Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Shanghai Girls

"We send missionaries to China so that the Chinese people can go to heaven, but we won't let them in our country." ---Pearl S. Buck

There are very few things in life that make me as giddy as the arrival of a new book by an author whose work I adore. Having enjoyed all of Lisa See's novels, and having felt as if I better understood Chinese culture and life through them, I was over the moon when I was called to pick up my copy of "Shanghai Girls" from the library. Lisa See's work is never apologetic about both America's and China's historical shortcomings, nor is she inaccurate in her portrayal of her characters, from both a personal, and a cultural standpoint. In her most recent novel, two 'beautiful girl' sisters, May and Pearl, live a comfortable and multi-cultural life in the international city of Shanghai. The sisters have friends of all nationalities represented in an exceptionally cosmopolitan region. Prized for their beauty and charm, the girls are artists' models for advertising commercials.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. In May and Pearl's case, their dreamy, exotic and open minded life comes crashing to an end, first by their father's bankruptcy, and then by the Japanese invasion of China. May and Pearl learn to depend upon one another, and learn to discover that courage exists even when we don't see it. As the sisters make their way to America, following an arduous, nearly impossible journey, their new life to be as big of a shock as their old one was. Despite having had close American friends in China, the girls discover a country that doesn't want them. They find that, as much as their own home city was welcoming to others, 1930's America's doors are firmly closed to Chinese. What comes as even more of a shock to the sisters is that other Asian nations are not treated with the same disdain and prejudice. Lives of privilege and elegance turn into lives of honor bound hard work. And yet, through all their hardships and unrelenting trials, May and Pearl find success is vastly different areas. Their sisterly bond remains strong and unbroken in front of a backdrop of Los Angeles' Chinatown.

I learned a great deal of history in reading this novel. As a California native, I had not realized the extent of prejudice and bigotry that existed in my home state for decades. Did you know that it was illegal for Chinese to immigrate to America? This dramatic law was put into effect in the 1800's to prevent Chinese works from becoming citizens. Despite the fact that China was America's ally against the Japanese during World War II, there were many lawmakers who felt that Chinese were not to be trusted, either, and to further cement their hostilities, considered all Chinese Americans to be Communist spies. In an extraordinary and unreasonable twist of fate, those brave souls who made it as far as America, and were actually allowed in (rather than deported), were always under suspicion and threat. Most landlords would not rent to Chinese and few could find jobs anywhere other than in Chinatown. Therefore, the Chinese population of California was confined to its Chinatown communities, thousands of people crammed into a 1 square block region. Much like a European Ghetto, these enforced communities gave outsiders the idea that Chinese wanted to be a separate country, adding further fuel to an already hot burning fire of mistrust. That mistrust quickly became a two-way street, leaving the Chinese population to feel as if they were a people without country.

"Shanghai Girls" is a wonderful novel. It tells the moving and beautiful story of two sisters, and their admirable closeness. Author Lisa See also paints an accurate picture of early to mid-20th century California....a picture rarely seen by anyone outside the Chinese community. In raising awareness, she is helping to keep alive the memory of those who lived this piece of American history. Hopefully, all of America will learn from its past mistakes of intolerance and discrimination. And yet, "Shanghai Girls" is simply a very beautiful read.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Sound of Silence

"Learn to get in touch with the silence within yourself and know that everything in life has a purpose." Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

I have held a number of nicknames over the years that are a testament to my unending desire to fill silences. From Gabby to Chatty Cathy to Big Mouth, most people who know me well have simply learned how to tune me out after a while. The fact is, I love to talk. I love to have conversations, I love to discuss issues and I love sharing anecdotes. I enjoy catching up with old friends or chatting up new ones everywhere I go. I adore laughing, telling jokes (badly), singing (off key) and simply using my voice as an outward expression of my own joie de vivre. I do realize that talking isn't necessarily a good thing. I hope that I appear to be friendly and approachable, rather than insane. And yet, I have to admit that my talkative ways aren't always helpful. Do I talk over people too much, and not listen to what they have to say? Does my own speaking interfere with others' ability to find their own comfort zone? Is my chattiness a gift of communication or is it a nervous habit?

