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If Neighbors Were "Other Mothers"

My mother sits across my kitchen table, answering my questions, at first perfunctorily, then gradually giving in to reminiscences. I ask her, “How do you say "neighbor" in Taiwanese?” Tsu bihn, which translates as "next-to-house."  
“And what kind of neighborhood did you grow up in? Do you remember any special places from your childhood neighborhood?” No special places. 

What I want to ask her, but can’t bring myself to say is, how did you become a mother? I can’t ask because I don’t expect that she will hear the question I’m asking. She will say, “the matchmaker--she put me with your father...” I am curious as ever about that story, but even more curious about how we, my mother and I, who grew up with career-minded mothers, ourselves became mothers. We two have so little in common, but this lack of “maternal instinct” we share. Neither of us, as young women, felt any urge to have children; both of us ranked motherhood low on the scale of life aspirations. Yet life circumstances put us both on a path of becoming mothers, and this became a point of connection for us. It helped us heal from past misunderstandings and hostilities. 

The question I want to ask is more along the lines of the one Sarah Blaffer Hrdy asks in the preface of Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species (1999.)  
“What does it mean to be born a mammal, with the emotional legacy that makes me capable of caring for others, breeding with the ovaries of an ape, possessing the mind of a human being . . . to be a semicontinuously sexually receptive, hairless biped, with conflicting aspirations and struggling to maintain her balance in a rapidly changing world? (xi)

Hrdy’s question makes me chuckle. Two years ago, though, as I struggled to keep my marriage intact, I would have been too deeply mired in the pain of “conflicting aspirations” to see the humor.  Conflicting aspirations and conflicting expectations of my role as mother would be the main reasons I attribute to the demise of my marriage-- not among the most commonly cited reasons for divorce.

So here we sit at the kitchen table, as we did soon after my first son was born and my mother came to care for me and to feed me chinese herbs. I discovered years ago that the interview as a form of communication opened up a kind of conversation with my mother that we never could access in any other form of talk. In this role I am forced to listen without reacting, defending, justifying; and her tendency to ramble onto seemingly off-topic tangents gets focused by my questions. For most of my adult life I have been asking questions about place. Closely following the question, who am I? are questions like, “who am I in relation to this place? Am I insider or outsider?” Localism, sense of place, place-based education, placemaking, the link between neighborhood and community--all of these hold interest for me. Close behind these questions lurk those vexing questions about motherhood.

"No such thing as neighborhood," she says. Her father was a policeman, I knew. She now tells me he worked for the Japanese military. She grew up in the Japanese compound, the only Taiwanese family inside the walled "community" of the invading nation’s military station. She ventured outside those walls only to go to school, facing the hostility of other Taiwanese children who saw her family as friends of the enemy. Inside those walls, she was an outsider, too--one of the colonized who had sold out to help “keep the peace.” As the layers of thick skins that have protected her story begin to peel away, I see another parallel. My mother must have felt the same isolation I felt as a child. She, too, must have felt isolated growing up within a community of people who didn’t speak our language. 

My mother describes her walk home from school. Her most vivid memory is the smell of a kind of peanut soup flavored with lily buds, simmered over small, roadside fires from which the aroma wafted through the air for miles. "These lilies grow wild by the roadside, you know. So you can find lots. You can take whole bunch and dry them, then tie each bud in a knot, like I show you, you know? And then put with peanuts. Ooooh, smells soooo delicious.” Her voice rises musically as she draws out the word “so.” My mouth waters, remembering the same, tangy lily buds she puts in one of my favourite soups.  

My mother continues. "I would slow my steps and stand nearby their fires, and just stare, my mouth like this (hanging open). I hope and hope they would invite me to have some. Oh, I dreamed about having this soup all my childhood. But they never invited me. And my own mother would never make this thing for me, because she say, that just for low class people, poor food, peasant food only the poor farmers would eat." 

The key ingredient of this soup is the tangy, Asiatic Lily, Lilium asiatica. Its root strucutrue is rhizomatic--an apt metaphor for migratory people like us who have creeped across continents, setting down roots in new terrain, but always connected in some way to the rootstalk.

My father sits listening silently as her reverie unfolds. His own story could make him a poster child of the “American Dream.” Rising from his roots as a poor farmer’s son through a 30-year career as a senior chemist at an oil company, he provided his family the middle-class life idealized by the villagers back home. My mother has always complained about how impractical he was, how distracted by daydreams. In this moment, though, he catches her dreaming. “The smell of soup made you think it was so delicious, but it was really just simple food. Better in your dreams.” 

