How writing saved my life: Part 3 (Independence)

betty ming liu Relationships, Writing how-to's 11 Comments

Note: This is Part 3 and the final installment in my series. Part 3, with three key words: writing-saved-life.

During my 30s, I played the Asian babe. There was a hot journalism career and cool husband. We owned a Manhattan condo with marble bathrooms and a fireplace. By day, I ran around the city, writing about immigrants. At night, I threw on a cocktail dress and hopped into stretch limos, playing corporate wife at my honey’s business dinners.

This was the early ’90s. The Chinatown nerd, oppressed by control freak immigrant parents, had escaped her past. Or, so I thought. When my American Dream finally fell apart, I fell hard. Really hard. It would take another decade for me to recover. But thankfully, it’s never too late to Become My Own Woman.

How writing saved my life (Betty Ming Liu)

My Alec Baldwin moment

Back then, I loved being a columnist for The New York Daily News, the country’s sassiest, large-circulation newspaper. Meanwhile, he focused on climbing the power ladder as a black executive in white America. This was the turn of the last century. Blasian couples like us were rare.

The statement we made went beyond race. Clearly, we had very different passions. One of the people who noticed was our neighbor, Alec Baldwin. Yeah, that Alec Baldwin.

I’ll always remember the morning we ran into him near the lobby mailboxes. We were on our way to work. Alec, T-shirt casual with bedhead, looked like he just woke up. Like us, he was youngish then. Three 30-somethings, on our way up in the world. Asian, ebony and ivory.

Stop, Alec said, staring hard. He looked us over, head to toe, up and down, slowly evaluating every physical detail.

Me — long, straight, shiny hair. Beat-up leather jacket. Tight jeans. Scruffy cowboy boots. Slouchy handbag slung carelessly over a shoulder.

Husband — Armani suit. Silk necktie. Custom-tailored shirt. Hand-stitched leather briefcase with his initials monogrammed in gold letters.

After a pause, Alec nodded in approval. Then he said something like, “You’re both sooooo in character! I totally get it!”

For the next few years, life stayed on script.

The beginning of the end

We were inner-city kids who craved success. Our best energy went into career-building instead of the relationship. Stress and exhaustion had us bickering about everything, from dinner reservations to investment decisions. The past caught up with me as we turned into a version of my parents.

I tried pretending that we were fine. Being strong meant riding out problems, right? Showing fear would admit defeat. But once I broke down and confided in close friends, they pushed me to seek help.

A Chinatown pal introduced me to his Chinese medicine master.  Exploring acupuncture, tai chi meditation and boiling Chinese herbs blew my mind. I embraced a healthy side of my heritage that has made me whole, body and soul.

But therapy felt taboo because I was opening up to a stranger, a white woman. In time, I understood we all need unconditional love and healing, with endless variations on the theme. Her wisdom and warmth did wonders.

Change felt awkward. Speaking clearly and calmly to my spouse felt like being an actor. Still, we moved forward, sort of.

A family, found & lost

For a fresh start, Mr. & Mrs. Blasian left the city for the northern suburbs. We also succumbed to retail therapy and traded, trading our condo for a house that was 7.5 times bigger. We paid a price, emotionally. Between commuting to work and intense newsroom politics, I burned out. When our baby girl came into our lives, I gladly quit work to do the mommy thing.

But as much as I loved snuggling with our daughter, full-time motherhood and the moneyed white ‘burbs had me in culture shock. Bottle feedings. Piles of diapers. White people assuming I was the Asian nanny of a multiracial baby, and that my husband was a black guy hired to mow the lawn. What a lonely reality.

The differences that divided us while we chased our careers took us on separate roads now, too. He relaxed by jumping into the Mercedes to hit some balls on tennis court or golf course. I turned to decorating. Our home exploded in colorful faux-finished walls, hand-painted furniture and quilts. I made everything, including our pottery dinner plates and Victorian silk lampshades.

