This is the third essay in The Angsty Buddhist, a series about being Chinese American, nonbinary, and finding my own relationship with Buddhism, in a country where so many of its ideas have been whitewashed.
I usually think of 23 as when my body started to rebel, but it could have been earlier. Before that, there was the drive between San Francisco and LA where I felt like my entire body was being contorted by the seatbelt. There was the way I couldn’t understand how other people carried shoulder bags — didn’t that make them feel lopsided? There was the way I flinched when other people tried to touch me. My mom always said I was tense, even when I was a little kid. She’d squeeze my shoulders, and they’d be like cement. When I tell people about this, I laugh. Isn’t it funny that I’ve never been able to relax?
But 23 was when my body and its tension became the center of my life — how I scheduled my day, chose what I wore, and spent most of my critical thinking skills trying to figure out how to manage. More than my angst about gender, what propelled me towards men’s clothing was that the pants have pockets and it hurt too much to carry a purse.
I also thought I was making it all up and didn’t mention it to my friends, even ones that I saw almost every day. You’re just doing this for attention, I told myself, even though I wasn’t getting any attention because I refused to talk about it. The couple of times, I did bring it up vaguely, people dismissed me by saying I probably spent too much time on the computer, which I’m sure I do, but not more than anyone else my age.
In the midst of this, or maybe because of it, I started going to meditation sessions at an acquaintance’s Zen Center. The Zen Center practiced a type of Buddhism that a Korean monk had started in Providence, Rhode Island because he thought Brown students would be the most receptive to his teachings (And they have money, I thought). This type of Zen gained popularity in the U.S. and Europe before making its way back to Asia. At the time, I was living in Hong Kong, and even though I didn’t connect with this version of Buddhism and chafed at the fact that many of its leaders were white men, I reserved my biggest judgments because there were many people I met there whom it seemed to be helping.
What surprised me was how much meditation soothed my chronic pain. Afterwards, I walked back to the minibus feeling light, reveling in the fact that I was not thinking about the knots in my back, at least for the moment. I started researching mindfulness after that, trying to see if there were other things I could do to manage my pain. Yoga was something that always came up.
I started doing those white lady yoga videos everyday. Sometimes, when the teacher would start chanting or say “namaste: at the end, I would groan performatively or mutter “fuck you”
I felt conflicted about this. I didn’t want to be like a white yoga lady whose life centered around cultural appropriation. As someone who grew up with Buddhism and feels pretty pissy about white Buddhism, it felt hypocritical to try yoga. In the end, though, my own self-interest won out, and I found a short yoga video on YouTube. The teacher was a white lady who liked to talked a lot about self-love. I followed her instructions about when to inhale and exhale grudgingly.
Afterwards, my muscles did feel looser, and I could go a few hours without really thinking about my body. I started doing those white lady yoga videos everyday. Sometimes, when the teacher would start chanting or say “namaste” at the end, I would groan performatively or mutter “fuck you,” which made me feel a little less embarrassed about how much this was helping me.
Two of the most common questions I get when I tell people about my chronic pain are “Have you seen a doctor?” and “Have you tried yoga?” I hate both of these questions.
I have seen a doctor, many times. Because I’m privileged to have insurance, I feel bad complaining about the care I’ve received. Whenever my doctor doctor finishes examining my spine or the x-ray comes back clear, I feel like a fraud. “You should just take more breaks when you’re working,” she says, misgendering me often during our conversations because I’m too wimpy to tell her my pronouns and the intake sheet only offers two options for gender. When I say that I do take breaks, something that always makes me nervous because I don’t want my boss to think I’m slacking off, my doctor says, “Are you stressed? It’s probably stress. Try getting a standing desk.”
Being asked if I’ve seen a doctor annoys me because I feel like the people asking think that I’m being lazy or silly for being in pain — just go see a doctor, as if this will fix everything. When people ask if I’ve tried yoga (or meditation or acupuncture), it’s usually because they don’t know what else to say. I think it freaks people out to have to sit with someone’s pain and not be able to do anything. It freaks me out, too. That doesn’t make the questions about yoga any less irritating.
I find it interesting, though, that many of the miracle cures that people offer up when there isn’t a clear diagnosis are from “the East.” It feels connected to the ways we are always trying to find healing in the Other.
