What happened?
April 30, 2016 10:39 PM   Subscribe

Me, a freewheeling abstractist who loves creating narratives; she, a ultra-present, literalist with eidetic memory who see things as they are. I pissed her off tonight, where did I go wrong?

Tonight we got into a tiff after a series of increasingly frustrating pleas to be understood. She has a freaking hard drive for a brain; her stories are very precise and sequential and while my memory is good enough, I express my experiences in a narrative format.

During the duration of our relationship, she shared several recurring, ultra-detailed montages from her celluloid mind; particularly favorite ones from her childhood in China. I was goofing around and created a character based on her childhood, a portrait of little girl with cat tucked under one arm and basket of lychee hooked on another. I was playing off my mind’s eye imagery of her stories.

However, she took offense to the what I assume, probably felt like a carticurization of her person. I was taken back and instead of acknowledging her discomfort and moving on, I doubled down on trying to get her to understand that I was just creating a character based on my interpretation of her “stories”. This didn’t help.

Further discussions revealed few things: She wasn’t comfortable with me touching her memories and taking certain elements. Only direct experiences are allowed, and any characterization that I may have of her that doesn’t match up with her perception of herself is off-limits. She holds a very literal image of herself, but what confuses me here is that character I created was based on my (to me, positive) reinterpretation of what she told me.

After bouncing around existential space in my brain as I pondered the objectivity of reality — I understand the importance of respecting other person’s comfort zones, but I am not really sure what happened, much less why somebody should taken offense to such a thing?

I’m genuinely confused. Help me out?
posted by pakoothefakoo to Human Relations (40 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
You made fun of her. Teased her. Humiliated her.

posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:41 PM on April 30, 2016 [31 favorites]

Best answer: Because you took ownership of a story that isn't yours. Doubly problematic if you're a white man (it sounds like she's an Asian woman); women have to put up with our narratives being colonized by men often enough as it is without Orientalism on top of it all.
posted by tapir-whorf at 10:44 PM on April 30, 2016 [74 favorites]

Response by poster: ah shit. I have much to learn. Thanks y'all.
posted by pakoothefakoo at 10:49 PM on April 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding tapir-whorf. One of the privileges of being human is that we are the authors of the autobiographies that we tell ourselves and share with others. It doesn't matter if you feel your reinterpretation was positive, by taking her autobiography and reinterpreting it, it seems she feels you are trying to rewrite her life story. There's probably some context for her that makes this doubly frustrating.
posted by biogeo at 10:50 PM on April 30, 2016 [10 favorites]

OMG, yes, fury, just because you didn't even ask first, and those aren't your stories! That's her childhood that she shared with you in a very personal way within the bounds of your relationship; it's not your material. What you did is very violative of your intimacy and trust.

Some people are okay with an artist-partner using their lives and stories for material, but many are not, and you really need to ASK first.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:57 PM on April 30, 2016 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: Typed out a stupid defensive response, ego aside ... commence with the wake up slaps.
posted by pakoothefakoo at 11:01 PM on April 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, in some ways this kind seems like treating a partner like a manic pixie dream girl - you're projecting your imagination onto her own experience, and then acting surprised when she calls you out on not treating her like a person instead of an archetype. I'm glad you're understanding why this is not great.
posted by superlibby at 11:11 PM on April 30, 2016 [12 favorites]

Also, I want to point our that the way you describe her is kind of dehumanizing - "hard drive for a brain" and "celluloid mind." Add that to you getting defensive and saying that your interpretation of her life story is as valid as her own, and it's pretty gross. Again, I'm glad you're receptive to feedback.
posted by superlibby at 11:15 PM on April 30, 2016 [36 favorites]

I don't think you need to feel terrible about this going forward. It sounds like you are receptive to criticism, you understand the mistake you made, and you are likely to be more careful in the future.

Thinking about how I would have felt in her place, I would almost certainly have had a negative reaction too, and that's for the same sorts of reasons as people have mentioned above, without even the extra complications of race. But when I imagine myself in your shoes, I can also imagine myself doing the same thing without thinking about how it could upset the other person.

