I woke up in the middle of the night last night thinking about authenticity. That thought came on the tail of a dream in which I was in a pink kitchen telling someone about why it wasn’t ok for a white woman to dress up in Chinese clothes and be part of a Chinese festival. As I explained, the festival played out like a movie. There were giant horses with normal size riders. The woman had dark blonde hair and was wearing a cheongsam. I was convinced and convincing in the dream.
That I laid awake for an hour thinking about authenticity probably had a lot to do with jet lag from flying back to Hong Kong after spending five months in my mother’s house.
It’s dislocating to travel between lives. My siblings and mother are there. My husband and cats are here. Because I think too much, or so I’ve always been told, I can work myself into a pity party of un-belonging on either end. Here I’m a foreign wife. There I’m the family defector, also a kind of foreigner. When I go there, it takes me a while to relearn the culture, to get with the program, to understand that life went on just fine without me. I’m guilty of either hovering in the background like a snooty anthropologist or jumping in and taking over like I’m the new CEO.
I went back to WA State to see my sister through chemo. I was a rotten older sister way back when, and I figured it was the least I could do. In the first weeks there were frictions with our ninety-four-year-old mother. I didn’t buy the right brands at the store. I put the wrong utensils in the dishwasher. My cooking was too salty, too one-dish, too rich, too much. I was presumptuous to think I could plant vegetables in her garden. I deprived her of her morning routine by filling her bird feeders. Her cat liked me better. She talked while I was reading, and I couldn’t think. I was snippy and defensive. I forgot I was sixty-seven and nursed my hurt feelings like I was ten.
Then we settled in. I tried to take up less space in her space, to remember that as an adult child in her house, I’m a guest and not a resident. To remember that even with family (especially with family), I need time out, time alone, downtime. To remember that being ninety-four is its own category of accomplishment and has its own rules. Or none. As the weeks went by, we watched the birds together. Raccoons and deer came to visit.
Now I am back in my flat and my marriage—still social distancing—and I have a different set of re-entry dislocations. The cats are either mad at me for my absence or they like my husband best. After months of enjoying nature, I’m not allowed outside for fourteen days of quarantine. Which is just as well since the weather is hot and it’s typhoon season. I was the baking queen at my mother’s house, but here there is no AC in our kitchen and the oven is erratic. My clothes are crunchy because we have no dryer. It sounds like the upstairs neighbors are throwing bowling balls. I don’t know what to do with myself because the self that lives here doesn’t have family to tend and contend with.
Give me a week, and I’ll settle in. I’ll be fine.
So what does all this have to do with authenticity? On the back side of my recent travel, here’s what I’m thinking. Maybe changing environments always requires a certain amount of performance while we figure out, or re-figure out, how to belong where we land. That makes us shape-changers, but not fakes. In the long run, maybe I don’t need place, people, expectations, and behaviors to line up before I can relax and be myself. Maybe there aren’t multiple me’s, and my authenticity is fluid, as present in the adjusting as the settling in.
It’s possible the woman in my dream was going about it all wrong or trying way too hard. But then again, maybe she was at home in herself and the world.