Reflecting on Freedom – Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

My perspective on what freedom means to me today, comes from the lens of a first generation Asian American woman, born in 1964 to immigrants from the Philippines. Beyond my history lesson about civil rights, voting rights, and being inspired by Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I thought about how I have personally been impacted by the actions, words, and sacrifices Martin Luther King, Jr. made, and am reminded that the actions each of us make can create a ripple effect beyond our imaginations.

Our words and actions matter.

MLK, Jr. paved the way for ethnically diverse peoples to be seen, noticed, and to take our place in the front seats of American life. To avoid being redundant about so many other commentaries about experiences of prejudice and racism, I reflected on my most recent reaction to Asian Americans on the big screen.

I was struck by a sense of relatability and belonging watching two recent movies: Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings and Spiderman – No Way Home. Simu Liu, played Shang-Chi, the first Asian superhero in a Marvel movie along with his badass supporting actresses Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, and Michelle Yeoh (she’s been one of my idols since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) To see Simu Liu play the superhero in a blockbuster struck me as momentous and made my heart swell up with pride thinking about how many other Asians might also feel inspired by the possibility of “making it big” and how seeing someone who looks like “my people” effects a sense of confidence and pride.

I wondered why it felt so significant and I realized it was because my personal experience of prejudice as a child created a background tape of thinking I was “less than”, inferior, not good enough. Acknowledging that made me feel sad and it reminded me that it matters how a group of people are routinely portrayed in movies or books or plays.

Then, I watched the latest Spiderman, with filipino Jacob Batalon playing Spiderman’s best friend, Ned Leeds, and, I found myself perk up with attention when I heard tagalog being spoken by Ned’s lola (which means grandma in tagalog, the main dialect spoken in the Philippines.) When was the last time I watched a blockbuster American movie and one of the main characters was filipino or spoke tagalog? I never have. It was a first, and it felt significant. It was like I thought “Ned and his lola look like my family and they’re speaking the language of my people…how cool is that!”

What does any of this have to do with freedom?

When someone has experienced oppression or prejudice, it can make you feel embarrassed about who you are, about the color of your skin, about the slant of your eyes, about the type of food you eat, about how you speak; it can rob you of the freedom to love and accept your unique physical existence and the culture you were born into.

Seeing someone that looks like you, larger than life and portrayed in a positive light can make you feel good about yourself, where you came from, and what you look like. It can disrupt the negative self-talk. It can offer a sense of hope that progress is being made, there there is a place for people of all colors on the big stage. It’s significant because historically Asians have not been given the lead roles in American movies, and that can make a difference in the how minorities perceive themselves.

The double-whammy of being a minority and a woman.

I recall my excitement when Lucy Liu was one of Charlie’s Angels, and when Disney created Mulan. Why was I excited? Because it was something fresh, something new, something that gave me validation that Asian women deserve a place at the table, to be seen bigger than life. As a generalization, it can be hard for Asian women to break out of the oppression of their own culture, where many of us were raised to be seen, but, not heard. I can just hear the backlash right now as I write these words. It’s uncomfortable for me to write this, because I was raised not to “air our dirty laundry.” And, yet over the years I’ve developed my truth-telling muscle, to choose what feels right versus hiding out of fear.

The path to freedom can feel awkward, and if it feels like the right thing to do, sit with the discomfort and do the thing anyway.

It’s a double-whammy when you experience racism by others as well as being oppressed by your own family or your own culture. This is the ugly truth which can be hard to admit.

The first way out of feeling trapped, is to see and confront what is holding you back.

This is where mindfulness, meditation, and yoga have made a difference in my life. I am not confined by what has happened to me or what is expected of me.

Cultivate awareness. Pay attention to the signals in your body telling you when you feel constrained. Make choices which make you feel at ease and free when you breathe. Develop your inner wisdom and intuition. Trust yourself.

Create time and space to journal and sit with these questions:

  • Who am I, separate from what others expect me to be?
  • Who am I, separate from what others say about me?
  • How do I feel in my body and mind when I imaging myself free and happy?
  • How will I encourage others to experience freedom in their lives?

Get still to gain clarity, to listen, to pay attention. See where you are in this present moment, know where you want to go, take action steps to get from here to there.

Lastly, to share what I’ve learned from my own path towards freedom:

1) the journey might zig and zag, go forwards or backwards, and that’s okay. pay attention. recalibrate as needed. keep sight of your intentions. stay the course.

2) relax instead of fighting for your freedom; the “others” are not creating your suffering, your resistance creates the struggle.

Easier said than done. When emotions like anger or pent-up frustration accompany feeling oppressed, it can be easy to explode when trying to break free from undesirable, stifling circumstances. I know, firsthand. And, it just doesn’t end well to react from a place of hatred, violence, or harmful behavior you would regret. And, if you do lose it, forgive yourself for being human, and commit to doing better next time.

“When you know better, do better.” – Maya Angelou

Have you seen a Chinese finger puzzle? It’s a toy where you insert your index fingers and the more you pull and resist, the tighter the grip, and the harder it becomes to escape.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched and protested peacefully. If you react with anger, resentment, and hatred, does that align with who you want to be, and how you see yourself when you feel free and happy?

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, reflect on what freedom means to you? And, pay it forward. Be of service and contribute to the pursuit of freedom and happiness for all.

Note: If you are physically being hurt, abused, trapped, defend and protect yourself. Do your best to free yourself from the situation. Take self-defense classes. Make yourself strong. Knee them in the balls. Stomp them on the top of their feet. Ask for help. For domestic violence:

spread your love and light…

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