Just saying seventy-five years old is pretty daunting, let alone a bit startling. Sometimes the looks on some people’s faces are: REALLY? or damn, you sure don’t act like it! The latter of which I’m not too sure how to interpret. The truth be told, I never thought I’d make it this far.
I always feared I’d die in a plane crash or given my driving record…. well, that’s another story that only my closest friends will nervously attest to.
When I look back (which is more often nowadays) it has all been quite a journey. One that I would never have imagined or dreamed of. Being a person of color and Chinese, early on, the range of my dreams was limited at best. Prophetically defined by society’s boundaries and perceptions. My father was shocked that corporations and government agencies wanted my services or even knew about me. To him, he could not imagine that happening in his lifetime, let alone by one of his sons. He was a proud man. A self-made Chinese man who became a millionaire, but who never quite felt comfortable or accepted by whites or even by his own community. I think that ‘doubt’ is something that racism imbeds into BIPOC.
I remember someone saying to me that, as a black woman, she was so nervous getting ready to speak to a mostly white audience. I looked at her and said, “I feel that way all the time.” She was shocked. You see, no one suspects if you keep smiling and acting brave. However, what whites don’t understand is the part they all played in my ‘keeping quiet’ and ‘playing the game’. I was trained to caretake whites from the day I was born. To humor them, imitate them, sound like them, think like them if I were ever to hope of succeeding. So what changed?
I think that eventually I came to accept that I could never ‘be white’ enough. However, what I came to discover later on in life was that deep down that wasn’t the problem or the real obstacle. It was that I could never be ‘fully me’ or at least that was what I was acculturated to believe like so many other BIPOC struggling to ‘see themselves’ as useful and important in a predominantly white world. Nothing in the business, educational or counseling realms values what we bring as BIPOC. It is as if as one employee of color shared to me personally: They (the white administrators and directors) are only interested in what we can do (which is usually the white male model), not who we are or what we bring as BIPOC. Our culture, our ways of moving and thinking in the world is of no interest or use. We are only ‘visible’ and ‘celebrated’ through our foods, holidays, dances and music. Or as one white therapist said to me after my keynote: You were incredible! I want you to know that I don’t see you as a Chinese therapist, but as a white therapist! I was beyond rage because comments like that had become a part of my life of silent retreat and invisibility.
And so, on my 75th day of my birth, I would like to share a poem I wrote and read in front of my first major corporate client, GAP in 1996. After I read it, I got a standing ovation. From that moment on, I never looked back. I broke my silence and reclaimed my heritage and my warrior’s voice:
I never knew that my eyes
were not as opened as yours
That the color of skin was yellow
that these words I spoke
were harsh and foreign.
I always thought that this land of my birth
this place where I took my first breath
was the same as yours.
When I was young, I thought we both ate
hom yeur ging gee yook, bok fan,
see you guy, and lop cheung
The same as any family coming home
I did not know that my foods were strange
Just as I never knew my quietness would be
seen as weak
My waiting, a sign that I was empty and
I was taught that waiting was a sign of
virtue and an honor
And that the eyes and heart were more
direct than words.
But, I have learned: you do not follow the
path of my hands
or hear the words of my eyes.
You do not smell the sweet fire of the
black bean or lower your eyes to honor the old ones.
Instead, you speak over my words
Call me little as if I were a child
Decide that I cannot sing the sweet songs
of love or hold a woman with my tenderness alone.
You have stolen the dragon’s fire from my
And now you seek to rob me of
a warrior’s life.
Do you not see the blood that you have spilled?
Or the children you have shamed?
See me now.
My name is Lee Mun Wah.
My name is Lee Mun Wah.