Then, just as the house threatened to swallow me up in fabric swatches, writing saved my life. Again.

My right to write

At 40, I enrolled in my first-ever creative writing workshop. A novel poured out as I typed late into the night. It was a way to avoid sleeping on opposite edges of a king-sized marital bed. And there I was, once again, haunted by my childhood; I had parents who slept in separate bedrooms.

Speaking of haunting, my novel had a plot that fascinated the shrink: A single, Chinese American newspaperwoman solves a murder mystery while a sexy ghost from ancient China stalks her. My therapist wondered why the heroine never slept with the ghost or any man. What’s up with that?

By the time I typed “The End,” I had an answer. After a few agents gently rejected my manuscript, it was time to move on. I had written my way out of the marriage.

Divorce & the terror of being alone

At the dawn of the millennium, we split up. Our 21st century divorce was quite civil but still absolutely, utterly wrenching. Our daughter was barely four years old. I moved her with me, to a town just outside the city. Walking and breathing hurt every single day.

Sometimes, I think I stayed married for fear of going solo. After the divorce, I was terrified on the weekends when my daughter saw her dad and I was stuck rattling around the empty house. With no other choice, I faced the horror — and began unlearning a lifetime of crap.

For all my career talk, in my heart, I was raised to believe that women nurtured and served the family. That only selfish women did things for themselves. That single women were losers. Letting of these values taught me to be my own best friend.

How writing saved my life, Part 3 (Betty Ming Liu)

5 ways to start over

#1 — Dating got me outta the house. As if I wasn’t in enough pain, the shrink told me to start dating. She said it was the only way to break the cycle of my parents, who made me responsible for their happiness. By dating, I’d take that kind of pressure off my daughter. Plus, I had only two long-term experiences with men — my controlling father, who died when I was 19, and my husband who I’d been with for nearly 24 years.

I’ve mostly dated online. Meet-and-greets over drinks or coffee led to a few boyfriends and flings. Each one brought me closer to resolving poor self-esteem. With a dad who cheated on my mom, some of the guys I picked were cheaters too. Making progress on the romance front can hurt, but getting out teaches me about intimacy, and myself.

#2 — Falling in love with myself was the answer. Finding guys with common interests can hard. But I’ve met someone who really vibes with me. Little Betty finally got the fun stuff she missed as a kid. I gave her what I always wanted. We learned to salsa, oil paint, watercolor and play the drums. We took cooking classes, which added Thai, Indian, vegan and gluten-free recipes to our menu. Lately, we’ve discovered nature walks.

#3 — Finding community feels good. Once my daughter started kindergarten, we met everybody in our new town. We developed a routine with playdates, Brownie meetings and other after-school activities. I stepped up my volunteering. To avoid being totally kid-centric, I continued my volunteer work on the board of the Museum of Chinese in America. When the New York State acupuncture board invited me serve as a trustee, I say “yes.” Lately, I’ve been involved with Moms Demand Action, a group that fights for sane gun control laws. Campaigning for Hillary Clinton this fall makes me want to stay politically involved.

#4 — Meaningful work matters. In 2004, I sent my resume to NYU on a whim. Lucky for me, I was hired as a part-time assistant journalism professor. College students are a trip! The first semester, a steep learning curve wore me out. But I loved the classroom and kept adding various gigs at The New School, St. John’s University, Baruch College, Sarah Lawrence College and Westchester Community College. These days, I teach creative writing, public speaking, communications and journalism.

#5 — Writing works magic. Trying to stay ahead of the young folks reunited me with writing. I launched BettyMingLiu.com in 2009 to give me classroom blogging and social media skills. It became a mini-me. Posting about my life, I shared recipes, writing tips and reflections tough love immigrant parents. In 2010, blogging about my 92-year-old mom’s death brought me peace.

Blogging my key words: writing-saved-life

Then in 2011, I realized people really read my blog. The aha! moment came with my rant an annoying new book, “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom.” Author Amy Chua, the false prophet of false profit, glorified the control freakish parenting that I hated. The media went berserk over my post, with reporters bombarding me interview requests. That was kind of fun.

