Essay by Hannah Wang
Existing in the world is an exercise in paranoia.
It means constantly looking back over my shoulder, and trying simultaneously to catch the missing stair ahead.
What does that look mean? That word? That hand to the small of my back?
I think everyone must be at least a little paranoid — that is, I can’t imagine a life without it. That’s the problem with paranoia. It seeps into your bones. It becomes the foundation of your being, and every choice you make depends upon it.
Walking into the classroom: Will they expect more because I’m Asian?
Walking into the boardroom: Do they see me less because I’m wearing a dress?
Standing outside the bar, or on the edge of the dance floor: Will my queerness make me untouchable, or a challenge they want to beat?
Each moment is magnified by fear; the imagination runs wild.
Imagine: Professors stumbling over my last name in English classes.
Imagine: My boss touching my arm as he explains things I already know.
Imagine: A stranger leaning close under the dim lights, moving me aside with a hand on my waist.
And each moment is weighed with a constant refrain: what does it mean?
But the thing is, there’s only so much fear a body can hold. Eventually, the paranoia becomes a black hole that devours you. Eventually you turn on yourself.
Am I a disappointment to my race? Does my short dress make me soft and silly? Am I —with my red lips —am I only masquerading as a real queer, anyway, ripe to be converted?
And the answers are yes, and yes, and yes. In every way, you’ve failed.
This is an essay about personal acceptance. A body moving in terror, a body fueled by the kinetic energy of fear — how does it come to rest? How can I have a moment of peace, of acceptance? Can I? Have you?
The world doesn’t reward paranoia. Paranoia means you’re hysterical, over-thinking, over-imaginative. The world says: none of it is real, why would you think that, we only want the best for you. Haven’t we been kind? Haven’t we been accepting? Haven’t we been a great, big melting pot?
Even as I write, I can hear those around me raise up in protest: how can you think that about us, about me? How could you believe that would ever cross my mind?
The world raised you. Who are you to doubt it, to fight it, to claim yourself in spite of it?
These are people I love. The world has been good to me — if I fear myself, it means there is a defect in me. Was it my lack of family loyalty, my short skirt, my baggy jeans, my girl-vanity? Paranoia persists in me. I’ve tried to remake myself and bury it; I avoided math, ingratiated myself to white people, hid my dresses, smuggled lipstick. I’ve tried to remake myself and rise above the fear. I proclaimed my Asian-ness, my femaleness, my queerness loudly.
I dared fear to prove itself wrong. I dared paranoia to prove itself irrelevant. I wanted to feel defiant and felt guilt instead: how could I struggle, how could the fear go on.
I was lucky growing up in a liberal stronghold, and I grew up an optimist. I felt so certain that the world gave the best to me. And yet I was afraid. I felt so certain that I was squandering the goodness of the world, but still I was afraid.
There is never a single moment that will change you. There is never a single moment that will take away your paranoia, and there is never a single moment that will take away your guilt. But some day you have to question it.
It happened over years. Years of doubt, of staying silent in groups, of making myself small when I wore dresses, of forcing the words when I came out. But I was sick of smiling and acceding to the world when I couldn’t tell my grandparents who I was, when men touched me like they knew me, when other queer folk slid their eyes away from me. I knew I wasn’t meant to read into it, that they didn’t mean any harm by it, but over-analysis is the gift of the English major (another way in which I’d failed.)
Anger will come to you, exploding with small hurts and dangerous moments and ebbing as quickly. In the moments of anger, you will know: you are not paranoid. The danger is real.
The professor never learns my name. The boss never stops touching my arm, even as I flinch away. The man at the bar keeps leaning closer, closer, closer. And anger comes in a single blinding moment, and for a moment I see my own sufficiency. And for a moment I see that the problem isn’t me.
But it’s impossible to stay angry. Paranoia infuses you, your public self, but anger stays a small lump in your chest, a wound to lick in secret.
In the next moment, I remember the ones I love; I remember their eyes when they just want the best for me. And like an obedient animal, I want to change, to be good, to deserve what they think is best for me. To deserve something else.
This is an essay about personal acceptance. Have I accepted myself? It feels to me like I never really will. I think I’ll always be trying to change, to become someone who deserves better. But I’ve learned to cultivate my anger and hold it close in my heart. I’ve learned to feel, for as long as I can, that I deserve my anger. And those moments — they’re as close as I’ve come to acceptance so far.
Hannah Wang is the Assistant Director of the Reese News Lab at the University of North Carolina. Driven Media is excited to have her as a contributor in the Fall 2016 self-acceptance essay series.