Billie Estrine: What is something that your mom taught you that you didn't appreciate until later in life?
Speaker 1: That's a good question, because when I was not that long, I guess, to appreciate the time you have, to brush things off. there's this Japanese saying called Shouganai, and it just means, "It can't be helped." It used to really bother me, especially going [unintelligible 00:00:24] it feels like everything is always in your control, and that you should always be able to do something about anything really. [unintelligible 00:00:31] more empowering it's been to realize that sometimes you just need to shake things off.
Speaker 2: Patience. Patience is a big part of what she taught me, very young. Through your teenage years, your rebellious years, you really don't think that that will come in handy, but in every aspect of life, patience is so necessary, and to be kind.
Kai Wright: It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright. Welcome to the show. Those are some good parental lessons here, patience is a virtue, know how to let go of stuff you can't control. Be kind. The one I remember always hearing from my mom is, "Don't follow the crowd," or I guess as she would have put it, "If somebody is going to jump off a bridge, you're going to do it too?" We, of course, learn many things from our parents, often the hard way, but for author Connie Wang, that exchange of wisdom has been uniquely complicated by the challenges of language and culture and her family's particular story as Chinese American immigrants.
Connie Wang is the former executive editor of Refinery29 and host of the YouTube documentary series Style Out There. She recently published her first book, Oh My Mother! A Memoir in Nine Adventures. In each of those adventures, Connie takes readers to a new place with her mother, China, Mexico, France, a strip show in Las Vegas, which more on that later, hopefully. Ultimately, though, this is a story about how to be okay with not belonging someplace, and celebrating that fact as a triumph, rather than feeling like it's a shortcoming. Connie, welcome to the show.
Connie Wang: Kai, it's so good to be here. Thanks for that intro.
Kai Wright: You're welcome. Let's start with when you decided to write a book about your relationship with your mom. I gather that she was skeptical that American readers at least would want to read a story like yours. Tell me about that reaction.
Connie Wang: Yes. I was, like a lot of people in the very beginning of the pandemic, sharing ways to pass the time with my mother. We were exchanging a lot of books and book recommendations, and I was giving her a lot of memoirs about the immigrant experience. Not only because it was something I thought that she could find herself in, find some kinship with, but also she was reading more and more English language books at the time, I thought that this would be a great entry point into her expanding repertoire into books. At a certain point, she accused me of trying to depress her to death.
Kai Wright: Oh, my.
Connie Wang: Which I thought was very classic, my mom, if you know her. It came from such a funny place because I was recommending her these books that I really found I loved. I truly, truly loved, and she pointed out the fact that all of these books were so deeply sad at its core, and she said something that really kept me awake at night. She said, "But it makes sense because all people want to hear about from us immigrants, is that we suffer." That statement really shocked me.
Because not to diminish those other stories, and not to diminish my mother's experience too, because her life as I see it, has been spent suffering over and over in ways honestly, that led me and allow me to live a life that is free of suffering. It was so interesting to hear her see and look back on her own life and see it as a series of adventures. I challenged myself, "What would happen, if I did the same, stepped into her shoes, saw our life as a series of adventures," and then lo and behold, there was a book at the end of that.
Kai Wright: What a wonderful provocation. Can we not sit in trauma and think about what are our adventures together? What a wonderful provocation. Here's to your mom. I do think we need to understand some of your mother's immigration story to really grasp your lives together. Well, you both came to the United States by accident, I gather. Explain that for me. I don't really understand that.
Connie Wang: Yes. What was supposed to be just a couple-year trip to come and visit my father who was studying in the United States, more specifically studying in Nebraska, to get his PhD degree. One of the first few years that Mainland China had opened itself up to allow its student body to be able to travel abroad to get graduate degrees outside of China. The idea was, they would get their degrees and bring that knowledge back to China in order to improve the country. That was what the plan was.
My mom was supposed to visit my dad, while he was getting his degree in the University of Nebraska. I was going to come over for a little bit of that, and then the idea was, we would all go back to China at the very end. While they were here, before I even came, the events of Tiananmen Square occurred. Out of solidarity, my dad joined a student protest in the University of Nebraska Lincoln, which his photo was taken, and it was printed. I think the page 5. It was within the local newspaper. What ended up happening was his family back in China was sent a clipping of his photo in the paper, anonymously.
