Wednesday, February 01, 2006

My Brother, My Family, My Life-Long Struggle

No, that's not my brother, but that's his hat on my nephew's head.

Yes, my brother owns a cowboy hat. And two pairs of cowboy boots. He listens to country music, and he drives a jeep (before that he had a Dodge truck). He's also Asian-American, 5'11", and is close to 200 lbs. In other words, he's this Big Asian Redneck Hick, and I don't know where he comes from.

Then again, where do I come from? Where do the rest come from? They used to tell me that I was adopted, and I believed them. (siblings are cruel) I was the sixth child, born 7 years after the 5th (Asian Hick Boy), whereas the rest were only 2-3 years apart. The reason for the gap is the Vietnam War, the flight from Saigon, and a miscarriage before me. But I'm different enough from the rest that you really do have to wonder whether or not I'm biologically related (except for the fact that I'm the spitting image of my mother and sisters).

For one thing, despite the fact that we're all alive because of things like Medicare and we're all educated thanks to federal Pell Grants, everyone in this family, once they reached a measure of economic success (i.e. higher tax bracket) is doing everything to avoid paying for social welfare programs. They're voting REPUBLICAN, despite the fact that they don't support a lot of the social policies. My parents vote "Democrat" on every social welfare issue that impacts their Medicare, Social Security, and SSDI payments, but are adamant supporters of Bush and Cheney. I have no idea who they manage this kind of cognitive dissonance, except that they probably don't think that there's any contradiction. A little irony perhaps, but not enough to keep them up at night. So where did I, this commie-pinko-liberal-fag-hag come from?! How is it that I'm all for universal health care and other federalized programs when I come from staunch anti-communists? (answer: there is a DIFFERENCE between socialized health care and employment benefits and FASCISM, people!) How did I end up being an anti-discrimination activist, when my parents (and sometimes siblings) casually utter all sorts of um, mildly racist, homophobic statements? How is it that I attended a majority Asian university full of educated Vietnamese boys of my parent's dreams and end up secretly dating, becoming secretly engaged to, and then breaking up with a white boy they would have disowned me over? How is it that I'm related (and for the most part, lovingly) to people who are still so "old world"?

I don't know, as I don't know how a lot of me makes sense. My parents are anti-fun, anti-frivolity puritans, and yet I'm devoted to all sorts of frivolous things. I grew up without ever going out after school (except to the library) or ever being able to go to sleepovers, birthday parties and the like, and I didn't get to sneak out to do any of that until college. COLLEGE, people! I know a lot of it was because we were poor, but even when we became "not poor," we still had these rules--imposed for our own good, our academic success, our financial responsibility. But I totally rebelled, aesthetically. I didn't have my first birthday celebration until freshman year, and I didn't go out to my first play/musical/concert/opera/party until law school (keep in mind, I was living at home, dating my boyfriend secretly). Yet once I had the chance, living on my own 5 days a week in the big city, I became a regular at the theatre, the concert hall, the opera house. Where, oh where did I get all these bourgie sensibilities?

How did I get so high-falutin', considering half of my siblings are big fans of Thomas Kinkade: Painter of Light, to the point of decorating their million dollar homes with print after print of his god awful hotel art. Even worse: doing the CROSS-STITCH kits of his god awful hotel art, and then framing THAT with heavy gold BAROQUE frames.

Sometimes I wonder if a lot of my current sensibilities are just another form of teenage rebellion. True, being an aesthetic rebel is as sissy and wussy as they come, but being a political rebel sounds like it has some edge. My elitist and populist sides have been in tension for some time, reaching a point of detente and mutual wariness. I am such an elitist, even though my anti-discrimination training is supposed to make me a relativist and a speaker for the oppressed and lowly. So I always try to keep my elitism in check (especially if it smacks of classist tendencies) and I always try to remind myself that you can make distinctions between crap and non-crap, so long as you are aware of the hegemony of certain cultures and constructs.

So I admit: I LIKE country music. But I try to distinguish myself from the Toby Keith lovers by saying I only like really good country. ie. anything that pre-dates Shania Twain and isn't too poppy. Thus, I get to have a point in common with my brother and some "people's music" chops, while still being able to make it elitist and disdainful. This is not a particularly proud trait of mine, but one that recurs. My favorite poet is T.S. Eliot, and I like reading welfare policy books and legal theory treatises, but I try to keep it "real" by reading trash like US Weekly. I say I hate foodies, or those annoying Four Seasons eating gourmands who decry anything that isn't dotted with truffle butter or in a hibiscus-wine reduction, but I also say I hate chain restaurants and the whole Applebee culture of wearing your nice company polo shirt out to dinner. My compromise? I say I like mom-and-pop restaurants, which makes me able to disdain both the upper crust and the middlebrow by saying that I am the true anti-globalism populist.

I admit, I've seen Disney on Ice. I sometimes go see a popcorn movie instead of the latest in French Cinema. Yes, it is a treat to go out with my engineer/dentist siblings to Souplantation on Sunday, if not for the food (okay, never for the food), the company. But I will never, ever like Thomas Kinkade.
Even if he is the painter of light.