What I'm saying, is I don't think this is on the level of "OMG so egregious, how could you possibly have thought that was okay?", but more like, "Whoops, that was thoughtless and crappy, don't do it again." Like, maybe more of a "knocked someone over by not watching where you were going while coming around a corner" rather than "whacked them in the face on purpose."
posted by lollusc at 11:17 PM on April 30, 2016 [6 favorites]

(That doesn't mean you shouldn't apologise, of course. It just means I hope you don't feel too flagellated by all the responses you will probably get here.)
posted by lollusc at 11:19 PM on April 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

. She holds a very literal image of herself,

The literal self is the only self you are allowed to accept from others. There is no "death of the author" when it comes to people's lives.

There's a story about how Isaac Asimov disputed someone else's interpretation of one of his stories, claiming his intend was nothing close to the interpretation that was given. In reply, the person said to Asimov, "why do you think you have the best understanding of the story."

That's a totally acceptable response when it comes to literature. It's not acceptable to effectively tell someone that about her own life.
posted by deanc at 11:19 PM on April 30, 2016 [16 favorites]

Best answer: Also, you basically write like the white guys, and the POC with internalized white gaze and racism in my creative writing classes. Florid prose that is dehumanizing, more interested in your imagination than being grounded in the empathy, truth, and active listening of co-existing narratives.

I would recommend reading Junot Diaz's MFA vs POC, because that gaze is really alienating and damaging to not only your writing, but also your relationships with people.
posted by yueliang at 11:23 PM on April 30, 2016 [65 favorites]

Another reason she may have been offended is that "cat tucked under one arm and basket of lychee hooked on another" comes across as a provincial stereotype. If I used that description and asked someone if that girl's family is likely to be upper-class or lower-class, a lineage of professors or of farmers, and more likely to be millionaires or living hand-to-mouth, what do you think the connotations would be?

It's one thing to tell stories that involve a basket of lychees or holding a cat, but another thing to be painted as a country bumpkin yokel.
posted by cheesecake at 11:24 PM on April 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

Also, another thing that really strikes me is that you seem bothered that she is "literal." But the events of someone's life are literal. They really happened, and there is not any interpretation or "re-imagining" of the events of a person's life that would be "more true." The vibe I am getting from you, outside of the character/caricature you created, is that you don't think a person's stories of what actually happened in their lives are worth as much as the narratives or reimaginings someone could come up with which would be "more real" than the "literal" recounting of events. People don't like to be told that about their lives.
posted by deanc at 11:33 PM on April 30, 2016 [23 favorites]

I have been in your shoes in a different situation early on, and was fortunately shocked out of it before hurting people I loved by the painful sharing of some asian people whose stories had been co-opted into narratives to please their white families. It's definitely a broader and more subtle situation - this happens also within asian families, across class divides, gender and so on, but it is especially common and harsh like a mountain vs a hill terrain when it comes to asian women telling their stories.

I stopped telling other people's stories for them. I made an effort to report with their own words and their own accounts as closely and accurately, and check with them before sharing with anyone else, to look carefully where my own biases were affecting what I was writing. I made an effort to read more narratives by POC and to stop reading narratives about POC written by white people.

I still suck at this and need to bite my tongue a lot, but if you're not actively thinking about race and you're in a mixed-race relationship, you're coasting on your partner's work.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 11:36 PM on April 30, 2016 [5 favorites]

Another reason she may have been offended is that "cat tucked under one arm and basket of lychee hooked on another" comes across as a provincial stereotype.

Honestly, if I seriously had to listen this bullshit in person, I'm not sure if I would've been able to restrain myself politely, or did a looooot of work and emotional labor to do so. You didn't apply The Golden Rule here. That was uncharitable, hurtful, dehumanizing, unsympathetic, and you were arrogant. You were not listening.

You say that she has "ultra-present, literalist with eidetic memory who see things as they are" without understanding that as people of color in this country, white people imagine, take away, and serve us false narratives and constructs all the time, and are blatantly uninterested in our actual stories. There's a reason why NBC Asian America is its own seperate news community, because white America doesn't care. They want their own version of a so called Asian American reality, because it's exotic and more provincial and cute.