It was such an ambiguous kind of threat, but it is quite chilling to see that someone was paying attention, and the threat was that "You better keep an eye on your son. He's up to something." The threat was so ambiguous that it was actually very, very clear what the message was, and so, they decided to stay. They sent for me. Then what was supposed to be a very short-term trip-- My mom only packed one suitcase, I think, she didn't think that she was going to be staying for awfully long thing, and they never got a chance to go back to China. We became full-time immigrants.
Kai Wright: Wow. I can imagine that. We won't winger in this trauma period, but that does. That is quite chilling, the idea of someone-- You're a student in Nebraska, and somehow they're monitoring you. I just wonder about that level of-- Do they expect that level of watching, even from that far away?
Connie Wang: No. Of course not. I think that from, how many years, like 40 years out, we forget what it was like to be in 1989 pre-social media, but also what Tiananmen Square was and what it meant for folks, as it unfolded over the course of a few weeks. In the very beginning, it was really a peaceful demonstration of students who, for the first time, really felt galvanized to speak their minds and put action to some of the lessons that they had just been learning. They were really invigorated by this.
When he was doing his protests, it was quite peaceful, and then, of course, everything turned and the tenor that those protests took on, and the events of June, it really made it very-- It was very, very chilling. Those protests became quite a turning point in China. I don't think anyone in the very beginning of this protest quite understood what they were participating in. Then that's [crosstalk] for you.
Kai Wright: That there would be a before and after. In the introduction to your book, you write that your mother is, "Both the devil and angel on my shoulders." What do you mean by that?
Connie Wang: She is the voice in my head that tells me to watch it out, and look behind my back and be terrified and scared of every single thing, and also the little fire beneath my butt that tells me, "What are you waiting for? Just go do it already." [chuckles] She plays both sides of that coin in my head.
Kai Wright: That becomes an important part of the growth in your relationship. Then just one more table setter, here, is the title of the book, "Oh, My Mother," what does that mean? I gather that that that phrase itself has meaning?
Connie Wang: Yes, Kai. In Chinese the phrase that you say when you want to say-- I think actually Instagram translates it to, "Oh shit," but the most common colloquialism is, "Wode Maya," which literally translates to, "Oh, my mother." It really just means, "Oh my God." It really just means "Oh my God." As I write in the book, I like Chinese version better than "Oh my God," because the first person, the first entity I think of when I'm on the cusp of losing it or putting all together, is my mom. I think that these nine chapters that I write about in the book are the "Oh, shit" moments of our lives, or the, "Oh my God" moments of our lives.
Kai Wright: [chuckles] We're on public radio here. The "Oh my God" moments and "The devil and angel on my shoulders," really says a lot about this person that you have spent your life with and that you went on these adventures with so we're going to go on some of those adventures with you. What was it like writing this book together? Communication itself, just in the most basic sense has been a challenge, correct?
Connie Wang: Yes, Kai. I think this is probably a very common experience for a lot of first-generation immigrants in which you move to a new country and you are learning not only the culture but the language alongside your children. For a lot of families, I think that there is this pressure to make sure that your kids are as fluent in your new home's language and culture as possible, and so you do everything possible in order to encourage them that way. What ended up happening for my sister and me, our English is so much stronger than our Chinese and so when it comes to communicating with my parents, obviously their Chinese is so much stronger than their English.
We have this very interesting dynamic in that we communicate with the, I would say lesser 20% of our dominant language so we ensure that we understand one another. In writing this book, because it was over the pandemic, I was so lucky that my mom was able to stay with me for many months on end. In the process of writing each chapter, we had these very long, sometimes very frustrating conversations about what we had remembered, what she had remembered, what we had misremembered about the same moments.
We found overlaps or we actually found a lot of tension in places where we couldn't actually communicate or get on the same page but knowing that the point of this was our relationship, but also the point of it was getting words on the page, we had to try again and again and again. That process was not easy. It was quite [unintelligible 00:11:51] quite humiliating. Some parts of the Magic Mike one in particular stands out as a quite memorable week in my life. Not only when it happened, but we were discussing it too but it was so worth it at the end of it.
