June 19, 2017
It’s Monday morning.
After working fifteen-hour days everyday for a month straight, I’m bleary with exhaustion. It is one of the few remaining days that the Supreme Court could possibly publish their decision on my case. Fifty-fifty chance it happens this morning.
I stumble to the restroom and catch a glimpse of the notifications light on my phone furiously blinking like a lighthouse through my foggy state of mind. I grab it.
Oregon Public Broadcasting’s tweet is before my eyes: SCOTUS Rules in Favor of The Slants. I open my email and see my attorney’s one word note with the decision attached. “Congratulations.”
I’m shaking as I open the file, trying to work my way through the dense legal opinion written by Justice Alito. I want to know how the court is divided, what they actually say, how my life’s work is judged by the nation’s highest court. I’m only a few pages in when a ring erupts the silence. It’s a reporter trying to get the scoop. It is only minutes after the high court’s decision. They ask me the obvious question:
“How do you feel?”
The question was one that I had anticipated. It’s a routine, run of the mill probe designed to elicit quick emotion, not articulate thoughts. The scenario was one that I had been imagining over the past few months.
But in this moment, I’m stumped.
I stammer out something that sounds like a canned speech, including being “humbled and thrilled,” though I’m not feeling anything at all. I hang up and text my publicist. Supreme court ruled in our favor. I publish a statement on the Slants’ website and social media.
Another call. Then another. The email count is doubling every few seconds as the screen refreshes, messages on Facebook begin pouring in.
Alex (my publicist) texts me back. Fuck yeah. I’ll get press release out. Will be a busy day!!! Congrats!!! It’s been about thirty minutes since the decision was released and I’m already at about 2,000 messages.
We begin setting up interviews every ten minutes for the next ten hours, but most of my calls are interrupted by other reporters who are “breaking” the story. And it does feel broken: I quickly scan the news and see how every major media outlet begins reporting on the issue: “Washington Redskins Win Supreme Court Decision,” “Redskins Score Major Victory in Supreme Court Case,” “Offensive Speech Now OK Says Supreme Court.” I click on the only headline that mentions the band name and a photo of the Redskins’ football helmet appears on my screen.
For years, I dreamed of the moment of vindication. I imagined how it would feel to be a part of the legacy of social justice, even if it was only through an obscure part of law. Just a few months earlier, I had a dream where the Supreme Court ruled in our favor. In that scenario, the curiosity about our David vs. Goliath case led people to look at how the law was being applied: inconsistently, subjectively, and improperly. People weren’t talking about football teams; instead, they were finally paying attention to the narrative of the marginalized. Of course, it was only a dream.
The euphoria that I was expecting was instead replaced with dread and disgust. The press had reframed our struggle and the major concepts about liberty into a narrative around a racist football team. I didn’t feel vindication for our victory; I felt a deep sense of injustice. And I knew what the inevitable follow up would be: some of the fermenting anger against the most hated man in football was to come my way.
Throughout that day, I received hundreds if not thousands of congratulations from friends, colleagues, attorneys, and fans. My phone rang constantly as I answered call after call and ran from location to location for local and national news interviews. It took adrenaline and hot tea to keep my energy up. And while it became tiresome to be asked the same limited question from reporters about a certain football team, my answer became reflexive. I felt far more responsibility to provide an answer to the flurry of tweets from a number of Native American activists.
There’s no doubt that these individuals were expressing their dismay at what they perceived as delivering victory on a silver platter to Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins. And it was me, Simon Tam, who had delivered the head of John the Baptist to Herod Antipas. In a flurry of tweets, I was accused of being a native-born person of color perpetuating the work of colonizers. They characterized this decision on trademark registration law as the floodgate for hate speech. They intimated that I single-handedly doomed all efforts to remove mascots from pro sports.
I tried to address some of the concerns by offering clarity around our process and how trademark laws work. I tried to express how the law I’d been fighting had allowed the government the ability to deny rights based on people’s race, gender, and sexual orientation. I even explained that I’d met with over 140 social justice groups, including numerous confederated tribal leaders. I sincerely wanted to engage with empathy. But my engagement on Twitter only seemed to create greater fury, more harsh personal accusations of bad will and selfish motivations. How can one convince someone that placing all of their hopes on a flawed legal strategy was doomed?