My own entry into motherhood was pretty rocky. At a crossroads between heading off to New York City onto an imagined filmmaking career or setting down roots in the small midwestern town where I discovered my feminist-anti-racist-artist self, I stumbled into pregnancy. No, motherhood was not a considered, intentional or pre-meditated choice.

The day that I realized I was pregnant, time slowed to a crawl; I sobbed for two hours before I accepted this new identity. Though I was 30, I wasn't ready to be a mother--what person is ever ready, really? But me? I was not supposed to be a mother. I was supposed to have a career, write books, make films. My mother raised me to pursue a career, pestered me to become a scientist, or better yet a doctor. Most of my young adulthood was spent rejecting the career paths that would have made my mother happy. I wanted to be a writer, like Virginia Woolf, whose books I would sneak into bed and read until the sky began to lighten.

My mother’s mother was widowed at a fairly young age and, against all odds for a woman of her time period in her culture, became a business-owner.  My mother was raised with a non-traditional model of mothering. I, in turn, was raised by a mother with deep ambivalence towards the duties of mothering. Mom made no bones about it; she never wanted to be a mother. She wanted a career and aspired to self sufficiency. I believe she experienced the birth of her children as a massively inconvenient interruption to her aspirations. My mother fully admitted her deep distaste for housework; she needn’t have put it into words. Her distaste for it showed up all over the house. 

Soon after I was born, my grandmother hired a nanny for my mother to help care for me while she taught school fulltime. Thinking back on my childhood in Taiwan, I remember feeling that my well-being was in the care of many elders. In the Taiwanese language, every relation has a unique title that describes their familial relationship; something like, “Third-Aunt-On-Father’s Side.”  I’ve been told that I could rattle off all two dozen of my relations’ titles.

Then we emigrated, first to Canada and then the United States, where my father was hired as an organic chemist by Standard Oil. Within a few years of my childhood, I went from spending summers on my grandparents farm in rural Taiwan, surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins, pigs and chickens, to living in a suburb of Chicago in which we were one of just three Taiwanese families, and the cookie cutter houses sat in the middle of perfectly manicured lawns. Every house had its own driveway, garage, lawnmower, etc. For many years of my childhood, we didn't venture far beyond the borders of the "neighborhood." The yard became how I knew “nature”--the yard  that my father was fortunately too busy to mow every week. The tall grass made a perfect playground for our games of Little House on the Prairie. In these games, I played the dad--or sometimes the horse. I would drag the red wagon behind me with my sisters sitting one behind the other, legs hanging over the edge. The willow tree was our home base. Dreaming up a shelter under the willow branches was my first and only expression of homemaking.

Well into middle-age, I feel like I am still dragging the wagon around, my sisters replaced by my two boys; I’m still looking for a place that feels like home. I have moved my children from house to house and across the country to put them closer to their father’s family. I’ve relocated in one neighborhood after another, seeking the illusive community of people that will help me raise my children. I love being a mother; I really cherish all the challenging experiences, the tender moments. At the same time, I have countless times railed at the sidewalk, on my way home from taking one of my sons to school, at the impossibility of mothering and sustaining a career. Mothering in this fragmented, nuclear culture feels impossible sometimes. Something about the way our communities are set up and the expectations/stereotypes of self-sacrifice add up to make mothering an impossible challenge. 

Soon after the birth of my first son, I read Of Woman Born, by Adrienne Rich and found solace in her courage to express her feelings of resentment about the societal expectation that mothers should sacrifice their own needs to the needs of their infants. Decades later, I now look to Sarah Hrdy with appreciation for her willingness to put similar feelings of resentment and ambivalence about mothering under scrutiny, and to allow her experiences to inform her study of the evolutionary origins of “other-regarding” behavior. In her theory of allomothering, or the care of infants by non-maternal family members, I see a link between my interest in neighborhood organizing and a desire to reexamine the social construction of mothering. Could the concept of allomothering inform design principles for transforming neighborhoods into resilient communities of mutual aid? What if children could count on others and mothers, and mothers could count on neighbors to help raise the children? These kinds of questions act like a salve on my broken heart; they give shape to a vision of community and place in which I can imagine my children and my children’s children will thrive. 


Power in the Edges: Goddard College MFAIA Commencement

I gave this speech for our last graduation in Port Townsend, September 2012.