The communication, the knowledge that we had to communicate and we had to try our best in order to understand one another is a metaphor for our entire lives.
Kai Wright: All right. I'm talking with Connie Wang about her debut book, Oh My Mother! A Memoir in Nine Adventures. It's the story of a mother-daughter relationship that has had to cross barriers of language and culture to arrive at a place of deeper understanding and for both of them to a place of comfort with not feeling like they have to fit in. Listeners, we're going to want to hear from you a little later in the show as well. Is there a moment in your childhood when you struggled with belonging in the place where you lived?
What happened and who helped you through it? When we come back, we'll talk a little bit more with Connie about those family adventures and we'll get her mom on the phone. Stay with us.
Regina: Hi, my name is Regina and I'm a producer with the show. You may remember that last year we started the Notes from America summer playlist. We collected submissions from you and curated a playlist that everyone could enjoy. Summer is here again and I'm happy to announce we're launching our second summer playlist. A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with the guys from a band called Wake Island. They talked about how music has become such a powerful outlet for identity, filling a need as they search for their place in the Arab-American diaspora.
Now it's your turn, what's a song that represents your personal diaspora story? Here's how to send us your response. Go to notesfromamerica.org and look for the record button to leave us a message. Start with your name and where you're recording from. Then tell us the name of that song, the artist, and a short story that goes along with it. Feel free to include a little bit about your background as well. Make it your own and please make sure that your recording is at least a minute long.
We'll gather all the songs and your stories in Spotify playlists that we'll drop regularly all summer long. All right, I think that's everything. Thanks for coming to my TED talk and I can't wait to hear from you.
Kai Wright: Welcome back. It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright and I'm talking with author Connie Wang about her new book, Oh, My Mother! A Memoir in Nine Adventures. It's the story of a mother-daughter relationship that has had to cross barriers of language and culture and all kinds of other stuff to arrive at a place of deeper understanding. Connie, a big part of this story is your journey with this idea of belonging or not belonging in the United States. Tell me a bit about that for you.
It's the driving idea throughout the adventures and we're going to hear about some of those adventures but just overall, get us started here with how you felt about fitting in or not as a kid and how that related to being Chinese American.
Connie Wang: Yes, of course, Kai. Growing up, I had a really idyllic childhood. I predominantly grew up in Minnesota in a place called Eden Prairie. While it was safe and wonderful, I got the chance to explore and play outside with all my friends. It was predominantly a white community and there were very, very few people who looked like me. I spent a lot of time-consuming media, reading books, watching TV, watching movies, attempting to find a place where I felt like I could be amongst people who looked like me, sounded like me, had the same beliefs, and the same interests as myself.
I was a big daydreamer as a kid. The knowledge that my family was displaced against their will in some senses and the knowledge that there might be a place out there where it could feel immediately like home was so intoxicating and so alluring. The way that we would get there was traveling. That hunt and that pursuit diminished year by year as I got older, and of course, getting older and becoming an adult is understanding that those fantasies you have doesn't necessarily trap with reality.
Of course, saying these things to my mother, she would just look at me and be like, "What are you talking about? What a silly idea that you can find a place where you belong like that. You are part of a family, that's what belonging means."
Kai Wright: Right. You said it was intoxicating to you as a kid. It was a preoccupation that there must be a place where if I go there, suddenly the skies will part and there will be a plaque handed to me or something that says, "This is your place."
Connie Wang: Yes, to parade down the street. I took a lot of cues actually from the books that I read and the TV shows that I watched as a kid. I knew that if you were having a really tough time, the next chapter, that's when the adventure would really start so I just had to wait. If you were having a tough time at school or your parents are fighting or something like that, it was just about positioning yourself in the right way in order to get swept up into the adventure of your life. Some of that stuff was very, very wrong, of course, but I really looked to media in order to find myself and see myself reflected back at me.
In my personal journey, oftentimes that was such a red herring for me. It was such a fool's errand and that was something I quickly learned as I grew up.
