Monday, February 22, 2010

the woods apology: asian mothers and ethnic programming for the win

When Tiger Woods's infidelities broke into the public sphere last year I joked with some friends that when straight-laced, boring, repressed folks crack, they go big or go home.  On some smaller, deeper level, I even sympathized with his crack up: when a revered father dies the mooring that steadied you disappears so, of course, you go off course.  My own personal experience mirrored his, in a way; when my mother died, I went through my own 'grief sex' period - years where I slept around like a sailor, to feel anything that would break through the white noise of my mother's death. 

But it took an offhand comment from an old college friend about Woods' press conference on my Facebook page to look at Woods through a very familiar, and particular, cultural lens- a lens that those in the media have, of course, overlooked.

From my friend on Facebook:
"Tiger Wood's apology (and his mother's reaction during it) made him seem more Asian American to me...

Suddenly it all clicked: brother may look black (to some people) but, if there's one thing I know about mix-raced asians, if the mother is asian, you are gonna get a huge dose of asian culture exposure (read: guilt) and it will be hardwired into you even if you have to adapt to other cultures (whether you like it or not, mama's gonna rig it) his cultivated characterless-ness, the extreme privacy and (surprise!) the lapsed Buddhism angle, coupled with the public self-shaming in front of family (not wife but elders)...hmmmmm...this all sounds very familiar. Stern mommy in the front row completed the scene.

All the media asked: why the hell did he feel he need to do that public apology? Because every bit of his asian upbringing told him this was the proper thing to do!

Once I saw him in that all too familiar formation with his mother who is so often un-present in his media representation, I suddenly realized who was responsible for the daily grunt work of making him into a man: the feeding, the schlepping and the occasional (or not so occasional) slap. I saw him in a room full of aunties, sitting in a corner and being told to be quiet while they talked business. This is a bound to be an intense part of his psychic make-up...and probably more crucial to a private sense of self, given the fact that American media wants to produce a public image of blackness for him.

The media didn't understand the mom's stern posture, followed by hug gesture...they thought she was cold...and maybe in their eyes she is...but what I saw was a reversion to certain basic childhood patterns. Nugget from my childhood: Southeast Asian moms always make you tell them what you did wrong before they tell you never to do it again.

So, this explains why Tiger Woods would not let go of his Asian-ness, despite the criticism by whites and blacks that he was trying to shirk his blackness. His attempt to multi-identify was seen as a cop-out by people who only saw obsessively in terms of black and white...but his core sense of self was constituted by rituals of pain and pleasure that came from some powerful asian american mother-son bond(age).

When mom gets to handle the discipline, she also gets to handle the ethnic programming. With my sisters who have married outside of the race, I have noticed that they excessively program vietnamese-ness into their children's early self-constitution (like a trojan horse computer virus) just because they know that at some point, some other culture will "claim" their children.

Case in point: Throughout my early adulthood, I would encounter my eldest sister's children taunting me because they could speak better Vietnamese than me and felt themselves better attuned to Vietnamese-ness. Now, they hardly ever want to speak Vietnamese, because they're blond and nordic-looking...but almost always, especially at emotional moments, they revert to classic patterns of vietnamese behavior."

I responded:
"Oh my god, yes! My mom was far scarier than dad when it came to discipline - and the stealth bomb she would pull out was 'you're a bad daughter.' (It was understood that this meant I was a bad Filipina daughter.) Responsibility, obligation, duty, protecting the family name and upholding family integrity. Seen as an asian son-almost every aspect of his behavior is understandable."

I'm fascinated at the way our mainstream culture is perpetually tone-deaf to the nuances of multiple cultural identities. When I looked at his press conference again, the whole thing screamed Asian family discipline and apology.  The focus on self-respect, restraint, the ultimate importance of family and the lessons that family can teach, rather than the 'lessons' taught by over-indulgent celebrity and vice; for those of us who grew up with an Asian parent, these are familiar themes that were pounded into us throughout childhood.  But then, also, the discipline of the public apology, the ritual of apologizing to those you've shamed: the inner family first, then outward.  His public, and the media, is last.  Who's first?  His mother and wife (and the presence of the wife is immaterial - the presence of the mother is primary.)

The press was miffed there was no Q&A - well, the press was just a minor necessity. The real focus were those people sitting in the front row. The apology was less a PR stunt (though it served as one, too) than a necessary step in repairing his bonds with his Asian identity and upbringing - embodied by his mother, in particular.  My takeaway: don't mess with Asian mothers, man.  They'll make you apologize in public.

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