Reader Responses, Part 3: on "decider" guilt, atomic bombs, restorative approaches to intimate partner violence, and more
Plus our piece on Cobra Kai and Book Club details on Paradise Lost
Happy summer! We so appreciate all your responses to our recent letters about moving to Taiwan, marriage, trailing and leading spouses, assimilation, and belonging. Keep them coming, and thank you for helping us create such an authentic community here.
For this week, we collect a batch of reader responses on the recent newsletter, as well as topics that we’ve explored recently, ranging from the atomic bomb to restorative justice.
A friend on how hard it is to be the “decider” in the family and the guilt it incurs:
My partner has moved three times “for me” by now, and he jokes that he spends his life following me. And, if I am honest, there is a lot of truth in that statement. (I originally wrote twice here, realizing that it is actually three times.)
The first time when we moved for my PhD, I felt so guilty and anxious that he wouldn't be happy that I asked him everyday for probably three months if he was happy. He eventually had to tell me to stop. He told me that I had to trust that he had made the decision on his own, that I wasn't forcing him to do something he didn't want to do and that I had to have confidence in him to find happiness in this new place that he had not chosen. And boy did he do just that! He found a community of tennis players that he now regularly stays in touch with, despite us not living there anymore. He found a job he loves that has followed him twice now. I live in awe of his ability to thrive anywhere.
Our latest move felt even more difficult. I had a moment of complete panic when we realized that life was going to be financially quite difficult here with two children due to nursery fees being exorbitant (I am not exaggerating). My partner keeps saying we have chosen to live in this country at the exact stage when we shouldn't, when our children are small. And yet, I know and I know he knows that we have made this decision together. That we have come to an understanding that this is where we are now and we will make the most of it. (And don't get me wrong, we're loving it thus far and it's a great move for my career.) This time, the third time, I have no anxiety about my partner not being happy. He has already found a tennis club and will slowly make friends. Now he even has a mini-tennis player in training to bring with him until he finds some tennis partners.
All this to say that it is hard to be the decider, too, the one that makes a decision for the family to move. So I hear and feel you, Albert. I hope we can both show enough appreciation and understanding for our partners' sacrifices and anxieties. Thank you for sharing such an intimate part of your lives. All of us go through difficult times, but we are often not inclined to share. But the sharing is so important and helps so many more people to understand life.
Finally, about returning home. I have had an urge to move back to my home country for a few years now. Not least pushed by my partner's wishes to move there, too. We were actually close to moving there this time around, but alas, it did not work out that way. It looks like I have another opportunity coming up in a few years and it terrifies me. Am I placing too many hopes on it being amazing, will I hate it? Will I forever not feel at home in a country that is pretty much foreign to me apart from my appearance, passport and my mother tongue? And yet, I want to trust my instinct that this would be a good move at some point, not least for my children. And finally, when will I stop moving my loved ones around? My partner, and I, do feel like we want to settle somewhere eventually. Buy a house with a garden (I know, so cliche). That requires commitment. And I wonder: Am I capable of settling somewhere?
Also, final thing. My home country has never been colonized, quite the opposite, but maybe because it's a small country, I also feel like I would be settling or returning to something less good by going back there. I know that’s just so weird and wrong. Why do we have to think this way? (I am not too surprised I feel this way, though, because it's how my mum feels about her return—although she won't describe it in that exact way.)
Katie, a student who grew up in China and the U.S., on homesickness and living between two worlds:
Both of your pieces reminded me of how confusing homesickness is. I spent all three years in France missing China so much I often felt physically unable to leave my apartment from anxiety and sadness. But I also spent lots of time coming to terms with how my comfortable life back home was sheltered and privileged in many ways. When I read Jasmine’s response, I related to hating that “stuck between two worlds” trope. And my mother, like hers, hated the idea of me going back to Asia. Her dream has always been for me to leave, no matter how many times I called her crying about wanting to go back.
For a long time I was offended by her wanting me to be away. But I understand her now. She lives in fear and criticism all the time because she does not abide by the status quo; to most of her family, she doesn’t fit the idea of a good Chinese citizen, or even a good mother. And now, after her third divorce, my grandparents have a hard time even speaking to her. When they do call me, it’s usually to tell me how I should do everything different to my mother—to them, she’s been “corrupted” by the West and has passed that down to me. These things have made me realize the China in which I grew up never saw me as Chinese but as a foreigner.