I put this quote in my profile for a reason:
"“You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?" And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”

― Junot Díaz"

You killed your partner's reflection, and put in a false entity in the mirror for them to look at. You denied them their own understanding of reality. The ownership of their narratives is their right. Who are you to take that away from them, why are you entitled to do so, and what taught you to do that so easily for your so-called destructive imagination? How many truly Asian American and POC narratives do you hear? Why are you not making space for these people who do not get to take up space? When was the last time you heard a story without interrupting it, and without your own daydreams?

Facebook pages to follow:
Angry Asian Man
posted by yueliang at 11:36 PM on April 30, 2016 [43 favorites]

I also understand that the tone of my questions might come off as abrasive, but I think it's actually a worrying behavior, attitude, and view that is considered acceptable that I see amongst people of any group that belongs to hegemonic cultural production and privilege. I don't think gazes like this are harmless, and I think it is a definite function of the society we live in and the values that it is taught. In a wider context, people create stupid, stereotypical, racist narratives that don't get challenged, such as to not employ someone or to deny them housing. It's arbitrary and pointless, but that's an unjust, oppression-based society for ya, and the cultural attitudes that are formed directly affect how people are treated, and if they see themselves as human or not, and how they are told if they are worth some human dignity.

My questions articulate more the systematic frustration of feeling safe enough to share such experiences with your partner, only to be faced that your otherwise awesome partner would actually still do such hurtful behaviors, even if it wasn't intentional. Systematic injustice sucks not just because of overtly awful behaviors, but because of the attitudes carried in people in our day to day lives. We don't expect that we think we have to be on-guard and educate our loved ones, and it takes a lot of energy and emotional energy to do so. It's hard, because even getting to that level of conversation is special in itself, so what to do? I wish the best for both of you.

If anything, at least you are thinking, posting on MeFi and being honest about what you did, and are being veeery thoughtful about this, and you are at least being compassionate and re-thinking about it now. If you need another perspective on how gaze works, Anita Sarkeesian did a great one on Video Games and the Gaze, using Mulvey, which talks about the male gaze as well.
posted by yueliang at 11:44 PM on April 30, 2016 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow ... okay ....

Thank you all for helping me to become a better person. Now I understand what I did.

Few things:

-I didn't put anything to paper, it was just an improvised song that I conjured up on the spot.
-Some harsh assumptions here --- "country bumpkin yokel" ... that isn't how I view her at all ... I'm quite fond of her, she's always telling me what she liked about me and I was trying to return the favor by what I saw at the time, by "appreciating" her through her stories.
-I have difficulty viewing life as a literal thing, truly ... it's the mad artist in me. But now I do understand how I transgressed on her reality.
-Last, to those who was triggered by my question, I ask for your forgiveness. I'm just an idiot who is trying to learn :)
posted by pakoothefakoo at 11:58 PM on April 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: And before any of you jump further down my throat; yes I understand why my image of her was problematic regardless of me trying to return the favor.
posted by pakoothefakoo at 12:07 AM on May 1, 2016

Your question is confusing because you seem to answer your own question right in itself. As per your own description, you violated her comfort zone and then doubled-down on it instead of accepting her feedback and moving on. Even by asking this question it's like you're still looking for someone to tell you this was OK. But it's not OK because you must listen to other people and you must listen to yourself. You exist in the world with other people and you have to accept that.
posted by bleep at 12:16 AM on May 1, 2016 [7 favorites]

-I didn't put anything to paper, it was just an improvised song that I conjured up on the spot.

The same points apply regardless of form. It's still dehumanizing and comes off as mockery.

-Some harsh assumptions here --- "country bumpkin yokel" ... that isn't how I view her at all ... I'm quite fond of her, she's always telling me what she liked about me and I was trying to return the favor by what I saw at the time, by "appreciating" her through her stories.

