September 10, 2012

I never wanted to be a loser, a has-been, the leftover kid in gym class that the team captains were loathe to pick. But things happened….

Poor Betty.

Looking back, there were so many ways that I was unsuccessful. Thankfully, those sorry experiences didn’t go to waste. I held them close until the magic of Getting Through The Day eventually revealed my true potential. So don’t give up; we can all make it!

Discovering happiness took a long, long time because my parents had me convinced that I was already happy. As Chinese immigrants who had survived war, famine and their own no-sex, no-fun rotten marriage, they said they were happy. They wanted me to get with the program too. After all, they were providing plenty of food and I had my own bed in a safe, furnished apartment. They even spoke English, which made it possible for us to all understand each other when we were arguing.

The problem was, even though they gave me everything they could, I knew they weren’t happy with me. This was the 1960s, when I was only a little girl. But I was already a failure.

Through the ’70s, my inadequacies piled up in high school and college as I brought home grades point averages that hovered in the C+ to  B- range. They were my devilishly satisfying strategy for sabotaging my father who had already worked so hard to force me into right-handedness. Now he insisted on selecting my courses (heavy on business and math; English and art history were time wasters). For fun, he let me go to church.

When I was 19, Dad died at age 70 of a sudden heart attack. Free at last but I feel guilty for admitting this. At first, Mom leaned on me to help at the Chinatown bookkeeping business that he left us. But I was a hopeless accounting major. One semester, I had straight Ds. So Mom coped on her own as I knew she would, while I finally found a social life with my first real boyfriend: Mr. Cute Black Guy From The Brooklyn Housing Projects. I also somehow managed to get into Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and survived as a mediocre student.

There was more failure in the ’80s and ’90s as I focused on career and marriage. My mother considered me a loser because I worked for The New York Daily News instead of The New York Times. My interracial marriage to the bf made her feel like a failure in Chinatown social circles  — until she and her son-in-law discovered they were soul mates with similar ideas about success.  It’s true, a lot of us marry our mothers. Be careful.

Along the way, a friend who is white suggested that I try therapy because I seemed so tense. I was aghast! Only crazy, self-indulgent white people went to therapy. The rest of us, we take care of our own problems. Besides, revealing personal matters to a stranger was embarrassing, even shameful…

Wait — I heard the magic words. A chance to further disgrace the family. Where do I sign up?

With the help of a therapist, I discovered that reflecting on my life didn’t have to devolve into criticism. I also found new ways to look at situations and rethink my issues. Now the fight to save myself began in earnest. Ironically, the high stakes failures of adult life began to pile on, big time.

Just when my career as a newspaper columnist was taking off with guest TV news appearances, I quit to do the mommy thing.

I started the millenium by getting divorced. This was 2000 and our baby was barely four years old. The breakup horrified my mother even more than our marriage. But at this point, I was too wrecked too care. Those first few post-divorce years were emotionally treacherous. Such huge, huge holes in my heart. You want to talk failure? Try putting a confused, innocent child to bed at night and making her feel safe — that’s how I defined daily success and failure.

My bank account could have become another category of failure. While I left the marriage with a nest egg, there wasn’t enough to support the old lifestyle. I became a single working mom. But I also found ways to take painting and drawing classes. As a part-time college adjunct professor, there were even an option to to take freebie English literature courses.

Sometimes, I lose confidence because I’m not rich. After all, that’s the ultimate measure of worldly success, isn’t it? But this is where personal definitions of happiness come in. What I see in my past so-called failures is one kid’s struggle for self-expression in a rigid, homogenous culture. Over the years, I have reclaimed my left-handedness and my worth as a woman. I have expanded my sense of family to include one that is filled with friends and relatives of my own choosing. My blood flows color-blind. And I plan to live the rest of my life feeling beautiful.

In some ways, success on these terms feels like I’m running around naked. No more games. No more repressed struggles to be heard. Instead, I’m constantly experimenting with new ideas, new projects, ready to try — not worrying about failure. This is living!

I hope this hasn’t been too much information. But just in case it is, if you’ll excuse me, for a minute, I’ll go put my clothes back on.

Failure is the new success