Incubation

Sometimes I feel like there’s something in my chest trying to bubble out, and I don’t know what it is. I think it would be more bearable if I did know, but maybe not.

Yesterday was my dad’s birthday, and all he did was go out for lunch at a cheap mediocre Chinese buffet the day before. I just found that so sad. And I realized that I, as a grad student,don’t make much less than he does.

My parents were able to afford an eventual pseudo-suburban lifestyle–by the time I was in middle school and high school, we lived in an okay part of town, and most of my friends were white and middle to upper middle class. But the only way they did that on minimum wage jobs was by scrounging and saving every penny and always living like we were poor, because mostly, we were.

We bought all our food at Chinese and Mexican supermarkets or Food4Less, and every week we scoured the ads for the cheapest things and went to $6 Chinese buffets if we ever went out to eat. I hated them, because I’d get so stuffed and still have to eat more, because that made it a better value, and then we wouldn’t have to eat the rest of the day. When I went out to eat with my high school friends after school, I just didn’t eat because I didn’t want to spend money.

My mom bought all of my clothes at Goodwill, before thrifting became a cool hipster thing, and every time I went with her I would hide behind racks of clothing so no one outside would see me. And even at Goodwill, we only bought stuff that was on sale. The most expensive piece of clothing I owned before college was my senior prom dress–on sale for $15 and a little ill-fitting and I still had to call my mom and ask if it was okay because I’d never spent that much money before. None of us had ever spent that much on a piece of clothing.

I’m thinking of that now, as I try to get rid of my material possessions in preparation for my eventual move from San Francisco. I’m more able to distance myself than before, but it’s hard. People say they’re just things, but when you never had that much, things are one of the essential ways people show love.

And I’m also thinking of all of that because of that conference. On the diversity panel was an Indian-American woman, and that was so jarring for me. I’d stopped considering myself to be a minority because A. I’m in San Francisco, where half the population is Asian and B. no one else really acknowledges that “because so many Asians are successful” and C. I’m in science. There are so many Asians, at least at the bottom rungs. But as the panelist said, just because you see women and minorities around, it doesn’t mean they have a voice. And as I know very well, it doesn’t mean they’ve always been successful.

I went to a suburban high school and then a rich private university and am now in a PhD program–I don’t know anyone who lived the way my family did. I don’t know any Chinese-Americans whose families remained as poor as mine did. After years and years, I’ve finally managed to mostly get rid of that chip on my shoulder–that disdain for my peers whom I felt were so much more privileged than we were in so many ways and didn’t have to work as hard and weren’t even aware of how privileged they were to simply be middle class. But it doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten that disparity. I won’t ever forget that. I am just trying to figure out how to be productive about it.

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