Intent isn't magic - even positive portrayals can be hurtful. When I was more actively involved in burlesque I was surrounded by people who had Exotic Orientalist Asian performances, and whenever I complained they fought back saying they were "complimenting my culture" and "culture is meant to be shared" yadda yadda. I, as one of the rare performers of color in my area, was marketed as the Bollywood Princess even though I had no Bollywood in my acts at all; I was expected to either conform to Dita von Teese glam or be As Exotic Other As Possible. Yet when I did advocate for the ability to do things closer to my culture, suddenly I was "not following the rules" or other rubbish. I went through so much hell for this, including being bullied outright by the Head Honchos, that I eventually lost a burlesque career and had to move to another country to get away from it all (before just fading out of burlesque entirely).

This shit has consequences - many of them dire. You being "fond of her" is not reflected in this song - it reflects something completely opposite, especially given the way you've characterized her.

-I have difficulty viewing life as a literal thing, truly ... it's the mad artist in me. But now I do understand how I transgressed on her reality.

She could be just as abstract as you and this would be the same scenario. My mind is a lot more like yours than hers and I would have reacted pretty much the same way if you pulled this on me. This has nothing to do with abstract vs literal. This has everything to do with you not seeing her as a person with agency and consent but rather some kind of muse-cum-canvas (or manic pixie dream girl).

-Last, to those who was triggered by my question, I ask for your forgiveness. I'm just an idiot who is trying to learn :)
And before any of you jump further down my throat; yes I understand why my image of her was problematic regardless of me trying to return the favor.

come off as really disingenuous. You asked what was wrong with your approach; many people answered, very thoroughly and with a lot of patience. Nobody's "jumping down your throat", we're giving you honest answers. If you are reading this as though we are "triggered" (which has now become a dogwhistle for "oversensitive crybabies", especially when paired with "jump further down my throat") then I would ask whether you are truly listening and understanding, rather than going "ok ok geez".
posted by divabat at 12:16 AM on May 1, 2016 [58 favorites]

I think everyone has done a great job in unpacking the problematic perception you have of this woman and suggestions on how to expand your mind. However, I think your followup reveals a more fundamental challenge for you. You don't seem like a good listener. This woman is trying to tell you about herself and you can't help but make it about you somehow and go off on some weird story you made up in your head? Do you generally have problems conversing with people? Do you do this with others? If not, why did you think she'd appreciate not being listened to at all?
posted by like_neon at 2:14 AM on May 1, 2016 [12 favorites]

[OP's account is disabled]
posted by Pink Frost at 2:32 AM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

-Some harsh assumptions here

Consider what it feels like to you for commenters here to reinterpret your story in a way that you feel you didn't tell it.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:34 AM on May 1, 2016 [44 favorites]

"And before any of you jump further down my throat; yes I understand why my image of her was problematic regardless of me trying to return the favor."

That defensiveness doesn't sound good, I hope you allow yourself to process these feelings and really think through what we and your partner have told you. There are consequences to your daydreaming, and you are currently learning how to handle them. OP, I hope you are getting time to process this, because I'm sure you are trying to convince yourself that you are not a bad person for this, I'm sure. I've been there. But hurt people and other people who are knowledgeable are telling you about the consequences of the type of behavior you engaged in, with some really wonderful, enlightened thought.

It'll open up a much greater world and being able to really listen to stories and appreciate others for who they are. And in the process, you'll learn more about yourself too, and have more compassion and empathy for yourself and for others who live in this fucked up, institutionalized world that passed down behaviors like this as acceptable to you. It's a painful shock, but it's a good one, because it's part of learning how to lessen the chance for suffering in the future when it comes to topics like this, and maybe even learn more about how to engage in a way that would not replace and invalidate other people's narratives, which causes a great deal of pain.