This is the moment. This is the last time I get to have an opportunity to speak with you as an MFAIA advisee. So I’ve chosen to do so in the form of a letter. You know, of course, that at Goddard, the letter is a response to your work, your growth, and an invitation to dialogue. That means I expect to hear back from ya’ll even after you’ve walked up this aisle and out the door.

Dear graduates,

I often start my letters with a glimpse of where I sit, or stand. From where I’m standing today, the sun is shining (who saw the sunrise this morning?); it feels like a beautiful time to be alive. It feels like an excellent time to be conferred with an MFA. Now some of you might be thinking, what could she talking about? We have seen global crises on an unprecedented scale over the past year, as well as economic crisis, massive loss of lives, political turmoil, and spiritual bankruptcy in our leadership. But we’ve also seen responsive collective action like we’ve never seen before. Let’s listen to the poetics of words used to describe the collective actions of the past year—swarms of Occupy protesters, waves of demonstrations, Arab Spring…these words energize optimism about change. And while Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring and the Tar Sands Action made history, it’s the reverberations at the fringes of society that are carrying the change forward. I want to congratulate you graduates with the optimism of these movements, and with a reminder that opportunities for beautiful action abound--at the margins, the edges, the fringes, of our communities. 

Last week at a screening of !Women, Art, Revolution in my town, we brought up the subject of movement-building. Occupy was a beautiful moment, we said, but what has happened to the movement? One panelist remarked how quickly it disappeared or got absorbed. Where is the movement now, she asked? One young woman in the front row spoke up. This is what we learned from Occupy. We saw how the media spun the story; we saw how the protest encampments got swept away, and then how the movement got co-opted. It’s not that we don’t care; we just don’t believe that protest works.” 

I could see the faces of the older ones in the crowd grow slack with dismay. I could feel my own face grow slack with dismay. And then the young woman next to her said, “you ask where the movement is. Well, I'm surrounded by crazy creative change makers! They're organizing re-skilling festivals and sharing gardening skills, printmaking techniques, and handcrafts. They're in the woods building tiny houses living off the grid! They’re making gorgeous political posters in community studios! They're building puppets and working in schools and dancing in hospitals! That's where the movement is. On the fringes.

I looked at her face and I said, you're right, Occupy may have been absorbed. Mass protests may be short lived. But those waves send out millions and millions of ripples. That's what long term social change looks like. Paul Hawken in Blessed Unrest showed us how hundreds of millions of change makers are remaking the world one city block at a time. The homeless are reclaiming foreclosed property one building at a time. The Transition Town movement is reinvigorating community rituals, changing the world one walkable neighborhood at a time. Terry Tempest Williams wrote in Finding Beauty in a Broken World about the brokenness of our community, the fragmentation brought on by domination of land and other species. Yet she also raises hope for the potential of beauty to construct a new landscape, a wholeness composed of mosaic. In mosaic, the play of light and line are the rules of the game. We need to stay at the edges. We need to see the landscape from a different, more expansive spatial and temporal scale. 

As many of you know, I've returned to graduate school again recently. And I just learned in my last reading, that the edges between ecosystems...ecotones, a place where ecosystems are in tension—is where shifts in domination happen. That's where it's at, folks. That’s where revolution is happening. At the edges. In a 1995 article, (read whole citation,  Wu, J. and O.L. Loucks. 1995. From Balance of Nature to Hierarchical Patch Dynamics: A Paradigm Shift in Ecology. The Quarterly Review of Biology 70(4):439-466), Wu and Loucks challenge the idea of “the balance of nature.” This is one of those big ideas that has come to seem irrefutable. For decades, ecology has been based on this assumption that disturbance or disruption is anomaly in nature, and that undisturbed nature is in equilibrium, and  stasis more common than change. But ecologists in the 90’s realized that this perception depends very much on the scale at which you’re examining a system. At the landscape level, ecological communities actually have far more edges than centers. The world is a mosaic of diverse patches rather than homogenous terrain. 

What can we learn from this as artists? I think we can learn that fear of change can blind us to paths of growth. As MFAIA graduate, Doug Miller, once wrote to me, “there’s power in the margins.” Most of you in your graduating presentations described feeling marginalized, pushed to the edge, weird, dislocated, incompatible with the mainstream, etc. Making art for many of us is a way to feel centered. You need that centering—a way home where you can reset. Refresh. But then you get up in the morning and walk out the door, or run out the door, and you find yourself at cliff's edge, or in that in-between space. What will you do? You could become a butterfly and ride the edge.

