Fashioning Trauma: How Asian Immigrants Wear Complex Patterns

By Jocelyn Wong

My brain hasn’t been working lately. I keep getting transported back to dinners at Bà Nội’s old place: waiting impatiently for the Bo Kho and the Bánh Xèo to reach my plate and enter my mouth, I’d observe my environment with great intensity. 

We have this miraculous way of weaving traumatic memories into banal conversation, my Asian family and I—as if they are the integral threads of an intricate sewing pattern only we have the instructions for. 

On good days, these garments represent resiliency and great tenacity (e.g.“We did what we had to do in order to survive.”). But on less savoury days, they emphasize the romanticization of our culture’s supposed grit. 

Grams used to tell me stories about struggling to survive in Canada as a refugee of war. Sometimes, it was about the ex-husband who’d beat her; how after the ordeal, he’d boot her out onto the street and force her to sell overripe fruit to underpaying tourists. 

Other times, she’d talk about her wild rent money endeavours: illegally crabbing on the beaches of West Van at dusk, or stepping into kitchens on wintry days, begging for a job to care for her three young children.  

She’d usually tell her stories with a straight face, adding in a chuckle or two for emphasis. But on less forgiving days, her silence—paired with a steady downstream of tears—would permeate the space. 

The next day, we’d act like nothing happened. 

Trauma, in Bà Nội’s world, is a six-letter word that is less important than the ones that are actionable (yet harmful) today. Instead, she says:

A C C E P T 

Acquiesce to the forces that tell you you’re lesser for the colour of your skin, or the way your accent shows when you’re speaking from the heart. Absorb the hate, take it in, deeply. Put it in a place that opens only when you’re least prepared for it. Know that your admittance here in a supposedly free nation relies on your ability to be agreeable. Be okay with that or go back to where you came from—even if you’re no longer welcome there either. 

C H A N G E 

Fix the parts of you that do not fit in with the people around you. If negative feelings bubble up, drown them with the idea that we’re lucky to have even survived so many years of pain (and counting). 

B A T T L E 

Combat the threat of homelessness and hunger. Scare away the poverty and combat the longing for some sense of authentic “home.” Fight away the memory of wrapping pieces of wood under a sparse Charlie Brown Christmas tree for the illusion of “presents” and “wealth.” Kill the voice in your head that tells you that you are not okay. Because in this world, you must be. 

This is the life of an immigrant fashioning trauma. 

My family and I? 

We go into school, our jobs, our relationships, and more wearing the fabrics we’ve so expertly fashioned from past generational grief. I will not say whether or not the outfits we wore were stylish or unique.

Wherever I go, I still wear them today.

Even as they rip, and my limbs begin to outgrow the limiting stitches of my culture’s beliefs, I struggle to undress. 

I ask myself as I stare in the mirror: “If I’m not to wear this, what else will fit?”  

About the author

Jocelyn Wong (she/her) is a passionate storyteller writing from the unceded Coast Salish lands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Watuth Peoples (colonially known as Vancouver, BC). Aside from her commitment to grassroots initiatives that cater to marginalized communities, Jocelyn is also immensely interested in merging her love for justice with her literary and artistic pursuits.

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