I hope your processing goes well, but I hope your partner is also fine, foremost, and that you are taking care of her too, because her experience is paramount as the hurt person.
posted by yueliang at 5:16 AM on May 1, 2016 [6 favorites]

Also, really good FPP post worth reading, once you come back to the thread. Might answer a lot of your questions. This article on white fragility would help too. I would add this as part of the original syllabus I had in the comment, since I figure that it actually would be hard to find this information if people weren't aware of the exact key terms (I had trouble finding it the first time I made the comment.)
posted by yueliang at 5:31 AM on May 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

When a really good actor is trying to get inside the mind of someone, to truly understand that person (fictional or real), he asks what that person wants. Not what he is wearing, or whether he likes animals or certain foods, or whether he's loud or soft or how he looks -- what he wants, and the particular way that these wants change moment to moment, and maybe what changes his desires and when these changes happen.

Telling you stories is a way of showing the different forces that acted upon the teller, and how she felt, and why she felt it. Focusing on one or two details is an aesthetically-pleasing simplification of a set of information. The essential part of the stories, though, is not easily expressible; hence the need for the stories instead of just saying "I am X". You probably have important stories too.

This essence of an experience really can't be summarized; I could tell you about the sensations of an experience, and tell you "I was sad", but that covers a whole range of emotional experiences, and doesn't guarantee that you will feel the feeling enough to be able to give comfort if I feel a like sadness in the future, or to make me feel less alone by showing that you have felt a similar way.

You being sad because you didn't get to go to science camp (because your family couldn't afford it) is different from my being sad because I didn't get to go to camp (because of my parents' fears). Even the parenthetical reasons I gave there don't show how anyone really felt, or how important these experiences were, or whether money, courage, hiking, or a pup tent would be the best way for someone to show love for me.

If I told a story about something that happened related to camping as a kid, and my dude drew (verbally or otherwise) a caricature of me in a brownie uniform holding a stick with a marshmallow on it, I'd be filled with despair. The main reason wouldn't be that he was reducing me to some cute little girl image, whether that was true or not. The main reason would be that I was trying to show him something meaningful and true about myself, that I wanted to not be alone in my life, that I wanted to know that being brave enough to try new things or to allow children to try new things was important to him, too. Not only that, but that he understands that the fear one has to overcome is real, and that it feels overwhelming in the moment of truth when you are deciding whether to do a thing, or to allow a thing, or not to.

If he's not able to even hear the question, then every effort I'll make to be courageous like that will be made alone, and I'll feel helpless and like there's no point to even trying to live a good life with this person.
posted by amtho at 6:29 AM on May 1, 2016 [15 favorites]

You come off as very impressed with your own thought process in this question, and I wonder if that's hurting your ability to empathize. It's fine to be abstract and enjoy daydreams, of course - but I'd encourage you to really reflect on how your feelings about your own ideas affected your response to this woman. You surely know that you should have acknowledged her discomfort and moved on instead of doubling down and trying to make her let you be right - right? You must realize that you were belittling and dismissing her when you prioritized your ideas over her actual memories that she chose to share with you - right? So if you were being honest with yourself, why were you prioritizing your caricature over her? How can you avoid that impulse in the future?

My suggestion is that you would do well to approach other people with the attitude that their own actual memories and experiences are more important than your thoughts about those memories and experiences. If you want to make things up in your head, that's fine - but be aware that the other person might not be as pleased with the things you make up as you are. Believe and respect them if they tell you they don't appreciate you treating their experiences as if they were yours to riff off of.
posted by DingoMutt at 7:07 AM on May 1, 2016 [23 favorites]

I have difficulty viewing life as a literal thing, truly ... it's the mad artist in me.

You're not a "mad artist," you're someone who views other people's stories as mere grist for your own imagination, and (I suspect) views other people as sideline characters in The Story of You.
posted by sallybrown at 7:43 AM on May 1, 2016 [57 favorites]

their own actual memories and experiences are more important than your thoughts about those memories and experiences

repeated for truth.
posted by sallybrown at 7:44 AM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

And just to point out, the whole direction of metaphors you used for your partner -- "literalist with eidetic memory," "freaking hard drive for a brain," -- this whole robot-computer-metaphor thing, is not new to Asian(-Americans). As one myself, I'm guessing your utilization of such metaphors is almost certainly an unreflecting adoption of common racist tropes about Asians. So you might also want to consider your own attitudes towards race, because use of those descriptors, in the context of your relationship, IS straight-up racist.