Kai Wright: As you write you start to learn about not having to fit in through these nine adventures with your mom. One of those adventures where you started to learn this lesson involved your family's timeshare. Now, this is a controversial industry, but some folks may not be familiar with the concept of a timeshare so explain what it is and how it works for people who don't know what a timeshare is. Let's start there.
Connie Wang: Yes. I will firstly say that timeshares are unnecessarily complicated. I feel like I understand what it is, but at the same time, I have absolutely no idea how it works as an industry. The idea of a timeshare is basically-- I know, right? It's like an Airbnb that you are a stakeholder in, basically. You own a segment of time in a piece of property that a lot of other people own a segment of time in. For instance, if you and a couple of friends get together and buy a home out in the country, and each person gets a one season, that is essentially a timeshare.
If you could explore that out to thousands of people, many hundreds of thousands of rooms, and oftentimes in very resort-like beachside communities, that's essentially what a timeshare is. You have points that you acquire as part of your timeshare program that you trade in for an amount of time. Everyone knows what the peak holiday seasons are, and those are worth many more points than off-season time. It is property, and I'm using my quotey fingers here, property that you technically own but you are still stuck in a situation where there's very, very little freedom in actually being able to make the choices that you want within a timeshare program.
Kai Wright: Your own family is timeshare. How did you come to be in possession of this timeshare?
Connie Wang: It's like a dream, Kai. [chuckles] I went to the mall one day and I came back with a whole timeshare program. I asked them how much it costs, and the best that they can say is it's around $50,000, which is--
Kai Wright: $50,000.
Connie Wang: $50,000. It's a huge sum of money today. It was a huger sum of money when we acquired it over a decade ago. At that time, I was in high school. That sum of money didn't compute for me. I did not know what $50,000 meant other than that it was just an outrageous sum of money. It was even more surreal for my sister and I at that point because we didn't spend money on things that were fun. We spent money on college educations. We spent money on food and self-improvement things like playing the piano, piano lessons, and things like that.
Besides that, if there was not some educational value to it, we were not Apple Bees on the weekends' people. We did not do things that were considered frivolous or extraneous. When they came home with $50,000 worth of vacations that we were supposed to take in resorts by the beach, I was genuinely worried that something had happened. They had lost it.
Kai Wright: You were worried that something had happened to your parents that led them to this? How did you react at the time? What did you say to them?
Connie Wang: I was in high school. Selfishly, I was so excited to be able to go on a trip like this. I had only been hearing about this and seeing it on TV. This is spring break. Of course, having to go with your parents on something like spring break was a little bit silly. In the back of my mind, I was worried the fact that they could go to a mall, talk to some guy who was running a kiosk in the very center of a mall, drop that amount of money and it would be okay. I was like, there has to be strings attached.
It was worrisome that I didn't know what those strings were, but it became more and more apparent as we started going on these trips.
Kai Wright: That the strings were that you can't-- Tell us about these trips.
Connie Wang: You would go on these trips. They were quite lovely in a very superficial sense. They were advertised. There was always a waterpark. There was big buffet settings. There was lots of other families there. Rooms were comfortable, things were nice. There was always this one sales event that you were obligated to attend in which they would lure you in with a free breakfast.
It was supposed to be like this gourmet breakfast, and you would bring the whole family and you would have to eat with this random person in a suit. This random person would try to convince you that you needed more points in order to be able to actually get the value out of this timeshare. Listening to this conversation as a teenager and then as a college student and as a full-blown adult, this conversation that was oftentimes between my father and the sales agent that just made absolutely no sense, things like the points that you have are of no value.
You have to trade them in for another set of points. There's no markets you can actually sell them in, but if you convert these points to whatever, it still makes no sense to me. In my heart of hearts, I believe that there is something scamming about it. The idea of really looking into it just it pains me because we're locked in. The other thing about it is that around us, all the other patrons of these timeshare programs, they look like us. They are all for the most part immigrants.
I wonder what it is about this demographic of people for whom rest and relaxation is such a compelling factor but who are choosing this because of the ease, because of maybe the inability to redefine print, maybe because they are charmed by things like a man in a suit. It still fills me with a bit of dread. We learned how to dodge those sales breakfast, by the way, eventually. For a few years, it was pretty brutal. [laughs]
Kai Wright: At some point, you decided that this was a scam. How did you react? What did you do?