Frustration, confusion, and sadness begin seeping their way into my heart.
I was driving home later that afternoon when I remembered to return my mother’s call.
“Congratulations! I saw the news. Gongxi, Gongxi! I tried calling you, but it kept saying your voicemail was full.”
“Xie Xie, I’m sorry I wasn’t able to call you back earlier. I had about 40,000 messages.”
“Waah, 40,000! Will you be in the Chinese newspaper?”
To my parents, the measuring stick for success is if one makes it into the Chinese newspaper. It’s how they understand importance of news in the world. I remember the first time I told my father that I was featured in TIME Magazine.
“So? I don’t read that magazine.”
He didn’t mean to be dismissive; he just didn’t understand the significance of it. Or perhaps he had insight into what I missing all along: in the big picture, it didn’t really matter.
As my mom and I talked about the family and my recent nuptials, she caught me off guard.
“Now that it’s over, I hope you can smile again,” she says.
“What do you mean?”
“You used to smile and be happy and joke around. For a long time, I haven’t seen you smile. Ni meiyou xiao.”
I started getting defensive. “I smiled a lot at my wedding,” I tried to assure her. “I’m happy.”
It’s almost as if her frown can be heard over the phone. “I just worry about you.”
I felt my lips quiver as the moisture in my eyes welled up and urged to topple over.
“I have to go,” then hang up.
When I got home, Faina gave me a warm embrace that I just wanted to sink into forever. We’ve only been married nineteen days. What a start.
Our dog nuzzled up to my leg before flopping onto his back to not so subtly ask for belly scratches.
She asked me how I was feeling, the very same question that kicked off the strange, desultory day. I absurdly asked for clarification. She saw my condition, sat me down, and began making me something to eat, the first I’ve had all day.
“I have an interview in seven minutes.”
“That’s OK, darling. You eat fast anyway…but don’t forget to mow the lawn. You said you’d do it.”
“I just helped expand the First Amendment and won a Supreme Court case. Don’t I get a pass or something?”
The interview was with a persistent TV news station in Southern Oregon who wanted to use Skype. I agreed to take the interview after they emailed and called my publicist at least a dozen times each earlier that day.
Despite their enthusiasm, they didn’t do any research on the band or our case. They asked questions about who I was, what did in the band, and the origin of The Slants’ name.
“You can Google that, all of the info is on the website,” I said with great annoyance. “But sure, I first thought of the band’s name in 2004…” I launched into the same genesis of the band that I’ve told hundreds of times before. Finally, the interview ended.
Faina looked a little surprised. She has seen me deftly handle interview after interview over the past couple of years. She has never seen the veneer crack, at least not in public.
The phone continued to buzz with alerts, including low-battery warnings. Then, it rang a few minutes earlier than my next scheduled call.
It was Spencer, my friend and attorney who kicked off this grand adventure by recommending I apply for a trademark registration many years ago.
“The man of the hour! Congratulations! I wanted to wait all day to call because I knew you’d be busy and probably overwhelmed. I hope you’re celebrating.”
“Oh. I just have interviews. I have another one in a few minutes.”
He asked me if everything is OK. He told me that I sounded like something terrible happened. In ten years, he’s never heard me like this.
“No, I’m just really, really tired. I haven’t had time to process even. But I think I’m happy, I’m probably excited. I snapped at the last reporter though because I’m sick of the misunderstanding about this case and our band.”
“Listen,” he gently said.. “I have thinking about this all day. There were so many times where you could have given up. But you didn’t. You had every opportunity to just stop and no one would have blamed you. You kept fighting because you saw an injustice. Everyone else in history just gave up fighting this law because it was too tough. You stuck with your principles. And you won. You made the country better. There will always be people who will misunderstand, but you stood up when no one else was willing to do it. And what you did will benefit them, too, though they may never know it. Even if people blame you for the actions of others who abuse this case, you helped bring freedom to people who needed it. People don’t understand how important individual liberties are and what others had to go through to pave the way. But you are truly a hero.”
