There are times I envy art’s effectiveness in a bilingual context, its ability to transcend language.
Ways of Seeing
Remember, your daddy can see everything
One eye sees, the other feels
It is tempting to carry the metaphor further. If a biracial person has double vision, does being triracial triple one’s ability to see? Does multiplying the number of lenses or tiny windows increase vision or does it lead to chaos, endless prisms so distracting they obscure vision altogether?
A lens is much easier to isolate than a race. A plastic lens is a plastic lens. Race is situational. Both are man-made. Both manufactured. Is a Japanese Korean person biracial? In whose eyes? Through which lens? How about an English Irish person? A Quechuan Peruvian? An Ethiopian Eritrean?
Our father was required to wear glasses for driving but he often left them at home. Driving with him was terrifying. Not only was he legally blind, he was reckless, a man who was always in a hurry and who had little awareness of the drivers around him.
As a child I always attributed our father’s refusal to wear glasses to vanity, but perhaps wearing glasses was also a painful reminder that he was being seen. The way children think you can’t see them if they can’t see you. He was someone who was never invisible, someone who could never blend in.
I myself walk through the house without my glasses most of the time. It blurs the mess of things, mutes distractions and allows me to focus on my interior life which is closely linked to my work as a writer and a teacher.
If I could have any type of lens made for my glasses, I would like a lens that allows me to see the dead. To see my father again. Or a lens that permits me to see someone faraway. To see my sister in New York, my mother in California, my child while she’s at school. Or a pair of glasses like my sister’s, with clear lenses that show the world through my own eyes and tiny windows that show me what she sees.
But then I think, am I not wearing such glasses now as I write? Isn’t that what writing is? Hundreds of tiny windows that allow us to see the dead and/or distant worlds, to see through the eyes of another? One crucial difference: You can’t see me writing. Or rather, you see my interior without seeing my exterior. You can see my thoughts about race without seeing my phenotype.
In this way, an essay or a poem, a book of stories or a memoir, is like a pair of glasses you can wear to increase your vision. You wear them to see your own world differently or to look through a tiny window at a world you’ve never seen. Every library a glasses shop for the mind.
Our mother, whose eyes are much better than mine, much better than our father’s ever were, believes few people truly need glasses. She suggests the possibility that we’ve been coerced into thinking we need glasses by the scientists and opticians and insurance companies who profit from them. I like the audacity of this theory, especially coming from a woman. I see just fine without you, thanks.
When she explains her theory I can suddenly see why she and our father fell in love. And why their marriage ended. The desire to see and be seen by the other, unencumbered by lenses, meets multiple lenses. The dream of harmony amidst difference, achieved without effort, meets difference and effort. To cleave to one’s own vision, against all odds, at all cost.
Our mother is a devout Catholic, a believer in the unseen. If, as Simone Weil asserts, attention can be a form of prayer, perhaps attention can also function as a pair of glasses, a way of seeing. To observe someone closely is to see them more clearly or to see them differently. Our mother’s eyes are green.
Before I was married, I had a long history of falling in love with visual artists. Did I want someone to see me? Or did I want someone to see for me? Someone whose vision was superior to my own? Or did I just want to marry my someone like my sister?
One of the most compelling objects in our parents’ bedroom was our mother’s wooden art box which she kept on a high shelf in their closet. The box contained a charcoal portrait she had done of our father, stubs of charcoal, tubes of oil paint, and several paint brushes. Parts of her she had put away when she married him. He too had wanted to marry an artist.
For our father and for many Chinese of his generation, marriage marked the end of courtship, the putting away of romance, and the beginning of responsibility. Our father didn’t mind that our mother no longer gazed at his face and drew his portrait; he’d expected that, perhaps even demanded it. For our mother this change was a betrayal. To look through an American lens is to see marriage as an extension of courtship, if not its own kind of romance, the moment of consummation the moment when true love begins.
Each of our parents, in their own peculiar way, resisted glasses, resisted the notion of holding a lens up to their natural eyes in order to see differently. Both were scientists. Our mother looked through a microscope every day of her working life. Our father, an engineer, once offered to install a peephole in the bathroom door so we could spy on him.