Connie Wang: Oh. Just tears, just crying, throwing a fit during these breakfasts. There's something really quite visual about just throwing a real tantrum in the middle of a [unintelligible 00:24:26] breakfast with the sun shining in through the windows and everyone is in flip flops. I'm like, "I don't like this. What are you doing? This feels exploitative." In some way, I can't even explain because I don't understand the words that are being used now.
I still to this day think that those very, very large mega timeshare programs prey on people who have a limited understanding of what it is and then what they're signing up for but have a really, really deep need and desire to rest and relax.
Kai Wright: What was going on for your mom then? I mean, because she got upset with you when you threw that tantrum, I guess, which you thought was about protecting the family. What was her response to you?
Connie Wang: She said something that she still says to me to this day. She has a really great ability to look at the silver lining and things. She was like, "What are you complaining about? We are on the beach. We are on vacation and we're all together. We're safe, we're happy. You're a little sunburned. Is there something that you are not getting out of this that you thought that we weren't paying for?" She is absolutely right. The thing that they wanted, the thing that they were signing when they signed the check was the ability to get together as a family every single year and spend quality time together.
That's exactly what we got out of them. There was no scam in her eyes. There is no scam in her eyes, the fact they were locked into a certain amount of place. She was like, "Besides it's besides the point." What it really actually gave her was the idea that rest and vacations and where you can actually just do nothing and when you can just enjoy yourself and be at peace was something that she deserved as a person, something that our family deserved. That unlocked the idea for her and my family for the rest of since that time that things can be valuable, that not necessarily were of educational value, that we could do things that were fun and frivolous and they were worth it as well.
Kai Wright: Which was a new idea in your family, I guess. What made you include this story in one of your adventures? Is that what you took from it?
Connie Wang: If I'm thinking about the, oh, my god moments of my life and well the Maya moments of our lives, timeshares still to this day, I have trouble even diving super deep into the idea of timeshares without feeling very emotional about that. I thought that if that's the reaction that I have, I better confront it on the page.
Kai Wright: Oh. Well, let's hear your mother's side of this story. I am very happy that we're going to call her up and have her join the conversation as well. Matthew is in the studio in the control room. Matthew, you can get Qing Li on the phone for us, please?
Kai Wright: I think we'll get her.
Qing Li: Hello.
Kai Wright: Hello, Qing Li. This is Kai Wright with Notes from America. Thank you so much for coming to talk to us.
Qing Li: Thank you [unintelligible 00:27:49] me.
Connie Wang: Hi, Mom. [laughter]
Qing Li: Hello, Connie. I'm here.
Kai Wright: I want to ask you about the timeshare. $50,000 at a mall for a timeshare. What made you and your husband do this?
Qing Li: [chuckles] Actually, we stumbled at information stand when we were shopping at Eden Prairie Mall, where the city we live. At that time, we were ready of not actively looking for the better family vacation. We attended another follow-up event and I think they did a great sales pitch. Not that--
Connie Wang: Mom, I'm shaking my head right now.
Qing Li: Actually, we had not much experience but a variety of locations along the warm oceanfront in contrast to the cold Minnesota winters. Also, they showed us many, many that allowed choice of either doing some [unintelligible 00:29:23] or doing nothing at all. Also, by that time we thought maybe that's investment.
Kai Wright: Can I ask you? Connie pointed out to you, this feels like a scam and you didn't care. I think a lot of people would be like, "Why don't you care that it's a scam?" Why didn't you care that it was a scam?
Qing Li: Actually, after the timeshare purchase, we actually experienced that high-quality vacation, the family vacation, we never experienced before. Each year, the timeshare points allowed us to have a family gather as a tradition. Also as immigrant, I'm sure there are many culture, language, and society aspects I don't quite understand the same as natives. For that, I really think that timeshare, that results, that community, that type, actually, I like. [laughs] Maybe that part that's not good but fit the immigrant families.