I feel like a foreigner in every country, and that is why every minute I was away I grew more anxious about losing the smallest bits of Chineseness I felt in myself. (Whatever that means, I still don’t know.) I think I mentioned in one class how I have bouts of very bad agoraphobia, and while completely different from the way Albert told the story of his mother, I’ve thought about the long term psychological challenges of constantly feeling like an outsider. I used to throw fits when my Chinese family called my sister and me little 外国娃娃 (foreign dolls); then, when I was with my American family over the summers, I would pretend I could not speak Mandarin when they asked me to. My white uncles would use racial slurs as "jokes," so they'd claim, directed at us whenever we came to visit from China. I know my dad laughed too, and only drew the line when it was already so far crossed.
In both worlds, I was sick of being a party trick, a novelty or a literal “doll.” So keeping to myself at home was always the easier option. It's taken me years to realize how I internalized all of it. A lot of my anxiety and reclusiveness comes from this insecurity of wanting to seem normal and unassuming wherever I was. In my studies at university, I definitely channeled any opportunities to research and write by choosing topics related to China or broadly identities that are hybrid. It was one of the only ways I felt I was being “productive” in my confusion, maybe even overcompensating for my disconnect.
Kylie Aronson, a former student, on yearning to return to China:
Thank you for writing so candidly about your marriage and experiences. What you wrote caught me by surprise, and I found myself teary-eyed in bed. To give a little background on me, I lived in Sichuan, China with my Chinese mother for the first 11 years of my life. I left China during the 2008 earthquakes to live with my Jewish-American father. If life wasn’t disrupted so abruptly, I think I would have stayed in China and continued my education there.
As I reflected on what the Asian-American experience has been for me, I realized I didn’t have a Chinese community in the United States that I connected with. I moved into a rural, predominantly white neighborhood in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. As such, I yearned to return and connect with my people one day. For me, returning to Asia has felt like a part of my destiny, and for a while living in the United States was simply a way to learn the skills necessary to have a competitive edge. Although I have always felt like a bit of an outsider wherever I have resided, I feel like my Chinese heritage provided the strongest sense of pride and community (maybe it’s just the propaganda of the CCP but who knows). For now, I have taken on a job in New York and hope to gain some work experience before returning to China. All that is just to say I am so beyond excited for you guys to embark on this journey with your baby and for her to learn about her heritage in the best possible way.
Hedayat Heikal observes that significant out-migration of immigrants to the U.S. challenges “the reigning paradigm of America as the land of opportunity”:
I have been compulsively following the newsletter recently and enjoying it to the extent I felt compelled to write to you that out-migration or the temporariness and cyclical nature of much immigration to the United States is a significant theme throughout the history of immigration to the US.
While I always suspected that you/we are not alone, the reigning paradigm of America as the land of opportunity has left me shocked to learn of the potential scale of the phenomenon. Here is a mini-review of interesting literature trying to measure the phenomenon, which I just stumbled upon in Christian Dustmann and Joseph-Simon Görlach, "The Economics of Temporary Migrations," Journal of Economic Literature (March 2016) (pp. 103-04):
“One useful illustration of the importance of measurement when trying to capture the degree of out-migration is the estimation of the fraction of immigrants who, during the nineteenth century Age of Mass Migration, arrived in the United States and then left again...A recent paper by Bandiera, Rasul, and Viarengo (2013), by combining records on all immigrants arriving at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1924 with census data from 1900, 1910, and 1920, estimates out-migration rates from the United States to have been around 60 percent for the 1900-1910 decade and around 75 percent for the 1910-1920 decade.
For the 1980s, Ahmed and Robinson, using census data and life table survival rates, estimate that of the 1980-1990 immigrants to the United States, 8 percent left again during the same decade, and of immigrants included in the 1980 census who had arrived during the previous decade, 19 percent had emigrated again by 1990. In more recent estimates, Bhaskar, Arenas-Germosen, and Dick (2013) calculate that about 14 percent of immigrants who arrived during the 1990s and were recorded in the 2000 census had left by 2010.
It should be noted that these last two estimates refer to out-migration rates conditional on having stayed until the 1980 and 2000 census dates, respectively. Given that most out-migration occurs during the first few years after arrival, these figures are likely to underestimate the overall emigration rates of the initial arrival cohorts.”
I am not one for letters to the editor, but still in my mind thought this was interesting. I feel I want to hear more stories of emigrants of all walks of life and how much they are emigrants, returnees or expats who just intend to always have a foot/link to the United States as American "expats" of many stripes are wont to do.