When I first met my (then future) husband's family, I realized how loud I was comparatively. This was a quiet family, and unlike in my own home, conversation didn't power through meal times. If one person had something to say, he said it succinctly, and then there were times of silence. No one was berated for speaking or not speaking. However, my own upbringing of everyone speaking at the very same time seemed raucous in comparison. Instead of sinking into a companionable silence with my future in-law's, I found myself making nervous, endless streams of dialogue throughout meals. I couldn't get a toe-hold into the concept of 'sitting together, eating, quietly.' It simply did not exist in my realm of understanding. Thankfully, I was accepted as a member of the family, even if it meant that everyone prepared themselves for the Hurricane force winds of my conversational ability at any gathering. When I explained my dilemma to my father, he reminded me that not everyone has to say every thought that pops into her head, every moment...and he asked me to try to sit through meals at our own table, quietly listening to those around me. I failed within the first 2 minutes.

As a student in a Quaker founded prep school, we had Quaker meeting, rather than many other boarding school's Chapel time, each week. Quaker meeting, as I described the service to my mother long distance, "was very big on silence". I had been to church services in many denominations, my cousin Jon's Bar Mitvah in a Reformed Synagogue and to many friends' First Holy Communions and Confirmations. All of these services involved singing, messages from the pulpit, responsive prayers and a sense of participation between congregation and leader. Never in my life had I attended a religious ceremony that involved not talking. The deep meaning, in the Quaker belief of my prep school, was that we were to encounter God in the silence, and could stand up and share our feelings, if the Holy Spirit moved us. I struggled with this concept not only during my high school years, but beyond. How could I possibly discover the Divine in silence, when I couldn't sit for five minutes without wanting to whisper to the person sitting next to me?

While I believe I will always have the gifts of the Blarney Stone in my heart, I am slowly gaining in the ability to gain in comfort in silence. This has been one of the most challenging disciplines I have had to learn. Exercising regularly, eating healthfully and maintaining a proper life balance have been relatively easy for me. During a portion of my Yoga Teacher training, I had to spend time in silence. That action almost killed me. I was comfortable in Power Yoga classes and could hold asanas for long periods of time. I conquered my fears of back bends to explore poses like Camel and Wheel. I overcame my nervousness to practice headstands, confident in my ability to maintain my composure in holding my balance. Yet, during the prolonged times of meditation, I found my thoughts drifting back to my high school days of Quaker meeting. I had an overwhelming urge to ask the woman next to me if she had finished her history project or the man across the aisle for a piece of gum. I struggled to retain my composure. I strove to remain outwardly calm while my brain was running an inner monologue at the speed of sound. When I confided my deep ambivalence and inability to my yoga mentor, she just smiled and said, "Ellen, it's not always your job to entertain an audience. Sometimes, it's your job to be the audience."

I took my mentor's words very much to heart. I began to listen more and speak less. I began to schedule times of silence within my day, in which I didn't answer the phone or email (I used to cheat my silence by believing email wasn't talking), didn't listen to television or radio and didn't go out of my way to fill the void. I began slowly....with just five minute blocks of time. This was actually more difficult than it sounds. Five minutes felt like an eternity to me. I was accustomed to filling every waking moment with noise! But, as time increased, and my stamina became stronger, I began to crave my times of quiet. I learned that answers I'd been seeking would simply come to me, if I could just take the time to to shut up and listen for them. I realized, with great shame, that in not allowing others that pause in conversation, I was disrespecting them, and their comfort zone. Most of all, I was missing out on a great many beautiful experiences in life because I was so busy filling those experiences with meaningless chatter.

While I freely admit that I am still far more comfortable in talking than in silence, I hope I have gained some insights along the way. I pray that I honor others with the dignity of allowing them to express their views, without being trampled by mine. I sincerely hope that I have learned to listen with an open heart and a quiet mouth. Most of all, I hope that, if we should meet, you will remember me as the person with whom you could share your thoughts, and not the Tasmanian Devil of Gab.