Kai Wright: When Connie told you she wanted to write a book about you, you told her that your life didn't fit into the narrative that Americans wanted to hear. Why did you say that?
Ms. Qing Li: Honestly, I was surprised when Connie said she wanted to write a book about me. I think people, they really do want to read immigrants, the life up, down, happiness or sadness story. Not like mine.
Kai Wright: Not like yours.
Ms. Qing Li: Because my whole life, I really think that I don't suffer. Actually, that's I think pretty good. My life is simple but pretty good.
Kai Wright: Qing, we have to take a little break, but I want you to stick around because I have one more question for you. I'm talking with journalist Connie Wang and her mom Qing Li about Connie's new memoir, Oh My Mother! A Memoir in Nine Adventures. Listeners, after the break, also, I want to hear from you. Have you struggled with trying to fit in where you live? More of Connie Wang and your calls after a break. Stay with us.
It's Notes From America. I'm Kai Wright and I am talking with author Connie Wang about her memoir, Oh My Mother! A Memoir in Nine Adventures. It's the story of a mother-daughter relationship that has had to cross barriers of language and culture to arrive at a place of deeper understanding and one in which Connie has grown comfortable with the idea of not fitting in, not having to belong someplace. I want to take your calls on the subject as well of the subject of not fitting in.
Is there a moment from your childhood or really any time in your life when you struggled with a sense of belonging? What happened and who helped you come to terms with it? We're especially interested if someone in your family played a role in that journey. I still have Connie's mom, Qing Li, on the phone with us. Qing, are you still there?
Ms. Qing Li: Yes.
Kai Wright: Qing, I want to ask you about this belonging question. Connie told us earlier that when she was little, she dreamed of being in some place where it was all for her, where she would just fit in perfectly. That you found that ridiculous, that idea. Do you remember that time and just what you said to her or how you felt about her need to belong someplace?
Ms. Qing Li: By that time, I did not have a job and I don't have some community to support me. Just from my perspective, I just want Connie to be independent to learn whatever she need to learn. In my thoughts, the Chinese tradition, that kind of female person. Maybe that's my dream. Go ahead.
Ms. Connie Wang: I'd say if I could jump in because I actually don't think I've asked you this question specifically, Mom. It's interesting to hear you say this. I remember the number one thing you would say to me when I was a kid and we would be out somewhere is stop looking at other people because I was such a-- If you say it kindly, I was a curious child. If you say it unkindly, I was a creepy child. I would constantly be staring at other families, and my mom would be like, "Stop looking, stop looking. What are you looking for? Focus your attention on what's happening with your own family right now. Focus your attention on yourself." For me, I think that that idea of wanting desperately to see what was going on outside and if someone else had it better. If someone else was living a life that I wanted. That sort of motivation was in her eyes, just like it's a weird pursuit. Because the thing that gets you through this life, the thing that protects you from accidents or emergencies or unforeseen circumstances in your life, like accidentally getting stuck in a country didn't mean to get stuck in is the ability to be independent.
Whether that's financial independence, social independence, just like your emotional, your own independence. She was like, the idea of belonging comes secondary to the ability to be independent. Mom, I don't know if I have that right or not, but that's a lesson I've taken from you.
Kai Wright: That resonates with you Qing.
Ms. Qing Li: Yes. How can I say that? When Connie also was young, I'm trying to learn from Connie. The way she present sometimes I just feel, "Oh, Connie, that's kind of weird. That's what I thought you want to be-- I'm always feel I'm struggle to teach Connie something that's really conversation between us. That's weird.
Kai Wright: I'm going to let you go on the weird idea, Qing. Qing Li is Connie Wang's mother, the subject of this book. Thank you so much for spending a few minutes with us on the phone, Qing. Connie, we're going to take some calls here in a moment. Let me, because I've been teasing the Magic Mike story for some time now, [laughs] your mom is really into Magic Mike, specifically Magic Mike XXL. How did that come to happen?
Ms. Connie Wang: She watched it and she loved it. Every single time I would call her on the phone, she would talk about how charming Channing Tatum was, how good the dancing was. She would ask me questions about the characters as if they were real people. Of course, I had seen Magic Mike XXL. I had seen Magic Mike, the first movie. If you've seen both of them, they're two very, very different movies. The thing that the second movie, XXL, has going for it is that it is just like a boisterous, fun time. I think it's a silly, very entertaining movie.
