When articles about enthusiastic consent began flooding my FB feed years ago, I eagerly waited for someone to address it from a Chinese-American perspective (or any POC cultural perspective really). Finally, I thought, someone will write something that speaks to my life.
I knew there was something to be said about saying yes and no when you (didn’t) meant it, the strange rules I’d learned from my mother, and being Chinese-American. I didn’t want to have to sketch out my messy thoughts. But I never found an article about consent and race, so I did my best here.
Nora Samaran uses her blog to explore “partly formed ideas,” so I’m reminding myself it’s okay to do the same. It’s okay to post a piece that doesn’t have a clear point/goal in mind. That said, if you have suggestions for a better title, let me know!
I miss my best friend’s wedding because of social nicety. She asks me once, twice, three times. If I was really living the fairy tale life, the third time I would’ve said yes. Instead I say no, times four and five as well.
I tell my mother about it, and she agrees I did the right thing.
When we say no means no and yes means yes, I’ve always wondered how to square it with my mother.
An invite must be declined if
1) you (explicitly or accidentally) invited yourself
1a) I shouldn’t invited myself to my cousin’s food demo of his smoked mac-and-cheese. My mother gaped at me when I did. But I was sure in our relationship, so I did.
2) the event you had not been invited to comes up in conversation and then you are subsequently invited
2a) it’s impossible this invite is sincere. If the host invited you after mentioning the event to someone else, you were clearly an afterthought. Your invite, then, is an empty one. Since this is merely a social nicety, you are expected to decline
These are the rules my mother learned growing up, and as parents do, she wanted to make sure she raised a daughter who was polite.
We call this no means yes and yes means no double speak.
As Maxime Hong Kingston apocryphally asked, is this Chinese, or is this my family? Who knows.
My Aunt invites me to visit her in San Francisco, since my cousin Lola is visiting from Florida. I haven’t seen Lola in two years, and she’s since gotten engaged to a man most of the family’s never met. I want the gossip, I tell my mom.
She rolls her eyes. “I’m not going. I’m sure my sister would’ve mentioned it if she wanted me to go.”
We’re hearing the same words and they mean different things to us. Is it any wonder my mother and I rarely understand each other? I know my Aunt almost as well as I know my mother, and I know she’d want my mother there too — my Aunt always talks about how she wants my mother to come visit her. My mother always disagrees.
The next day, when Lola says she can’t visit because she’s sick, and then my Aunt says she’s sick too, my mother smugly says, “I guess you can’t visit them after all.”
How petty, I think, how cruel.
My own pettiness: I want to wipe that smugness from her face with the back of my hand.
There’re many times I decide to attend an event, like Eleanor’s wedding or staying with my Aunt for a week. I don’t remember all the instances, I just know at this point it’s a paper cut still stinging in the air when my mother asks me why I am going.
“You weren’t really invited,” she says, “You were only invited out of obligation.”
“Why don’t you go?” I ask.
“Why do you go?” she spits back.
Whenever articles about women and femmes doing emotional or household labor comes up, there’s a part of me that recoils, thinking of my mother. I can’t read those articles impartially. Even though I know they’re real and true, my gut takes me back to my mother and I, and how I feel I am not to blame for my mother’s unhappiness.
She’d go out into the yard, I ask if she wants help.
“No,” she’d reply. And when she’d return, waiting for the ice water in a glass cup she’d trained me to get as soon as the door opened, she’d say, “You don’t do anything; you’re just as useless as your father,” her frustration apparent.
Alternately, I’d begin to dust or do the dishes, and she’d yell at me to stop, “Don’t bother. You’re doing it wrong.”
It was a situation I could not win, she meant yes help me when she said no don’t help me, and when I’d listen to the subtext, she would berate me.
Being subject to her anger either way, I gave up on helping her.
My mom likes to say I’m not a mindreader and I shouldn’t have to ask you. These are always contradictions to me.
And honestly, I am tired of hearing her complain when she won’t change. This is the part that I cannot square with what I know to be true about emotional labor.
I’m not to blame for her unhappiness. While the culture at large has its share of blame, I blame my mother too. I think how less unhappy she’d be if she said what she meant, instead of obscuring it. I’m not proud of this.
She’s only just started to ask for what she wants, new furniture and energy efficient windows. Did she learn to hide what she wanted, the same way she taught me to? (Did Grandma teach her this?)
Maybe she and I are alike this way, the closer something is to our hurt/heart, the harder it is for to ask for it.
Although I’ve decided this no means yes and yes means no is bullshit, the rules still appear at strange times. More insidious, I don’t know if I can believe Xavier’s yeses and nos. I ask him if he really wants me to go to his family’s posadas, birthdays, baby showers, or Sunday lunches.
Even though he’s been in my life long enough I find his hair in my sheets and clothes, even though he doesn’t bail when my emotional baggage hits the fan, even though I know the answer is yes,
I ask him, “Do you still really want to be in my life?”
In the Safeway parking lot, meeting up with my parents, swapping the contents of my trunk into theirs.
I’m telling them about Sunday lunch at Xavier’s, how I’ll wash the sink full of dishes in exchange for his mother’s cooking.
“How come you wash her dishes but not mine?” my mother asks. She’s joking light-heartedly now, but I know this sentiment will come out as a grenade when she’s mad.
I’m older now, and know I can tell her no, so I tell her, “I’ll wash your dishes when you can tell me you want them done and will let me do it without criticizing me.”
My mom sputters, and my dad snorts.
There’re posts about how “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is about date rape. There’s also a rebuttal saying it’s really a feminist song about a woman solid in her own desires, but who must say no for social nicety. In other words, a woman who says no when they mean yes.
This is the best way I can think of what I learned from my mother. To paraphrase the Tumblr rebuttal, a woman not allowed to say yes is also a woman unable to “have a clear and unambiguous way to say no.”
I want my mother to be honest with what she wants, so she can be happier, so I don’t have to bear her unhappiness, have to set boundaries, hold those boundaries.
This doesn’t tie neatly with the ongoing conversation about consent in sex and in life. My family’s double speak did not groom me for sexual coercion.
While there are things that have deeply wounded me, sex has never been one of them. I’m lucky. I’ve never experienced assault or coercion. At worst, when I was thinking I could do better masturbating instead of having sex with this person, our consent was clear and given. At best, sex sent me into something close to what subspace must be like.
I’m tired of double speak. I know how to speak it well. But I hate holding one conversation, when really we’re having an entirely separate conversation in subtitles.
I want to be honest, I want to be direct. I want this conversation of genuine yeses and nosto steep into my life. I’m trying to say each when I mean it and believe people when they tell me the same. I’ve given up on believing my Aunt is lying when she invited me to her house. I’ve learning to speak when I am hurt and say stop instead of asking for seconds.
All those moments are drops that make an ocean. If violation/violence is an end point of many moments, then we must drain the ocean drop by drop.
I’m changing my approach to consent and communications and boundaries because I’ve said no when I meant yes, and yes when I meant no. So, let me tell you
No, I cannot be there for you endlessly. No, you cannot treat me like this. No, I am not grateful for this. No, no, and no again instead of choking on my own silence. Yes, the way you speak to me hurts.
Yes, I want your red envelope money. (I’m not going to say this one. It would mortally offend my family!) Yes I’ll go on an all-expenses paid trip to Europe with you! Yes, I’ll go to your wedding! Yes, I want to show up to work with a collar made of hickies. (Ok, I wouldn’t really do that. …but I still want those bruises.)
Yes, this is the way I want to be loved; let me show you.