A person who grew up in the U.S. and Taiwan, on living in the U.S. but “thinking” in Taiwanese:
Like Michelle, I had initially felt a real aversion at the thought of returning to Taiwan. As the only child to care for my father, I chose education over the arranged marriage that he had in mind for me. It wasn’t until after college that I met Taiwanese Americans. Like Albert, I always feel that there is no place like home and it's Taiwan. Early in the morning and late at night, I cannot help but think in Taiwanese even as I feel thankful to live in the US.
I grew up in the US and Taiwan, with little support due to my father's fear of persecution as a free speech activist in exile. My family struggled and I went from a homeschooled childhood to a foster care home as my father was deemed unfit to care for us. I ended up growing up in Taiwan, and I thrived there.
Having attended junior high school in Taiwan, I relate more to people who grew up in Asia than to other Asian Americans. Yet I have also come to embrace the US, even if it demanded a lot from me to reach that level of trust and comfort. Your writing evokes the sojourner's loneliness, the sense of jarring dislocation and sociocultural awkwardness, the liminality of giving up home and community. I love how you write about that experience in a way that is as raw and honest as it is lovely and loving.
Susan Southard, author of the magisterial Nagasaki and our book club regular, in response to Albert’s post about the atomic bomb:
I was so moved by Albert’s story on how he has guided his students in the debate about the morality of the 1945 atomic bombings of Japan, and I was heartened by the outcome of his most recent polling—with 16 out of 18 students believing that these nuclear attacks were war crimes. How amazing it would be if this trend continues!
Having spent 12 years researching and writing Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War and living with the day-to-day realities of individual Nagasaki hibakusha (atomic bomb-affected people), I continue to find myself distraught by the rationalizations most Americans give for the atomic bombings—justifications that are factually inaccurate or incomplete. They are reminiscent of other American narratives that have excluded, denied, and distorted facts to justify oppression and harm to others.
It’s a betrayal of history (which is nuanced and filled with complexities and contradictions) to insist on the “necessity” and “rightness” of these nuclear attacks or see them as inevitable. I think, too, that we betray our humanity when we don’t recognize the immorality of the intentional killing, maiming, and irradiation of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the profound suffering they experienced—not only on those days in August, 1945, but throughout their lives.
Also, for the past 75 years, Americans have stayed frozen in the debate of over the “necessity” of the bombings, which has allowed us to maintain a comfortable distance—even a sense of moral superiority—when weighing the fate of whole cities of a nation we called our enemy. I think, too, that our simplistic justifications allow us to more easily accept as normal the current existence of more than 13,000 nuclear weapons across the globe (most far more powerful than those used on Japan), and tacitly—perhaps even unintentionally—sanction the future use of these instruments of mass terror.
It is incredibly challenging to consider these issues in light of Japan’s 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the insanely horrific atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in China, and the Japanese military’s torture and killing of Allied POWs. But doing so, I think, is our responsibility as Americans who dropped the bombs. And it gives us an opportunity to hold multiple truths at the same time, an act which expands and more accurately reflects the richness of our humanity.
Sarah Blatt-Herold, who just completed her first year of law school, responded to our interview with Val Kalei Kanua and the hard questions raised by abolitionist approaches to domestic violence:
I have been reflecting on the tension between individual survivors’ experiences of harm and systemic notions of harm after reading your newsletter and the comments on it.
The more I think about it, the more I think we are having two separate conversations, one that is more systemic and the other that is more individual. I think both perspectives are critical, and the fact that there is tension between them isn't necessarily a bad thing. I think they inform one another that no survivor’s experience is the same as another’s experience—trauma isn’t a monolith. But I also don’t think approaching harm and restoration from a systemic lens invalidates the individual experience when it acknowledges the story it is telling. I just think they are two separate conversations.
This issue raises hard, challenging questions. Something we debated in my restorative justice class this semester quite a bit was whether a survivor of violence should have to consent to a restorative justice program for the responsible party (without the victim’s involvement) or if restorative justice could be made available to the responsible party no matter what. There were students in our class who firmly believed that victims need to consent to restorative justice and have control over the consequences, and that they should be able to effectively “veto” restorative justice in favor of the criminal justice system.
My perspective is different, as I see it from a systemic lens: if a victim can “veto” a restorative process for someone who has caused harm (and again it would not require the victim to be a part of the process; obviously consent is mandatory if they are participating), then we risk replicating the same cycles of harm and especially racialized harm. We can’t gatekeep the possibility of restoration. Harm is individual, but harm is also systemic, so while we have to validate the individual’s experience of harm and acknowledge all the feelings a survivor may have, we also have to think more broadly about systemic harm (non-criminalized “harms” that led the “offender” to offend, etc.). I was so intrigued by this interchange because I see it as a central debate as we start divesting from the prison industrial complex. I learned so much from reading your response to the comments; I thought you balanced those two perspectives gracefully.
