every day and fight against being labeled and diminished with stereotypes and characterizations that don’t reflect our fullness. Yet when we don’t risk standing on our own and speaking out, when the options laid before us force us into the very categories we resist, we perpetuate our own disconnection and loneliness. When we are willing to risk venturing into the wilderness, and even becoming our own wilderness, we feel the deepest connection to our true self and to what matters the most.
And when we can connect with our true self, our full self, we tap into belonging and self-love, and we’re able to give, connect, and love others without judgement. We’re able to do all of this without fear of not belonging. Having the courage to speak up means that we’ll never be alone.
Tapping into our own store of courage
My eighth grade teacher was man of medium height with a round belly and a beak-like nose. He always wore plaid button-up shirts, and he was hard on us. He held us to high standards. Because he also taught woodshop or ag (I can’t remember), we sat at squared tables built into the floor, four to a table. One day, during a test that I had stayed up all night studying for, I felt awesome. I knew everything on the test. Then I happened to look up to see that my tablemate, the student sitting to my right, had copied every single thing I had written on my paper. A few days later, when we got our tests back, I got an A. Before I was able to fully appreciate the hard work I had put into studying for the test, that same student was parading around with his test. He had also gotten an A. I don’t know what came over me in that moment.
“You only got an A because you copied me,” I said loud enough for everyone to hear.
The room went silent for just the barest second. Then it went loud again, like nothing had happened. Had I really spoken? Did anyone hear me?
The next day, the teacher moved the student to another table.
Now, I’m not saying that was the right way to handle it. I was a fourteen-year-old. Maybe I should’ve spoken to the teacher after class. Maybe I should’ve confronted the student alone instead of calling him out in front of the whole class. But a part of me now remembers that moment as a moment of gosh-dang-it-I’ve-finally-had-it courage. Dr. Brown says, “To know you can navigate the wilderness on your own—to know that you can stay true to your beliefs, trust yourself, and survive it—that is true belonging.” I want to tap into that fourteen-year-old girl’s gosh-dang-it-I’ve-finally-had-it courage. I want to speak truth to bullshit.
We don’t all have to speak up the same way.
The important thing is that we do. Storytelling is my way of speaking up. I choose to tell stories because I know they have the power to connect us. By sharing my stories, maybe another girl would have the courage to speak up and ask for help when she is taking the bus home from school.
A couple of weeks ago, at a diversity summit for Chico State, we did a mask activity. On the front of the mask, we wrote what people saw when they looked at us. On the back, we wrote what people didn’t see. Then, if we felt brave enough, we shared it—both sides of it. I wrote the words young, little, confident, made it on the front of my mask. On the back I wrote several words, but the one that stood out to me the most was introvert. I wrote it in small, lowercase letters, a strong whisper across the smooth surface of the plastic. Although I sometimes present as an extrovert, usually I want nothing more than to be alone to read and process and reflect (in other words, some RPR time, LOL). But since the summit, I’ve been reminded again and again that we all have to speak up—in one form or another—or we risk unintentionally supporting the oppressors and we risk losing our connection with one another.
In Braving the Wilderness, Dr. Brown uses the wilderness as a metaphor for standing alone, for speaking up and out of the crowd. The wilderness, however, is a scary place for an introvert—perhaps for an extrovert, too. You’re exposed. There’s the weather and bears and snakes. There are ants that sting you and leave you itching for weeks on end. But if we can all find the courage to speak up and speak out truth in a capacity and on a platform that works for us, we can be free and we can start that journey back to what matters most.
How are you braving the wilderness?