Yeah, I get that you disabled account, but I also had to emphasize this point too.
posted by obliterati at 7:55 AM on May 1, 2016 [41 favorites]

Whatever you do, please work on getting to the point and saying what you mean. People respond to honesty, compassion and brevity, in that order.

You should also just ask her why she's mad and then be quiet and listen to her answer.

Lastly, in prose as in all things, less is more.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 11:36 AM on May 1, 2016 [9 favorites]

You killed your partner's reflection, and put in a false entity in the mirror for them to look at.

This is really powerful and succinct and bears repeating. OP, I hope you read through the points in this thread, and the links, and come away from this experience wiser and more empathetic. Best wishes.
posted by JenMarie at 12:37 PM on May 1, 2016

People make some excellent points above. In short, her talking about your childhood was *not* about you, and you made it so. Agree with people who suggest that you work on your conversational and listening skills.
posted by bookworm4125 at 12:53 PM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Mod note: From the OP:
I'm leaving the community to do some growing. Thank you all for helping me see what I have to work on.

I properly apologized to the missus (who I love very much). And I also apologize to everybody here for contributing to the harmful bullshit that a lot of you have to deal with.

Please take care ❤️
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 1:40 PM on May 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

it was just an improvised song that I conjured up on the spot

The thing about improvisation in front of a live audience is that you can observe your audience and see how they are reacting.

If your audience is just one person, this really shouldn't be that hard to pay attention to.
posted by yohko at 2:59 PM on May 1, 2016

I came to say I think your overall attitude is really beautiful. You expressed something to your partner through a lens that made sense to you, didn't get the response you expected, were confused, articulated that confusion in a respectful way in your post and requested feedback from a community of thoughtful people, and are processing what you have heard with yourself and, as far as she's willing, with the person who matters to you and who was part of the interaction. All of that is really gorgeous. *affirms*
posted by ramenopres at 7:16 PM on May 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'm a little late to the party, but I thought I'd chime in as a white woman (and writer) who is in a relationship with a dude of mixed African-American and Chinese-American heritage (also a writer).

We both try to be sensitive to issues of "whose story is this" or "who gets to write about this". It comes up more with contemporary life stuff than with childhood stuff, because holy shit me trying to make honest creative output about his childhood memories, or him trying to do that about mine, sounds like an awful idea. But the best way I've found to navigate this stuff is just to talk about it. We say things like "Is it OK if I write something about that?" or "Are you going to use that joke?" Collaboration can also make things like your cartoon feel more like a creative experiment and less like stealing or twisting someone's core concept of self. So if you wanted to do this, you could say, "I had a cool idea for a comic about X, where the main characters are a little girl and her lychee obsessed cat, based on that story you told me. Do you want to work on it with me?" As opposed to going away and "coming up with" something that you did not independently invent in the least.

There's also a shared understanding of "only I can say that" type stuff. Having a Boyfriend Of Color doesn't mean I get to use language or draw on experiences by osmosis. "But my best friend is Black!" is still fucked up even if you are marrying and plan to have children with said best friend.

Furthermore, dating someone of a frequently exoticized background means that microaggressions and racism aren't "just a joke" or a sort of abstracted thing that happens in out in the world not relevant to me. This weekend I was shopping for shampoo, and just as I was about to put a cherry blossom scented bottle in my cart, I noticed that it had weird othering "Ancient Chinese Secret" type copy right there on the bottle. Where before I might not have noticed or justified it as "well these things happen", now I don't want to bring it into our home where my Asian-American partner will have to look at it first thing every morning. So I picked a different bottle. I find myself watching out for exactly the kind of thing that "a cute cartoon of a Chinese girl with a cat and lychees" can sometimes represent in the West, when coopted by whites. It is now partially your responsibility to think intelligently about this stuff, to see it out in the world, and recognize it in your own creative process. Your girlfriend watching you fail spectacularly at this might be at the core of what upset her, even if under other circumstances she would be into collaborating on an idea based on a childhood memory.
posted by Sara C. at 12:46 PM on May 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

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