I’m going to be joining the family practice at HLAB [Harvard Legal Aid Bureau] in the fall. They have an anti-carceral stance, so when clients want to use the prison or criminal justice system against their (ex) spouse, for example, we have to refer them elsewhere. This is one of my biggest questions: while I personally am aligned with the anti-carceral stance, I am concerned about how to meet my clients’ needs and validate their individual experiences and desires to use the prison system while personally not wanting to engage that system because of the harm it causes. There seems to be a profound tension in these perspectives. Thank you so much for making space for these conversations.
I just came across your newsletter this morning and I sat here sobbing into my coffee. Your nainai sounds amazing. She would have been in between the ages of my father and my nainai who lived through similar time periods in China, Taiwan and the US.
It was a good sob, or at least a sob of recognition, seeing so many similar strands in your Nainai's life with my family. My Nainai, who I loved dearly, even though I only saw her three times on long visits—two times when she came to the US in the 1980s and one time when I went to Taiwan with my dad in 1978. She was probably born around 1911 and grew up in Nanjing. She married my Yeye, whom my dad never even met. He was from Hubei province. He died shortly after they married in a raid by the Japanese in Shanghai in 1932. She and my dad managed to survive through the Sino-Japanese war and the Chinese Civil War and eventually they made it to Taiwan.
My dad, like many of his generation, studied hard and went to graduate school in the US where he met my mom (caucasian) and started a family. Growing up, he told me and my brothers very little about his youth. Except one day, in my twenties, after his Ma had passed, he told me and my eldest brother some of his story. I wrote down everything he said. Twenty years and much research later, I drafted what will be my first novel from those notes. Sadly, he passed away in 2019 while I was still writing. He knew I was writing about China, but he never asked anything about my story. I think it would have been too painful for him to remember.
My novel, called Peach Blossom Spring (after the Tao Qian poem), comes out next March. In it, I have tried to pay some small homage to that generation who saw China change in so many ways. Your stories about your Nainai remind me of my main character, who is based on my Nainai.
Thank you again for sharing that beautiful story and the photographs as well. We have another point of similarity in that I, too, moved from the US for my husband's career. We have been in the UK since 2006, and there were many times it was so difficult for me and I mourned the life I left behind. But on balance, it has been good. I likely never would have become a writer and written my novel had we stayed in the US.
Note: We just pre-ordered Peach Blossom Spring and are excited to read it!
And last, we share a friend’s reflection on leaving Paris and going “home” to Italy. He writes of the “personal implications of history, empire, family, and the whole field of forces” that shape belonging:
Like many other readers, after your wonderful and touching last two newsletters, I felt less alone. That is a powerful feeling that can come from reading about other people’s lives, even (or especially) when their circumstances are different—so, thank you.
These days, I’m also contemplating what it means to go home, and to go there with a loved one. I have been reading Stuart Hall’s autobiography Familiar Stranger, and a sentence hooked me from the beginning. He writes: “I left for England in 1951 to study at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship; and, having decided not to go home, I have lived and worked in Britain ever since.” He could have (should have?) written “go back home,” but he didn’t. I read the rest of the book as if it was a wave emanating from that sinking, missing word. Once you leave, there is no home to go back to (too bad for the age-old xenophobic slogan of sending immigrants “back home”). Or perhaps no one can ever go back, only forward.
In 1936, the fascist regime began to eviscerate the web of alleys that sheltered the view of Saint Peter’s square. The architect Bernini wanted visitors to emerge from those alleys and fall in the embrace of the “Church’s motherly arms,” the two rows of columns forming an oval—but Mussolini’s destructive fantasy spoiled the surprise forever. Dwellers of the torn down buildings were evicted and assigned social housing near the industrial area of Rome. Part of my maternal family made that short trip. The neighborhood, Garbatella, is a surreal, magnificent experiment of anomalous red-painted units of houses built around English-style communal gardens. My mother grew up there, and there I was born and my brother still lives. When I look for an apartment in a few weeks, that’s where I will start.
My maternal grandma lived and died in the building in Garbatella, in which I was also born. She had and read dozens of books, and then told me the stories. At the corner of that building there is a café, where a man in his eighties often smokes a cigarette. He stands there in smooth white trousers, an amazingly youthful face, and magnetic blue eyes. His name is Enzo and he played the child in Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. Though launched by one of the most consequential films of all time, his career as a child-actor turned out to be short. But when I screen the film to students, the visceral empathy of his performance still fills the room.