You could like it for prurient reasons. You could like it for spectacular showmanship reasons. I think my mom likes it for the second reason because we talked about it so, so long. I don't know why I did this, but I thought that I would maybe play a game of chicken with her. Around that time, the live show was debuting in Las Vegas and I just off-handedly asked her if she would ever want to go, would ever consider going. She saw my game, the chicken, she met me there. She said, "Yes, let's go." I got myself into a very unfortunate situation where I had to go to watch Magic Mike live with my mother. [laughs]
Kai Wright: Again, why was this an important adventure in the thinking about this question of her trying to teach you, it's silly to want to be-- This longing to belong, just be yourself. What is it about this adventure that was important in that lesson?
Ms. Connie Wang: Well, one thing is that she was sort of alone in her love for Magic Mike XXL within her friend group. She had actually tried organizing a group theater trip to the Eden Prairie Mall to go-- There are lots of things that actually take place in the mall that I'm thinking about it. She tried to organize a group trip to go see the movie, and no one else enjoyed it like she enjoyed it. That was one thing that set her apart. I wanted her to go somewhere where everyone was a fan of this franchise and everyone was having a good time, and to show her, she is not alone in her love for this male review.
Then the other thing about it, too, is I was so curious, what would happen if I went with my mom? This is something that is so not just, I think, uncomfortable for me who have a very Chinese American relationship with my mother, but I think it would be uncomfortable for a lot of mother and daughter parents to go do something like this. I just wanted to see if we could do it and what would happen if we did. This is me blowing my own life up a little bit, I think. [laughs]
Kai Wright: I confess to being a Magic Mike fan myself, [chuckles] so I'm not mad at your mom here. Let's go to George in Chicago. George, welcome to the show.
George: Hi, thanks for having me.
Kai Wright: Thanks for calling in. Did you have an experience where you struggled with the idea of fitting in, and who helped you through it?
George: Yes, I did. My parents came in the early 1970s from Yugoslavia but my mom's older sister came before her and she grew a network of friends through a restaurant. My parents were both doctors and worked a lot, didn't exactly create a big social life for themselves or for us. I remember going to my aunt's house for a cookout one summer. This was probably around 1982. I was probably around seven or eight years old. One of her American friends was there. We were sitting around the dining room table, and I think we were playing cards.
She just grabbed my cheeseburger off my plate and said, "I want to try that," and took a bite. Keep in mind that she was a grown-up. I want to try that. She took a bite of my cheeseburger and said, "Yes, that's a good cheeseburger." Put it back on my plate. I was flabbergasted. I didn't know what to do. It just said, "Wow, if she's eating from my cheeseburger on my plate without really asking if it's okay, then I must be fitting in enough with her." It just made me feel like, "Oh, okay, I guess I'm part of this circle. This is totally okay." [crosstalk]
Kai Wright: All because it was an active intimacy.
George: Absolutely. How much more intimate can you get, other than sharing an actual bit piece of food, with somebody? I know it sounds totally weird, but it really made me feel included.
Kai Wright: That's wonderful.
George: That's my story.
Kai Wright: Thank you for that story. Let's go to Gary in Portland, Oregon. Gary, welcome to the show.
Gary: Hi, thank you.
Kai Wright: What about you, Gary? Did you have an experience where you were struggling to fit in where you lived and someone helped you through it?
Gary: I certainly had an experience struggling to fit in. I didn't have a lot of help getting through it, but I grew up on the south side of Chicago in the late '50s and throughout the '60s, so I was a child then. The neighborhood was, in the beginning, like me, I was a white kid. It was lower middle class, predominantly Jewish families with children. In the span of probably six years, white flight took place. All the white families moved out. Black African American families moved in, and I was the last white child in my neighborhood.
