Trigger/Content warning: physical violence, family violence, ponderings on survivor identity.
When I was at High School, I thought that us Asians got hit with bamboo canes, the Maori and Polynesian kids got hit with electric jug cords and broken chair legs, and the white kids got grounded and Time Out. I thought this was just a cultural thing. Different ethnic groups choice of child disciplinary tool, based on how tough each group was. The Maori and PI's were bigger and the toughest, so they got the harshest hidings. Then us Asians next. Because although we were smaller than the whites, we were much tougher. And then because the whites are the weakest and the softest, they just got grounded, banned from TV or something.
None of this was seen as child abuse until later. At least in my world. Sure it was was when someone's Dad went too far. But too far was hospitalised. Back then it just seemed natural, normal. You knew the deal, knew the consequences. You tried not to get caught, and if you did, you knew what was coming. And if your folks were in the kind of bad mood where they'd belt you one, you tried to keep out of their way. Physical violence was definitely not Real violence (bar a hospital trip), it was sexual violence that was the serious bad thing. We knew about that. Emotional or psychological violence didn't even feature. Spiritual violence wasn't a thing. That was merely your parents being parents.
I didn't know that the canings we got at home, the slaps round the head, were even worth a mention. I would never have put them under the category of physical violence. That was until I started going out with white middle class girls who weren't from 'spare the rod spoil the child' Christian families. One woman I saw for a while even cried when I told her that we got canings as a kid, and Mum and Dad slapped us round a bit when we were bad, or they were grumpy. It was awkward. I didn't know what to say. And I really didn't know why she was crying. It wasn't like she was the one who'd gotten the hidings. I made sure I didn't mention it again.
I suppose it's telling that three out of us four kids moved out of home when we turned sixteen (the legal age you can leave home in NZ). We'd outgrown the suffocating controlling rule, many migrant Asian parents feel moved to impose on their children now living in the relaxed West. And we'd also outgrown the increasing hidings Dad dished out with all the rules of his we were breaking while trying to live our new lives.
Again, I didn't think this out of the ordinary. I knew by then it was considered not a done thing by white people. And those same white people who made the laws and requirements for getting the Youth Benefit, had physical violence at home as one of the entry points. I just figured that middle class white people (and at that age, all the white people I knew were middle class), had different cultural rules. And because they weren't as tough as people of colour, were more sensitive about physical violence and therefore had to have different standards.
Fast forward a decade or so, and my girlfriend and I are sitting on the other side of the world, outside the British Natural History Museum. She reads me a paragraph from a book she's reading.
“My lover and I are two crazy survivors together; sometimes he knows how to hold me for hours when I am freaking out, and sometimes he gets freaked out by my freak out. Often it's a huge mess”. - Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
It resonates in a strange uncomfortable way. Our talks range from incredibly vulnerable and healing, to a Big Fucken Angry Hurtful Mess.
'Are you saying that I'm a survivor,' I accuse, my barbs already risen.
Survivor was a term I first came across, that middle class white university feminist women used. And then later, lots of women of all ethnicities. It always meant survivor of sexual abuse. I think it still means that.
If I were to say 'I am a survivor of physical abuse,' it would ring odd and hollow for me. Like a tinny out-of-tune bell. It would feel like I considered it worse or more personalised than growing up in a white dominated, Eurocentric, Christian, body policing society. Which it doesn't. So would I bother also to say that I'm a survivor of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy and Christianity?
I sit there looking at the gargoyles perched on the huge building, and think about whether there's a connection between the physical violence of my childhood, and the rage I feel rising up that I often have to control. I thought that rage was just part of anyone with any small sense of social justice. It doesn't feel personalised to me. Then I think about how angry I feel, when I feel like I'm being controlled or policed. The over-sensitivity I have to feeling restrained and the mere whiff of having someone else's limits placed upon me.
I suppose that might be connected. That my parents physical violence was merely the most tangible aspect to their vice-like control over our movements, the friends we kept, the paths in life they wanted us to trod on, who we should marry, careers to aspire to, how we should dress, what kinds of sons and daughters, Christians, citizens and people we should be. It was the psychological coercion, emotional manipulation and spiritual violence that we grew up in that still makes me feel like hollering, smashing my fists through walls and over-turning tables. Then I start to see some connections. The layers of family violence.
The power and control wheel starts to take a new meaning. The pieces on the wheel are inter-connected, not just merely a smorgasbord selection of power trips. Maybe one thing exerted, crosses the wheel and manifests and expresses as another thing. This is probably not news to you.
So this is where I'm at at the moment. Thinking about what it would mean if I were to consider saying that I was a survivor of physical abuse. Or just a survivor of family violence. It still feels odd, like a reduction than diminishes the wider picture, paring it back into some kind of easily digestible tabloid headline. It also feels too personal.
And another part of me thinks it just seems too naf and boring to do the whole 'blame the parents' thing. I suppose it's neo-liberal individualism that's turned that one into a town crying cliché.