Italian neorealism stands at a strange crossroads of colonial histories. It paved the way, inspired and fueled different post- and anti-colonial national cinemas, as well as transnational forms of “Third Cinema.” It is also one of the collective ways in which Italians shifted attention away from the fascist past and toward a new present— obliquely claiming the “innocence” of those who lost the war, and suffered the occupation of the Nazis.
I didn’t care much for those films before I emigrated, nor am I particularly interested in praising the work of the masters. But then I found another angle: I became fascinated by the Parisian archives, and the discovery of all that happened through and around those films, and in the lives of people back then.
Pantin, a formerly working-class suburb of Paris inhabited now by post-colonial immigrant communities, became my home for four years. In Pantin, I met a retired Italian immigrant who had worked at the Renault car assembly line for most of his life. That had not been gentle to Pietro’s heavy body, now also in his eighties; I often saw him walk outside my window with a cane in white, red and green—the colors of the Italian national flag. When he was young, Pietro went to the movies more than three times a week, watching many of the same films I study now. I started to learn more about that generation of immigrants, who had abandoned Italy before the country’s economy exploded, finding themselves once again on the wrong side of history.
In Pantin, bars, cafes, and galleries had begun to open, but it still had the tight-knit neighborhood life of a non-central area. I loved it all. I went to the local state-funded arthouse cinema, around the corner from where I lived. That cinema was also the whitest space I encountered in Pantin. I started to understand that people like me, and the other spectators in that theatre, were the ones driving up prices and rent in the area.
But the movies were great; I remember the astounding beauty of Alain Delon and Monica Vitti on the big screen, in Antonioni’s L’Eclisse, and their final missed encounter in the lunar landscape of one of Rome’s fascist neighborhoods.
I wonder what the connection is, if any, between those threads. The middle-classness I was born into is the story that defined me. But behind it and before it were other stories, such as the entangled trajectories of fascism and migration. They were not passed on to me directly from familial memory, and I got to know them, later and elsewhere, through books and films.
Yesterday morning the intense grief of leaving Paris got hold of my body. As I felt the wave, I was walking near the Père Lachaise cemetery, and went in to find some quiet. Another visitor asked me where Jim Morrison was buried, and in the map I noticed names I had not considered before. I started to search for the grave of Cino Del Duca. He was a publisher and film producer who lived between France and Italy, joined the resistance, became a philanthropist, and helped make some of the co-productions between the two countries, by directors such as Antonioni and Pasolini. He is buried in the higher section of the cemetery, where looking down beyond the treetops, the greyish buildings of Paris, and further out its towers, appear against the uncertain sky.
I am not alone. I am inspired by the lives of those who, like you, do not determine their sense of home by where they are. I am reminded of that paraphrase of John’s Gospel, “to be in the world, not of the world.” The strangeness of that idea makes me laugh, so obviously out of place and yet appropriate, for a journey that had one of its beginnings in an eviction from the Vatican.
I hope that I am not going back home. I hope that I am going home.
Our review of Cobra Kai in LARB
As is our wont in the Kuo-Wu household, we binged the first half-season of TV show Cobra Kai in one sitting, not even taking bathroom breaks. The show’s big-heartedness and irreverent tone won us over. This Tuesday we published an essay about the show in the Los Angeles Review of Books. We discuss how Cobra Kai shows the thin line between being a victim and victimizer, and how the memory of humiliation is one psychological origin of paramilitary violence. Here’s a link to the piece.
Book Club: Paradise Lost, Friday, June 25th at 3 PM ET.
We had so much fun at our last book club! Special shout-out, once again, to the Milton lover who joined us from Kuala Lumpur (at 3 AM, no less!). We’re glad to continue reading Paradise Lost. The excitement about Eve was infectious, so our plan is to focus on her character in our next discussion. As always, feel free to swing by, and don’t feel like you must read in order to attend. Email us at email@example.com for the zoom link.
Gina, our resident expert, shares a quick guide for where to find the passages on Eve:
The first 400 lines or so of Book 5 also feature Eve.
If you're short on time, the Adam and Eve part of Book 4 begins at line 288. Book 4 begins and ends with Satan but it’s really well worth it, I think, in terms of rounding out his character.
Book 8 is mostly Adam and Raphael chatting, first about the cosmos and then about Adam's nativity. Eve herself is only present at lines 39-63, although you might want to know what Adam says about her first to God and then to Raphael (picking up around 354 and running through the rest of the book).
Book 9 is a must-read, of course. (Drum roll.)
We see Eve again in 10 (7-208, 863-end) and 12 (594 to end) if you want to know how the story ends.