I was one of the last white children in my school, Bryn Morris School, which happened to be the school that Michelle Obama-- I don't recall her maiden name, but she went there as well, was younger than me. I experienced a great deal of racial violence. It's something that I still am unable to process. It is not politically correct to say, as a white person, as a white child, I experienced a great deal of Black-on-white violence and racial bias. My father owned a business in the area, so we were unable to move. He hired Blacks, whites, Asians, whomever fit the bill was an auto parts warehouse. It was a real struggle.
Kai Wright: Gary, what did you do to-- Were you able to find something to let yourself feel like you belonged there more? What was your response to that?
Gary: I did my [unintelligible 00:45:28] to make friends. I had some Black friends, but I also learned some very tough lessons as a young white child. I experienced my friends, my Black friends, casually calling each other the N-word. As a kid, I was like, okay, that's what they call each other, so I used that word. You should kick that ball real far, or you can run real fast. Of course, that did not work.
Kai Wright: Gary, I'm going to stop you there. I thank you for the story. I'm sorry that you didn't figure out how to come to a place where you could fit in. Let's go to one more before we come back to Connie. Let's go to Dina in Brooklyn, I believe. Dina, welcome to the show.
Dina: Oh, thank you. Hi. Do you want me to share my story?
Kai Wright: Yes, please.
Dina: When you were saying just about childhood and not fitting in, it reminded me I'm mixed blood. My mom is Mexican American, my dad was German. Both my parents were first-generation born here. I really got a sense of both cultures. Growing up in a suburb of Chicago, where it was mostly white and upper middle class. I remember the first time I was called names when I was called, I hate to say it, but when I was called the spec. My brother didn't experience the same prejudice that I did. I didn't know who to turn to.
I don't know why I didn't turn to my mom. I don't know if she could have handled it. She didn't experience that growing up. It was different. She grew up in Chicago.
Kai Wright: Dina, I'm sorry, just for time, I want to ask you to get just quickly, how did you adapt to that? What did you do that put yourself in a better place?
Dina: I think I still am on a journey with it, but I think it was really in my late 20s when I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and I found my community. I also happen to be queer. I'm gay, but I didn't know that as a kid. I think once I found my people and I found that sense of belonging where I didn't have to worry about being judged or that I wasn't enough. I think that's an ongoing journey because when you're mixed, you always are on the margins.
Kai Wright: I'm just going to stop you there for time, Dina, but thank you so much for that. Connie, so that's a range of stories, some quite rooted in trauma, [chuckles] and some folks found their way and some folks didn't. As we wrap up, as someone who has thought a whole book's worth about how to find belonging, any reactions to those things or advice or thoughts you would leave people with on this journey of how do you figure out how to just claim not fitting in and being happy about it?
Connie Wang: As a child in particular, it can be really, really tough not feeling like you can be entirely comfortable anywhere. I challenge people to think about what benefits not feeling entirely comfortable can give you because what not belonging can mean is that there are so many different places that you do feel comfortable because that is what you know. To choose to find that belonging within people because people are not based on a geographic location, people are not based off of certain rules and cultural norms.
People are with you despite any changes that you might undergo or any changes that they might undergo. If you have a community of people who are family, who feel like family, that not belonging can actually become a superpower. I feel so comfortable in so many places that many people would feel very uncomfortable because that is what I know. That is how I thrive, and that's what my life has been about. That--
Kai Wright: Because you've learned that skill set. You've learned that skill set. [crosstalk]
Connie Wang: I've learned that skill, and it's become quite a benefit in my life.
Kai Wright: Connie Wing is the former executive editor of Refinery29 and host of the YouTube documentary series, Style Out There. Her debut book was published this spring. It's called, Oh My Mother! A Memoir in Nine Adventures. Connie, thanks so much for this time.
Connie Wang: Kai, this was so lovely. Thanks for having me on.
Kai Wright: Thanks again to your mom for calling in. Notes from America is a production of WNYC Studios. Find us wherever you get your podcasts on Instagram @noteswithkai. Theme music by Jared Paul, Matthew Miranda is our live engineer. Our team also includes Billie Estrine, Karen Frillmann, Regina de Heer, Rahima Nasa, Kousha Navidar, and Lindsay Foster Thomas. André Robert Lee is our executive producer and I am Kai Wright. I'll talk to you next week.
[00:51:00] [END OF AUDIO]
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