When I was 13, my granddad drove me to things like the orthodonist. He’d moved in with us after my grandma died. He was born in 1909, impossibly old to me. I’d watch him drive, eager to start learning. He did this thing where when it came time to signal a turn he’d lift or lower the turn signal with his pinky, just like a half-inch, and then halfway through the turn he’d let it go. Whereas my mom, when she drove, would just push or pull the stick all the way and let it click back off itself.
Once, on the way to the orthodontist, we came to a red light that was more backed up than usual at this hour. Two cars ahead, there was a car in two lanes; the driver must have realized too late that they needed to go straight and not left, and so our left turn lane, with our green arrow, was stuck. Granddad raised a finger off the fist he gripped the wheel with, pointing at that car. “Bet you she’s a yellow-skin,” he said.
I think of that moment a lot when I hear the words “family first.”
I think of a lot of things. I think of James Dobson and his anti-gay Focus on the Family. I think of the colleague I once had who said that asking faculty to host events for students on the weekend was “the opposite of family-friendly”—meaning my family wasn’t a family because it didn’t have kids in it. I think of The Godfather and the Fargo TV series and Oedipus and ruin. And naturally, I think of Philip Larkin (pictured, right) and his perfect poem, “This Be the Verse”:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had And add some extra, just for you. But they were fucked up in their turn By fools in old-style hats and coats, Who half the time were soppy-stern And half at one another’s throats. Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, And don’t have any kids yourself.
But why I think about Grampap in the car, pointing, is that the driver he was pointing at was, after all, an Asian woman. Disastrously, I felt, because by 13, I’d already come to understand that my impossibly old grandfather was not to be listened to when it came to the subject of people of color, whom he saw as outsiders and I saw as the classmates I’d had since kindergarten.
I was lucky, is what I’m getting at, because I could have looked up to him. I watched him, as I said, and absorbed a lot, such that just this morning while driving I did the thing with my pinky and the turn signal that he always did with his. This is a driving habit I’ve picked up from him. If my granddad was a man I loved and admired better than I did, it would have been difficult not to have picked up something else that afternoon, something we both felt was “true” about Asian women.
I’m trying to write about heritage and inheritances and patrimony and the ways that antiracism can feel to certain white people like betrayal. And I’m trying to write about how separation from the family might involve or demonstrate a deeper and truer love for those people—and for yourself—than obedience to it.
But the trouble I’m having is it feels like I’m trying to justify as a virtue what I’ve wondered might be a flaw or shortcoming. And it feels like I’m trying to read personal political positions—choices I’ve made—as logical, just practices applicable to everybody.
I’ve believed that every teen separates from the family as a necessary means of self-becoming, adolescence like a pupa stage, though the teens I hear about today make me not so sure. My sisters and I each had our own ways of managing this stage; my meager approach came through clothes and art tastes, which is to say I developed A Sensibility.
But I learned early that my sisters would marry boys and take their last names, and the kids they’d have would have those boys’ last names, too—meaning that I was the only one in the family who would Carry On The Family Name. Every queer coming out to their family is telling the family “I have stepped away from the very rituals and practices that have created this group I owe my life to,” which is what makes the task so scary: the family, or certain members of it, could feel their only means of self-preservation is to oust the queer.
I was not so ousted. I love my family. We are close and talk often. I’m a better person—that is, I’m more freely of myself and ready to let others be of themselves—because of the ways I’ve been made different from my family. But I remember often that I’ve also betrayed the promise I was handed to carry on our name.
It was an unfair promise, but not an unreal one. I’m proud to have broken it, and having broken it hurts.
In the heart of those ambiguities lies the love I’m trying to get at.
One way I’ve been thinking about this is via the love of country, that other family many of us are born into. How does separation from the genitive family look like or unlike independence? And how does obedience to and respect for a family’s norms look like or unlike patriotism?
When you look at what citizenship asks of us, Larkin’s arguments quickly apply, “The Man” handing misery on to man:
- The ask (or threat) of military service for a country whose military causes such ruin around the globe
- Adherence to a constitution that has been so cagey about granting rights to all.
- Participation in an economic system where unimaginable wealth gets hoarded by those who already have too much and kept from those who need it, leaving them sick, undereducated, homeless, and desperate.
What does obeying such a country turn you into?
My awareness these days has been on masks and who’s wearing them and who’s not and who’s clearly half-assing it, and I can see the allure of not wearing a mask (or avoiding vaccines, or not standing during the anthem)—it’s another form of disobedience, one stemming from a personal belief that some element or requirement of the state is useless, if not harmful to the individual.
Grampap’s racism was, I saw, a sickness that would poison my thinking and hurt my ability to connect to other people. It would hurt my chances of being my own person, rather than another iteration of old, received ideas. I imagine this is how anti-maskers see the mask, or SARS-CoV-2. The former is an abuse of the state. Keep your laws off my body. The latter is no real threat to their safety, or becoming. Not wearing a mask where masks are required is another form of disobedience, not unlike taking a knee during the anthem.
One way to be a patriot is to insist on your freedom from the state. It’s a strange way to love the state, but not unlike separating with love from the family. But this separation is a good idea when doing so isn’t just healthier for you, but also for the family—which is the vain way I like to understand why, in the next presidential election after I came out to them, my parents’ voted Democrat for the first time.
Separation is not abandonment. It’s giving people the freedom to become themselves, even their best selves, without breaking the instinctual bonds between family members. Separation puts up a boundary to show where two sides can come together, like Frost’s good fence.
To say it plainly: Families will hurt you, inevitably. The question is to what extent they reward you for your loyalty. (I originally typed retard you. That’s also the question.)
Another way to be a patriot involves seeing yourself, E Plurubus Unumly, as one of the many. A member with commitments to other members. In this view, SARS-CoV-2 appears more clearly as an unhealthiness—an infection not just on unlucky individuals, but on the state itself.
Good and bad people don’t exist, as I’ve written about before, but above, I claimed that having the freedom to become who I was and let others become who they were made me a “better person.” And freedom might be what I’m ultimately getting at here. Freedom and democracy as actions, ongoing sets of behavior, that are learned within the family.
When you obey the family, when you respect even their bad ideas, you grow up attached to a unit that may be invested more in its own preservation than yours. Who you become involves the successful meeting of some standard. To be given the freedom to be yourself, to unclench, can instill an idea that everyone should be allowed to be themselves. Which is the basis, I think, of a democracy, and the thing I love the most about my family.