The Festival of the Orient is happening in Milan right now. I am pleased to see so much interest in knowing the world of Asia here in Italy.
When I was growing up in Texas, having Chinese origins seemed more like a weight that a gift. It was something that could incite ridicule if not violence, more than interest and respect. Only when I moved to Berkeley, California for university, where many Asian people live and there is a big fuss about diversity, I first began to perceive the beauty of my origins. I enrolled in a Chinese language course after renouncing it at age six, and I reclaimed the habit of eating with chopsticks, which I have maintained until now, and it always seems to draws attention and curiosity.
So many people identify me as Chinese, though is that even accurate? Do I merit it? What do I know about being Chinese? I can speak Italian fluently enough to describe micro-attractors, the arrow of complexity, time territories and recomposing the mirror of the human primeval divinity, yet ordering food in Chinese sometimes ends in disastrous misunderstanding. The ideograms I can recognize are limited to those printed on Mahjong pieces. Most anyone you find on the West Coast of the US probably knows more about Chinese medicine, Taoism, feng shui and the I Ching than me. My parents haven’t passed so much eastern knowledge on to me, as they are scientists with western academic specializations (microbiology and medicine), and they have a very pragmatic vision of life. After having lived in Taiwan during the era of the Cultural Revolution in China, I think they have put aside whatever impulses toward spirituality they might have had. And well, my father seems more European than Chinese, and he has surely had some past life here in Italy. He studies Verdi operas and eats tomatoes with basil and mozzarella every evening.
To reach the essence of Asia, I needed to hop a generation and reconnect with my grandparents. My paternal grandmother (whom I have not met because she died young) was a Buddhist, and my father tells me that she meditated every day and was always in service for the poor, even though she was quite poor herself. On my mother’s side, my great-grandmother founded a Pure Land Buddhism temple for women in China, where there are still nuns praying and studying. After I visited this temple, I decided to live in the San Francisco Zen Center, and I understood my connection to this world of Buddhism and meditation in a new light. I also have my Berkeley English professor Maxine Hong Kingston to thank for bridging Chinese mythology and living poetry to me through her non-fiction novels and writing courses.
1. Order. Cleanliness inside and out. Everything is a temple. My parents’ house, and every home I visited in Taiwan and China is extremely clean and orderly. Always. Even brooms and dustpans get washed. I remember when I was young, my father scolded me because I was studying at a desk with a lot of clutter on top. He said: the state of your desk is the state of your mind. If it is cluttered, then your thoughts will be cluttered too.
2. Indifference. Non-attachment to material things. My parents have demonstrated a capacity to accept things as they are, even if they may have strong opinions. They have surfed many highs and lows of life with grace. They seem to not be afraid of death, speaking of it and preparing for it with tranquility. Deep down, they accept my life choices and those of others, even if they don’t resonate with them.
3. The Middle Way. The way of equilibrium in the tao. Avoiding extremes and excesses. Whenever I had some fervent argument about revolutionary politics and the downfall of Capitalism, my mother would remind me that change takes time. I felt frustrated in not having a sense of critical urgency mirrored back to me, though in hindsight, I see that she had a point. Any movement, whether around community, politics, art or sexuality needs to contain the yin and the yang, a full spectrum in order to come to completion, to make a difference over time.
My parents have passed me other Asiatic characteristics that have been useful in my life, especially as a Damanhurian: responsibility, determination, discipline, the capacity to delay gratification instead of satisfying desires instantly, as is often taught by American culture. Generosity, sharing. More than once I have felt embarrassed by my relatives fighting with each other to pay the check at a restaurant, though I came to appreciate the spirit of it when I noticed that this rarely ever happens in circles of the Western world. Often at the center is food as an alchemical element of nature, nourishment as a symbol of love, and in a Chinese home, there is always a serving of fruit or other foods at the ready to offer friends, family and visiting guests.
Quaglia Cocco, the Befana