Years later, I went to a pond with a group of artists and writers. One writer took off his glasses, perhaps in preparation for swimming, perhaps to look more handsome. We all began stripping down to the bathing suits that were hidden underneath our clothes. As soon as a particular artist began to remove her clothing, the writer slyly put his glasses back on. It was an unforgettable moment. Something I shouldn’t have seen but could never unsee. The artist didn’t seemed to notice. She stripped quickly then plunged into the water while I watched him watching her.
As a child, I had to wear glasses too. It was yet another thing that made me like our father. Laughable. A bit of a joke. I would wear my glasses on the walk to school and then take them off as soon as I arrived. I too was averse to being seen and would give up the ability to see clearly in order to avoid the sensation.
As artists, my sister and I spend an inordinate amount of time using our eyes. We look at the world around us, we watch people. We observe physical objects, we read, we stare into space. I feel seen by her. I find in her what perhaps our parents once found in each other. Someone who sees me. Someone who sees the world in a way that’s similar enough to the way I do to be reassuring yet different enough to be exciting and challenging. Unlike our parents, she doesn’t need glasses and wears them anyway. She makes an effort to see.
Collaborating with my sister is to remember, The eye you see is not/an eye because you see it;/it is an eye because it sees you. Her eyes are alive. They see me. They see things I can’t see. Some people have an ax to grind, we have lenses. When we collaborate, we wear each other’s glasses. We join our discrete forces, our four eyes, to make a third set of eyes, a third vision.
A pair of glasses is like a coat you can put on and take off, whereas your eyes are set in your eye sockets, sewn to your flesh, inside your head. Like language or the memory of an image, they’re part of you, organic, undetachable. No one can put on your eyes or see your memories. A sister—or someone whose memories overlap with yours—is almost an exception to this. To exchange stories with another witness is a form of survival. To wear your sister’s glasses is another.
José Saramago wrote, “the only thing more terrifying than blindness is being the only one who can see.” An essential part of what drew my sister and me together was the sense, without the other, of being the only one who can see. Like riding alone in the car with our father.
Consider how many nightmares hinge on the dreamer being alone with a particular knowledge. For instance: X is evil and will kill us all and you’re the only one who knows. Being the only one to see reality gives the nightmare a terrible weight. When someone else knows too, when you’re no longer alone in seeing reality, even the worst nightmares lose their power. This is part of the work my sister and I do together. By joining our visions, we subvert nightmares.
Whenever we put white ribbons in our hair or wore the white pinafores our mother had sewn for us, our father would fly into a rage and deliver his lecture on the symbolism of the color white in Chinese culture. Did someone die? Are you trying to kill me?! Born in America, we didn’t know that white accessories and clothing were appropriate for only two things: mourning or a death wish. Without anything but our own father to remind us, we often forgot the Chinese meanings and when we did remember, it was difficult to take them seriously and so inevitably we wore white again.
Our father loved it when we wore red. As a child, I wore red to please him and as a teenager I read in a magazine that red was a “confidence color” so I often wore red—with confidence—from head to toe. Red shirt, red pants, red socks, red shoes. None of us knew the same red our father associated with happiness was a color our mother despised because, as a girl, she’d been forced to wear red, despite the fact that her favorite color was blue. Her parents had reserved blue clothing and blue objects for her brother. I learned this after years of wearing red in our mother’s presence; she didn’t reveal her hatred of red until after our father’s death.
Ours was a bilingual household in which only one person—our father—was truly bilingual. My sister, our mother and I spoke English fluently; it was our native tongue, a language we were comfortable speaking. Our mother had taken Mandarin at the University and studied books we had on the shelf at home. My sister and I knew almost nothing, just a handful of words our father had taught us: bread, apple, milk, banana, big, little, rear end, goodbye. We overheard him talking on the phone to his colleagues in China so that, years later, when we traveled as adults to Taiwan to study Mandarin, the sounds were familiar to us.