The more I blogged, the more I sorted through feelings and discovered pieces of myself. There’s a million more things to say but this is plenty for now.

I guess the only thought to add is this: There’s a magic space that opens up between me and my words. This is where the loving happens, where anything can happen.

This is where I find myself. This is where I find you.

So that’s it! We’ve gone from Part 1 (childhood trauma) to Part 2 (losing my virginity and finding my journalistic self) to this final installment in the series. Now it’s about you. Explore your life through writing, even if you’re not a writer. Try out my free, nine-page PDF workbook: 3 mistakes that wrecked my life (and how you can avoid them).

Tags: , , , ,

Comments 11

  1. Leslie Hunter-Gadsden

    Your story is unique to your experiences, but we have some aspects in commom, so that made it more fun to read. Writing has also been my lifeboat through career changes, getting on the mommy track & getting back on my personal track of life goals as my kids have become young adults. I’m still on my journey, re-inventing myself a bit at a time……

    1. Post
      Author
      betty ming liu

      Leslie, this reinvention thing is gonna go on ’til we stop breathing. Or, at least, I think that’s how I need to live if I truly stay connected with the world around me. Glad you’re sticking with your journey too. There’s a lot of us out there!

    1. Post
      Author
  2. Rosina

    Hi Betty. I really enjoyed reading of your journey. As an indigenous person, I can relate to your experiences with parental expectations. I still live with the ghost of my father’s disappointment in me. It’s weird, although I’m a writer,in the back of my mind I still feel I should be doing something more “solid” as my parents would say. God knows I’ve tried in my 59 years! So thank you for sharing your story. I feel less alone. God bless. Rosina in New Zealand.

    1. Post
      Author
      betty ming liu

      Rosina, I’m thrilled to hear from you. I read your comment and I felt like you were talking about me and my dad. What is it about trying to please our parents? And why is it so hard to believe that writing is a solid way to make a living? Wait, don’t answer that, haha. Thank you for dropping me a line. I’m here for you and we’re here for each other. Hugs to you. :)

  3. Diana Wiener

    As one of your New School students, it was fun to read one of your pieces, Betty. You are strong and loving and generous of spirit. Thank you for sharing your story!

    1. Post
      Author
  4. Pingback: How writing saved my life: Part 1 - betty ming liu

  5. Tobias Grace

    So much of interest in this series! I loved the Alec Baldwin comment. I do believe in being “in character” at times. When i’m teaching for example, the role is Hogwarts Professor. I always wear a suit, heavily starched shirt and tie with vest and gold pocket watch with chain and fobs – all very 19th Century and a contrast to most of my colleagues who dress like unmade beds. The students do tend to notice and some have even complimented me on “always looking like a real professor.” That helps prop me up since, deep in my heart I’m not at all sure I AM a real professor because the more i have learned, the more I realize I don’t know – and a REAL professor would know everything, wouldn’t he? The reason I write is also a form of propping myself up. I write stories in an arch, mannered style long out of fashion in order to return for a short time to a world that vanished long ago and in which I was very comfortable – a world presided over by a bevy of great aunts who were all adults when Queen Victoria was on the throne. Though a few of my stories have been published by Analog magazine and Ballantine Books – almost by accident, I don’t actually make an effort to get them in print. If they entertain myself and my friends, that’s quite enough. It is the act of writing them that is important to me and the time spent in a world that no longer exists and perhaps never really did. I don’t usually write about that world specifically, but I write through the lens that world created for me.

    1. Post
      Author
      betty ming liu

      Toby, this is so delightful. Writing is what matters, especially writing for the ones we love. We’ve gotta keep at it because the process opens us up and is so incredibly creative. Also, I love seeing what you look like in the classroom. I dress up for my classes too — sometimes. It always adds richness to my performance. :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *