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Crying in Public
I believe we have the right to cry in public. That we have the right to fling open all those flood gates and let out all the emotions that exhaust us. I believe we have the right to escape once in a while, to recoil before fighting back.
Last month, I touched an outlet with my wet hands. Before I heard the machine whirring, I felt the buzzing sensation jolt through my body. Without thinking twice, I jerked my hands back. Nature built us that way, to recoil first and maybe try again later.
But I didn’t know that when I was four, or eight, or ten years old. My mom lectured me for anything I did wrong inside the house if it required her to expend energy to fix, outside the house if she deemed it disgraceful, and generally anything that annoyed her. But I’ve been molded to not fight back. In Confucius sayings and Chinese proverbs of filial piety, children were never allowed to snap back at their parents. If they were girls, tough luck.
My mom tried to explain that I shouldn’t cry when she yells at me. Somewhere along that winded explanation, she told me I should just smile. She said it firmly, as if a smile was magical, that it was the key to fixing world hunger and global warming. But is it possible to smile if I was being yelled at by my own mother, someone I learned to trust? Confucius said that one should always listen to her parents and take their words to heart. I was afraid of going against my mom’s words, but I kept on crying. The longer I cried, the longer she yelled, and the worse I felt. Eventually, I learned to hold onto my emotions. I learned to quietly close my door, cover my head with a blanket, and cry without making a noise. Crying secretly became my solace for the time being.
Unfortunately, I don’t think pain ever disappears with tears. Or maybe some does, but there is just too much pain to cry away at once. And the remainder just gets drained into another reservoir of emotions that you desperately try to lock. But if you trip on a trigger that opens the flood gates, no matter how deep you tried to hide key, all the tears you’ve been holding back come out all at once.
I burst into tears in front of my English teacher. Initially it was because of my poor essay grade. Or maybe because I felt ashamed that I didn’t understand him. Either way, it triggered memories of my friend moving, of my brothers leaving for college, of my dad coming home empty handed on my sixteenth birthday. As I tried to suppress my tears by asking myself “Why are you crying?”, I cried even harder.
I sometimes make myself cry to avoid crying in front of someone. I would think of all the events that upset me and let it all out into my pillow. Often times, I would fall asleep. If I wake up with puffy red eyes, I drape a wet paper towel over them and ensure they look normal before leaving my room.
I gradually realized that because of this, I built a wall around myself. I was unable to face confrontations, unable to confess my feelings, unable to laugh freely. Each time my confinement became clearer, I was frustrated at my weakness even more. It’s frightening how something so abstract can suffocate you, even if you are not the slightest claustrophobic.
A few summers ago, ants were on the go again. This time, they were marching through my room. They marched through the crack in a single endless line. I tried everything to take them down: squishing them like my grandma does, using an air freshener to hide the pheromones calling for more ants, and obstructing them with mountains of books and papers. But they never failed to keep on marching. My grandma told me they were harmless if you think about each one separately, but they were soon covering the entire cookie jar.
I was scared of something so “harmless.” I was intimidated by their accumulating numbers. Maybe if I thought of taking away the cookie jar from the beginning, they would have stopped coming into the room and I wouldn’t have been so afraid during those sleepless nights. Get rid of the source and the problem goes with it. But is there a source for pain that you can also easily toss away? I remembered crying into my pillow along the edge of the bed, afraid that I would wake up my parents. I was frightened of the ants, but needed to look out for myself.
Last year, I had a group project and needed to go to my friend’s house. During lunch, her dad told us stories of when he lived in a poor neighborhood with constant gunshots. Her mom laughed and my friend teased her dad for exaggerating. I laughed along, but a sense of jealousy gnawed beneath my skin. I heard her dad reprimand her for something minor. She apologized and everything was alright. His voice was not loud, she did not cry, and I secretly wondered if she ever cried. Or perhaps I even wished she had before.
She told me that the key was family time. She took turns with her siblings to tell her parents everything they did each day. I was skeptical. Expressing honest thoughts in my household never ended well. Explaining, yelling, sighing, pretending, hiding, crying, and sleeping. But another one of my friends had the same intimate relationship with her mom. “She is my best friend. I tell her everything.” I started to wonder what if they were right.
My school newspaper wrote an article called “101 Things Every Student Should Do.” Break the ice by saying, “I am so tired....” Procrastinate. Freak out before taking the test. Freak out after taking the test. Everyone was so open about their problems. I think it was in high school that I learned that it was okay to dismantle my emotional wall.
I had several crummy grades in my freshmen and sophomore years. But when my math grades were hitting a new low point, I started to panic. My friend realized I was acting weird and kept talking to me until I was so annoyed that I blabbed. That I was getting 72s in pre-calculus despite how everyone else thinks I’m a genius for taking “junior math” during freshmen year. That my parents would be breathing down my back once I told them. That I felt like I was a disgrace to my science-and-engineering oriented family. I burrowed my face into my knees. My eyes threatened to tear, as I anticipated a sarcastic condemnation.
But my friend started singing. And I started tearing anyway, right there, on the second floor in my school. It was a few short hiccups, but it felt good to have someone there to hug me and piece me back together. It was refreshing to depend on someone. Maybe it was okay to cry out loud in public.
When animals are under attack, adrenaline is pumped into their blood system. The stage is called fight-or-flight, but the gut feeling is always telling you to turn around and run. And it’s okay to back out of fights, because there is a chance you will lose, that you will get beaten down harder if you resist.
Emotional fights are the same. You can stand ground and build up a perfect façade against the bitter wind. If you are dilapidated inside, you know it perfectly well that you will collapse any time. But if you show your faults, we can help you repair it. You can only be stronger.