This is where the other stuff comes it. Sometimes it feels like the visible world of abuse and survivor politics is dominated by white middle class uni women. Where the middle classes, so estranged from their bodies, imagine that a few slaps, a couple of canings and the odd hiding or two, is absolutely the worst thing ever.
It wasn't to me. But to say that just sounds like a victim in denial. So this is where I balk. On what I feel is a slight middle class preoccupation with physical violence, not seeing that it does exist on a scale and in a context.
And to me it feels like a cop out. I get to have my physical violence banner hung and displayed, because it's the easy one. There isn't a banner for 'surviving' white supremist Christian heteropatriarchy. Else we'd all be survivors. And hell, I'm sure we all are, but then I feel like the identity and category looses it's meaning. Kinda like saying 'we're all human.' Duh. And your point about what we're going to do about ongoing structural injustice was?...
I suppose this is the bit where I should come clean a little, and tell you about (my personal take on) Chinese migrant diaspora (though I would think that this dynamic is probably much wider than just a Chinese thing) and not wanting to show weakness or admit victimhood. “Keep your head down and don't rock the boat” not only means “don't make a fuss, let things go”, but also “don't bother being a victim”.
Maybe some of this is intrinsic Chinese-ness, (whatever that might be) but it's also a statement about there being nothing to gain from admitting or being, or identifying as a victim. Again this probably resonates wider than just Chinese diaspora, as dominant white culture doesn't really give a shit about our coloured bodies, and the big brother cops sure as fuck aren't our big brothers. There are no sympathies or alliances to be gleaned from being positioned, or positioning in that place of victim. And I don't suppose you can be a survivor if you're not a victim first.
There's also a masculinity thing here going on for me too. Physical violence is not seen as something 'bad' for boys. Often it's seen as something to make you stronger, toughen you up. Or part of being a man. It's definitely not something to have an identity on. Well, unless you're the guy that does the beating up. Ah, the many facets of patriarchy.
At a knee jerk kind of place, it feels like the identities of being a survivor is a white middle class thing, and a woman thing. People care about middle class white women's feelings when it comes to having been victimised. Not so much other people. Well to varying degrees given the various hierarchies and historical and cultural and social contexts. But not for a Chinese boy.
And this is where I've missed a site or a framework in which to sort through the 'triggers' (I really struggle with that word...) where escaping/surviving/extracting myself from an extremely controlling childhood, results in the various blocks or responses I have to feeling controlled in my intimate relationships.
Let me try to explain, if more to myself than to you. Growing up in a physically violent home hasn't made me fear physical violence. If anything it is a known site of conflict. Pain ebbs, bruises fade and skin heals. It's the feeling of being controlled or policed or restricted that makes a hot rage.
'DON'T YOU FUCKEN DARE TELL ME WHAT TO DO.'
I think this in my head, not out loud. Or maybe the rage is thinking this through my body, thumping my heart, clenching my shoulders and jaw. I clamp my cold thick walls down calming myself. Though the effect this has, means compassion and patience is sacrificed. I fake it well though. Only my girlfriend can tell I'm faking it. And my close friends. When I feel controlled or restricted, it feels like a thick dirty suffocating smog of trappedness and control descends and I have to try very hard not to throw a chair through the window. It feels choking. But I'm an adult now, and I know I'm not going to suffocate, but it doesn't stop the feeling.
In that polluting choking smog, is also the other stuff I battle, the 'You're Not Good Enough', the constant criticism and critique about every aspect of our lives. That's the mist that descends when I feel like my girlfriend is trying to control or criticise me.
It really throws a spanner in the works of our communication. The paragraph from Leah resonates more loudly now. We touch each others trip wires and then wonder why we're both so fucked off with each other about maybe a simple email, a casual comment, or dinner arrangement. It could be anything mundane and banal, but here we are, so angry, defensive and butting stubborn heads.
I get teleported back to the past, of having my life examined, controlled, restricted and criticised, and I become unable to communicate well, understand what she's saying and arrive together at a resolution we're both happy with. Because I'm full or rage and seething. It's a pesky dynamic..
I roll the term family violence around in my head and my body like a hard lolly. It resonates. It sums up the emotional landscape, the psychological labyrinth, the spiritual weaponry, as well as the physical aspects of how we grew up. Family violence also feels like a term that is located and understood structurally. That's important to me. Our family violence in a context of migrant diaspora, ongoing reaches of settler colonialism and multi-faceted patriarchies. I can stomach that.
So now I can see that my resistance and wariness is around the term 'survivor'. The difference between saying 'We grew up with family violence', and 'I'm a survivor of family violence.'
The vulnerability and courage it takes to admit and accept that the family violence we experienced has had a big enough impact to warrant an identification. That it wasn't just an aside with a few consequences. That it is significant.
I don't quite know where this exploration will end up. First I need to examine and confront the cultural barriers and masculine stalemate to the scope of 'survivor', then I can hopefully see where I'm headed or becoming. And I'm not there yet. Keep you posted.