Politics. One of the three things — the other two being money and religion — we are warned never to discuss lest it wreak havoc in our conversations. And havoc it does wreak. There is legitimacy to this warning. Certain folks are just not worth engaging with in political talk. But what about our family?
Discussing politics never took any shape or form when I was growing up. My family did not talk about 9/11, the stock market crash, nor the historical significance of our country’s first black president. These political realities were nothing more than occurrences deserving brief mentions. It was only when I realized the relevance of politics during college that I began to engage my parents on it. There was only one problem: by that point, I did not know how.
I don’t blame my parents for never discussing politics with me. As Asian immigrants, they struggled with the English language and their economic and social lives existed predominantly within their Chinese enclaves. It is easy for a disenfranchised people to disengage.
Discussing politics was also difficult within a family structure with specific power distribution. Due to my parents’ Confucian principles, my father was the head of the household and my mother was to submit to him, and we children were to submit to our father first, and then our mother. In this kind of household, where our father led with a code of rights and wrongs, politics was not up for questioning. And unless we could be content with asking questions, often times yielding no definite answers, engaging in political talk would be an arbitrary endeavor.
Even as I believed that engaging in political talk was not impossible, I knew that it would not be possible unless we first recognized that there were pre-established power structures at play.
As I was transitioning between cities in the beginning of 2016, I trekked back to my hometown Chicago for a respite at my parents’ home. The heat of the election season was upon us. Each week screamed new headlines — another press conference, another speech, another remarkable visit by some presidential candidate trying to make their case, another spat between candidates within and across parties. All the while, Chicago was walking through its own valley. Rallies protesting 16 shots and a cover-up piled the streets for LaQuan McDonald. Turmoil pervaded every space in the city.
One evening, as I gave way for the silence of my room to wash over me, I heard the light footsteps of my mother shuffling up the stairway before she appeared through the doorway. She darted a random comment on the messiness of my room at me, which meant that she intended to transition into a conversation.
The next thing I knew, we were both seated, discussing national headlines.
K: A lot has been going on mom. Did you hear about the boy who was shot by the police?
M: Yes, that is tragic! These streets are dangerous. Ai-yah, there’s always people shouting in the streets. I think that people just need to let the government do their job sometimes.
K: I don’t know if it’s that simple mom.
M: Back in China, the government worked because the citizens submitted and the government had control over what they felt was best for us. I thought that this was effective.
K: I think that would work, Mom, assuming that the government had the citizens’ best interest in mind 100% all the time, but what if they didn’t? The people are shouting in the streets because they don’t believe that the shooting was just. I mean, he was only a 17-year old boy who had a knife. He was running away from the police and the officer shot him 16 times.
M: Did the boy do anything? ... I mean, it does seem overdone. I feel like there just needs to be more trust in the government.
K: Was there trust in China when you grew up there?
M: Yeah, of course. We just did what we were told. If it was going to be irrigation in the fields, we went.
K: But what about accountability and understanding why you were responsible for what the government wanted?
The conversation continued that night with my mom and me inviting questions with one another and engaging in mutual storytelling. Political engagement with my mother became possible because she was willing to dialogue with me as a peer, creating a new power dynamic different from our normal household code.
By exploring questions with me, my mother opened the door to engagement. It was never our goal to answer the looming questions of police brutality, presidential election, or correct government system overnight. If there was any goal, it was to mutually conclude that it is okay to explore topics of society and politics as a dilemma with a multiplicity of angles and dimensions, and not as problems to resolve right away.
During our engagement, the calcified code of order was gradually suspended. A subversive power dynamic became introduced and the script was flipped. Reflection on my mother’s own story enabled honest conversation and allowed me to consider another mindset. Rather than a stringent authority figure, my mother became a character of a story.
It is when those in power begin to step into the narrative that dialogue can occur, whether that means asking questions, airing grievances, or building trust. A relationship takes place. After all, isn’t this the mystery of the incarnation? Christ, the transcendent king ushered in on an arse, humbled himself to explore questions of power. People across every demographic questioned him endlessly on the Old Covenant, many shared their sorrows with him, and outcasts sought sympathy. In a small but similar way, undertones of subversion seeped our relational dynamic because my mother chose to enter the narrative.
When those in power are willing to step onto leveled ground by entering the narrative, crippling debates on power actually become dialogue that empowers. Even an immigrant family can begin to see one another, both parent and child, as characters wrapped up in the politics of humanity — a politic intended not to bind us but to set us free.