Let me tell a marginal story, a story about time. My father planted a grape vine on the edge of his parent's farm when he was a teenager. He tells me that when he left home for college, the vine was a scrawny thing just barely making grapes. When he returned from college, it had grown tall and full and produced a generous crop of grapes. The vine was still growing there when he returned home after teaching high school in Taipei. It was still growing there after he went to graduate school in Canada to start his career. It was still growing there when he brought my son, his grandson, to pay homage to the Lin temple. It was still growing there when we returned to bury my grandmother a few years ago. Grape vines can grow for 120 years. That sounds like a long time, longer than the average human lifespan. Yet on a geologic temporal scale, it’s about the length of a sneeze.

So Goddardesses, thank you for this weekend of creative interventions, for  enlivening the margins. In geologic time, this weekend may have been just a blip. But in human time, you gifted us with stories and images and experiences that will last a lifetime. You are creating a text so thoroughly embellished, illuminated, and re-contextualized by marginalia that it becomes a new story, a new book altogether. We may find an Edie Wells bottlecap chair or a Pi Luna deck of healing art cards in the corner of a prison; or we may gaze upon an Elaine Spicer encaustic or Dawn Sagar landscape in a hospital hallway; a Sue McFadden scroll in a school lobby or Rhonda Janke soil stained fabric print in a market window; a Mindy Dillard one woman show or Porschia Baker spoken word invocation in a Denise Auld Pink Tent on the edge of a peninsula. And wherever we come across your work in the future, we will see new evidence that women’s work is revolutionary work. We will find ourselves in the dynamic borders between your personal stories, the story of our beloved arts community in Port Townsend, and the all-embracing story of Gaia, the greatest work of art.

I want to end on the words of one you. Last night when asked one of our favorite questions, who is your audience, Edie responded, "I'm less interested in showing my art than in using my art." Change is life. We each have to make our choices about how to navigate change-- resist it or move with the wave or transform. However you choose to move, remember the power at the margins; its all in the edges, the fringe, where the shifting of dominance occurs. May you use your art well, in your communities, neighborhoods, institutions, and ecotones... to make the small, but many, many, many stitches necessary to piece together wholeness in our world. 

In gratitude and sisterhood,
Ju Pong


Love Letters

I'll be showing the second of the Love Letters series, "Home Work," Tuesday, Oct 17, at The Hive membership launch at Roots Cafe in Providence. Here are the videos on vimeo:



Making, Meaning, and Context: A Radical Reconsideration of Art’s Work

 Making, Meaning, and Context: A Radical Reconsideration of Art’s Work

Our festival/forum at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont is coming up soon. I'll be showing the first two parts of Love Letters on Friday, October 14. The video for part one is in the previous post, and the next part will be posted here soon.

Love Letters is a suite of performative video letters reflecting on the desire for home, the politics of homemaking and housecleaning, and the ecology of the home. The first letter, Dirt is Beautiful, examines cultural associations with dirt and the kinds of objects or conditions that arouse feelings of disgust. The second letter, called Home Work is a meditation on the gender politics of work, particularly the relationship between housework and work outside the home. Some of the questions posed include: Where do you work? How is your work at home different than work outside the home? Who works at home in your household? What is the work of your dreams? The artist invites participants to explore the potential for performative presence to imagine new ways of merging art and activism.


Dirt is Beautiful

Love Letters is a suite of performative video letters addressed to people close to the artist, reflecting on the desire for home, the politics of homemaking and housecleaning, the ecology of the home and the practice of love. This first letter, Dirt is Beautiful, examines associations with dirt and the kinds of objects or conditions that arouse feelings of disgust. The video begins after the performer steps in front of the screen wearing a pink apron on which the word, "Neighbor," is embroidered. She then flips the apron to her back and gets down on hands and knees to crawl towards the audience, spitting and scrubbing the floor as she goes. She continues to spit and scrub throughout the video, making her way between the aisles.

The second letter, called Home-Work, will explore the relationship between home and work. The last letter reflects on the impact of the "American Dream" for the suburban home on the health of the community and of the planet. The performance creates a space for exploring the potential for performative presence to stimulate memory, dialogue, and transformative politics.

Dirt is Beautiful from Ju-Pong Lin on Vimeo.


Im(Migration) Seattle

This is my newest video, made for "Passages" at Inscape Arts; incorporating footage from Laundry Stories and text from Driven Out: The Forgotten War against Chinese Americans.

Laundry Stories for Im(Migration) from Ju-Pong Lin on Vimeo.

Password is laundry2010