Our father never forgot the first phone conversation he and I had upon my return from Taiwan. Over the years, he recounted the incident again and again: You spoke 100% in Chinese! 100%! His desire for us to assimilate had outweighed his desire to teach us his native language. I’m certain that teaching us Chinese, being able to speak to us 100% in Chinese, would have made him happy. Yet, before we spoke English, before we could speak any language, we looked at his face and recognized him.
My sister’s choice to work with images was brilliant in its bypassing of words and their many pronunciations and meanings. There are times I envy art’s effectiveness in a bilingual context, its ability to transcend language. Yet one only needs to look at the story of the color red in our bicultural home to begin to see the limits of this transcendence. Art, too, is a language, one with its own set of dialects and tones.
Still, I remember so clearly the people my sister drew as a child, how gentle and delicate they looked, a collection of friends who sat outside among animals and wore beautiful clothes and kept her company. She made her own friends, her own town, her own world. Anyone from anywhere could see how peaceful her world was, how serene its people’s way of living. They were pencil drawings, devoid of color controversies. Today her drawings are rich with color, saturated.
Deft use of color has become one of her signatures. I can’t help but wonder how and why this shift took place. Was it conscious or unconscious? Are the drawings simply reflections of her experience, the early drawings made by a shy sketch of a young girl, the later work made by a woman who has traveled and worked and fallen in love? Or is something else at play?
When our father was dying, he was in a huge hospital devoted to people with cancer. It was strange to know that every person in every bed on every floor of the building was a cancer patient and therefore also to know that every visitor to the hospital was visiting a person with cancer. This private information had inadvertently been made public. It felt very intimate to know, just by looking at someone, that their life was being touched by cancer.
A large family of Pacific Islanders had come to visit someone. There were about ten of them, a variety of ages, from toddler to middle-schooler to teenager to parent to grandparent. Every one of them was wearing a red costume. At the beginning of the day, we saw them all together, and throughout the day, we would see two or three of them at a time and knew immediately, without recognizing their faces, they were part of that family because of their red costumes. The color red united them in the face of death.
It’s possible I saw the hospital and its inhabitants through red rose-colored glasses, while my sister saw them through a red mist, that our mother saw a group of boys wearing red dresses or red wine in a goblet, as in a mass, and our father saw his own blood, coloring the clothes of the mourners.
If my sister and I were among millions of people and she were to hold up an image of the family in red, would I recognize her? If she held up our mother’s art box? Her charcoal portrait of our father? The rectangular glasses he’d been prescribed but never wore? A pencil drawing of a girl sitting on grass, wearing a blouse printed with daisies, holding a rabbit on her lap?
If someone is dying, their vision reigns supreme. If someone is dying, you let them win.
Our green-eyed mother wasn’t at the hospital. She had married someone with blue, farsighted eyes. Some child part of me was wounded by her absence, yet the fact that she was hundreds of miles away was also a relief. For both sets of our parents’ eyes to have been there, would have meant wearing the biracial bifocals all day. Our brown eyes looking back and forth between them—through her green eyes, then his black eyes, then her green eyes, then his black eyes, and so on. We were exhausted as it was by his dying. There would have been no contest. If someone is dying, their vision reigns supreme. If someone is dying, you let them win.
When a nurse draws a patient’s blood, the blood is red, regardless of race, regardless of whether the patient is our father, our mother, my sister or me. In the end, there’s only one color, yet so much to see. There are many ways to view the color red. One sister sees X, the other sees Y. What did you see in your dreams the night he opened his eyes? What did you see in his eyes while I dreamed? Do you remember his eyes closing? I want to see what you see. Hand me your glasses, Sister. You’re not alone in this dream.
Jennifer Tseng is the author of three award-winning poetry collections; a collection of flash fiction, The Passion of Woo & Isolde, a Firecracker Award finalist & winner of an Eric Hoffer Book Award; and a novel, Mayumi & the Sea of Happiness, finalist for the PEN American Center's Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction & the New England Book Award. A Core Faculty member of OSU-Cascades' Low Residency MFA program, she lives on Martha's Vineyard.
Jennifer & her sister Amanda collaborate on Instagram @tseng.sisters.