I find it interesting, though, that many of the miracle cures that people offer up when there isn’t a clear diagnosis are from “the East.” It feels connected to the ways we are always trying to find healing in the Other. So much of the way we characterize Eastern medicine in this country, regardless of what culture or spirituality it comes from, is as something spiritual and holistic, collapsing the divide between body and mind. Probably this is sometimes true and someone will whitesplain why this is so in the comments. But I think a lot of this is orientalism — Asia is too big of a place, with so many different and conflicting peoples and cultures, to make sweeping generalizations like that.
I think that these ideas do not tell us anything about what defines “Eastern” cultures and does tell us more, at least subconsciously, about what we’re lacking. What do we do with pain that is ongoing? What is the connection between emotions and the physical body? How do we talk about this in a way that is not gaslighting and dismissive of the often very physical causes of pain? I don’t know, and I see how it seems so easy to look to the Other — the Buddhist nun, the Hindu goddess, that incense burner on sale at Ross — and ask them to hold that for us.
“Healing” is a buzzword in queer and trans spaces. This makes sense, given how much there is to heal from. The first people I felt comfortable talking to about chronic pain were other trans Asian Americans. They seemed to understand, without explanation, the way that the body is shaped by everything it has experienced, its traumas and its joys.
I hear a lot of people talking about ancestors a lot, about lineage and intergenerational healing. I’ve been told I should try to reclaim my ancestral healing practices, and this is something I would like to do. When I try to learn about Chinese things, it feels performed. I wonder if me learning qigong is any better than yoga, and the other day while my partner and I were trying to learn how to make an herbal soup, we were more amused by the fact that one of the herbs was called “Semen Euryales” than anything else.
Sometimes, these practices helps relieve the pain in my body, and sometimes they also help quiet my anxieties. Other times, they don’t do anything at all. It always seems like a bit of a crapshoot. But even when I don’t feel the immediate effects of these practices or if I’m not doing them “correctly,” there’s something healing about learning practices that were taken away from me and my family because of the violence of white supremacy and assimilation. For me, this makes learning Chinese healing practices feel different than doing white lady yoga, at least just a little.
Once, in a BIPOC writing group that I am part of and love, we had a guest host, who led us through some exercises that we’re definitely culturally appropriated from yoga, before instructing us to free write. The host didn’t mention the cultures that these practices came from or from whom he had learned them. I don’t think he was South Asian, but I could be wrong. I reluctantly did his breathing exercises and felt the muscles in my neck ease.
There was one point where he led everyone in chanting “Om.” When this started, one person left the Zoom call. I am assuming that this person was South Asian because of their name, but maybe I was wrong. Maybe they just left because they had something else to do. Maybe I was just projecting how uncomfortable I was feeling. I should private message one of the hosts and tell them this is a little weird, I thought but didn’t.
At the end of the session, many people thanked the guest host, including me. I was grateful that he’d taken the time to be at our group. I was thinking about how so many BIPOC spaces are held together by people giving their labor for free. Other people liked the exercises. This is the first time I’ve been able to be in my body, someone said, and I felt guilty for being judgy because BIPOC folks are so often cut off from the resources they need to heal. Why would I want to take this away from anyone?
Still, I think it’s important to connect to our own ancestral practices, even if this process is imperfect. I don’t want to become a white yoga lady.
During a recent pain flare, I tried taking a new medication, but all it did was make me drowsy. I tried to meditate but after a few minutes got frustrated and crawled back into bed. I went through my normal procession of unhelpful thoughts, you’re faking this, you’re lazy, get up, but this time, it seemed like it was more out of habit than anything else. Instead of spiraling, I let the thoughts pass. Instead of trying to get up, I let myself cry until I fell asleep.
I think a lot about my own body, whose pain I often try to aggressively breathe and stretch away. What would it mean to stop trying to find a way around this?
I think a lot about how disability justice activists critique the idea of cure. That it is ableist to treat cure as the end goal, that the disabled body is not something to be fixed. I think a lot about my own body, whose pain I often try to aggressively breathe and stretch away. What would it mean to stop trying to find a way around this? This is not to say that I enjoy being in pain. I want to be in less pain — but not in a way that only makes me better at capitalism or that allows me to dissociate from the histories and traumas that caused me to be in pain in the first place.
This is similar to how I think about culture. Even if I am trying to connect to my own cultures and histories, I don’t want to return to an identity that existed before imperialism and diaspora. It would be impossible to erase the ruptures that have already occurred. I’m not sure what the end point of this kind of healing is, or if I should even be thinking about this in terms of end points. I don’t think anyone knows for sure. I still think I need to try.