Chama

A popular quote: We tell ourselves stories in order to live – Joan Didion.

But there’s more. We tell ourselves stories to get out of bed, to get through our day, our relationships. We create monsters and deities to explain the impossible, to make sense of the chaos field. Story exists as carbon does – everywhere, life sustaining - from ant colony to galaxy.

We tell stories to pull our molecules into mass into jeans onto the train to our jobs and into one another. It is how we learn, absorb and pass along our reasons for being: the battles we’ve won and lost to eke out our place in this planet’s timeline.

We cannot draw a concrete line between story and self – we are what we tell ourselves. Our ancestors knew this: casting long shadows around campfires, painting origin mythologies along cave walls, expressing over and over: we are here. 

All this to say: we've been doing this a long time. 

I come from a line of shadow women who exist just beyond the campfire’s warmth, cradling generations of trauma: war, patriarchal violence, shame and force, silently. Our experiences make up a shadow side, an underbelly. Our truth is secret; it’s complicated root system tangled deep inside our bodies - mother, grandmother and I – in the very marrow of our bones.

There is a Korean phrase: chama It is an imperative and an imploration. It means “be patient” in the utmost sense: hold it in, push it down, repress it, bear it. Be obedient. Do not react. Chamachama  my grandmother tells me – two hands pressing down on her solar plexus while I seethe and seethe. Chama - because you are a woman, because women make children, because women tolerate pain that men cannot fathom. We bear the whole wet world. We have done so as long as we have been women, women of color, women of Asian descent.    

Perhaps chama is why we are called the model minority – exemplary of obedience and fortitude; lesser than white but “better” than black or brown bodies. We’ve kept our heads down, plowing toward the some obscure American dream in which we find a place to belong, a means to justify our presence, our survival. Mistaken for model behavior, age old loss, grief and fear lives in the deep down of my ancestors; and, this wound festers on in the hearts of their children, like myself: first generation U.S. born and raised.

My grandmother was nicknamed “Good Luck” when her little brother was born. Her mother had been driven out by her in-laws for failing to produce a son; and they sent a servant to make sure it was a boy before allowing her to return. Had the baby been another girl, my Great Grandmother would have been ostracized completely – a woman with two daughters and no husband – stripped of her worth and livelihood, with two mouths to feed. She internalized that anxiety, deprivation and violence – chama – swallowed it silent then passed it down, augmented.

According to NPR, “almost 16 percent of all U.S.-born Asian-American women have contemplated suicide in their lifetimes – compared to 13 percent of all Americans… and U.S born Asian-American women are more likely to attempt suicide than other groups.” (NPR)

Perhaps chama is what landed me in psychiatric care: no shoes and a flimsy gown. Perhaps this is why I’ve spent hours on concrete floors, in motel bathrooms, trying to smash through my body in order to escape the pervasive, heavy wetness of my heart. Maybe this singular phrase is the reason why my mother spent days laying in bed naked, staring at the ceiling overwhelmed by pain so deep, so immeasurable, so intolerable it rendered her comatose – eyes wide and unblinking, a fish belly up. Perhaps this is why she couldn’t help her child. What facility was she given other than a heart disciplined to swallow pain, a mouth trained to keep shut?

It was my grandmother who soothed me with chama chama when I appeared at her door scarred and bruised, hysterical with a familiar grief – one embedded in our bloodline from mother to daughter to daughter.  

We have all practiced chama; and here we are now. Where do we go from here?

The truth is: we, the women of the “model minority” carry a emotional and psychological weight accumulated over many lifetimes. Yet, we have not yet found the words to speak to this impalpable, pervasive ache. How can we understand our mental health (let alone address it) when raised in a tradition that encourages emotional repression while facing systematic racism and misogyny, generational trauma and cultural dichotomy on the daily?

I write, now,  because I could no longer carry the baggage of chama. I have managed major depression and crippling anxiety for much of my life believing that I was defective; that I had a bad attitude, a personality flaw. By the time I found the right words to speak, I was already a city under siege. I was a crater where home once stood. I was the bomb, detonating over and over. I was intent on destroying myself, climbing out of my skin in order to escape the pain. I had to tell my story – first, my fantastic demise, then a new origin myth - in order to free the ghosts clamoring inside my ribcage, crushing my lungs. I tell my story now - bare my broken, smoldering heart - to spark flame, to show others like me: the scar and the survivor. I have started my own fire – may it burn wild and all consuming. May it scorch the cavern walls. May it reach past it’s own shadow and scald the stereotype of the Asian Woman - model minority -  silent and obedient. May it ignite other stories, other survivals.   

I want to show those maneuvering their inner and outer worlds discolored by mental illness that they are not alone; that I too know the experience of pain so prolonged, it feels like an invisible appendage. I want to show the world the tenderness and steely resilience that makes women of color magical. I want to offer my community - Asian American women, people of color, those coping with mental health – language and stories that we can call our own; about our secret truths, honoring our long excluded experiences.

I write in search of a story that confronts chama, undoes its damage, liberates my ancestors. I write to unearth a story unfettered and free - about how vast and ancient we are, how we’ve survived, how passionately we thrive.