The next interview went much, much better.
Who cares what other people think?
We often ask ourselves this question as if it’s easy to live unaffected by the opinions and words of others. In fact, we graciously share this rhetorical question in the form of advice to our friends who are tormented by emotional struggles, usually around some aspect of their identity: how they look, if what they’re doing is socially acceptable, how things may bring honor or shame to their family.
While I wasn’t directly taught the ideas of Guanxi or Mian zi, the Chinese concept for “ Saving Face,” (or honor) it was reinforced through my family upbringing in terms of how we interacted with others. We were told not to contradict others, especially in public, and even more so if they were our elders or strangers.
As children, it was heartbreaking to see my mom smile and nod to store clerks who would make fun of her accent, as if she couldn’t understand what they were doing. The worst was when these were customers in our family’s restaurant. My mom would be extra kind to them, even when it was extremely degrading.
“I want some flied lice! Chicken flied liiiice,” they’d say with a chuckle.
“Chicken Fah-ride rice” would be her response. She’d speak more slowly, trying to carefully articulate each syllable. “Anything else?”
“Egg Frow-wah soup.” More stifled laughter.
“No problem,” she’d say with a smile.
In the back, I would tell her that the customers were being rude. But she would scold me instead! She never wanted to upset them, to cause a scene. She believed in killing people with kindness: always be respectful and things would work out sooner or later. She didn’t want to let others get a rise out of her; it was her method of being subversive.
While many people around her continued this kind of mistreatment, several would eventually come around and treat her with extra respect. Even her former mother-in-law whose emotional abuse drove my mom to a divorce would later apologize for her racist, tormenting behavior. That’s some serious badass guanxi.
My father was a bit different. Though he had a short temper, he was also good humored and thought many of the microaggressions he dealt with in his life were harmless jokes. He’d often joke back, trading tit-for-tat. When I asked him how he would deal with people who were mistreating him, he’d respond, “Fight back!” But when it came to family members, especially those who were being misogynistic or homophobic, he’d cautiously admonish them in private so it wouldn’t lower their Face in front of others.
Pairing my parents’ respective approaches with modern American bravado of being unaffected by the opinion of others programed me with a conflicting set of responses. As a timid, introverted child, my version of “fighting back” usually only happened when my anger or humiliation boiled over. It often resulted in passive-aggressive behavior in the form of harmless pranks but even then, I’d feel some pangs of guilt.
My older brother usually liked to bully me in the way that siblings often do: making fun of me…sometimes with tickles, sometimes with punches. One day, I saw an episode of Punky Brewster where a fed-up sibling dumped a bucket of ice in the bed of their tormentor, then covered it with a blanket so they wouldn’t find out until they slipped into bed.
I got excited about the idea and filled a 5-gallon pail with ice. But when I looked at my brother’s bed, I felt both guilt and fear of retaliation, so I ended up pouring it into my bed instead! I thought the prank was a good idea; I didn’t want to see it wasted. When I told him about it, he roared in laughter and called me an idiot. But he also felt bad about it, so he left me alone for the next few weeks, opting to play Nintendo with me instead of beating me up. It was like an advanced Jedi-mind trick or something.
As I got older and developed my own sense of justice, my approach for fighting back changed. Instead of allowing offenses to fester, I would call them out. To me, it was important to keep others accountable, in hopes of reduce suffering or indignity for others. But I’d usually do so privately or with gentleness (when at my best, at least…we all falter) in hopes that they’d be willing to self-correct. It was very much like how my father navigated the world. But because I’d often do this without an apparent rise and instead lean on very literal uses of language to articulate my points, I’d be accused of being an emotionless robot.
Instead of worrying what others thought, I began to look at things through a lens of compassion. With compliments, I would get uncomfortable and usually respond with self-degrading humor or deflection instead. I developed a habit of profusely apologizing for things, even minor offenses, hoping to kill others with kindness. In that regard, I became like my mother. But unlike her, I didn’t feel embarrassment on the whole.
It was that American idea of being unaffected: what others thought of me wasn’t of the least importance. I believed in doing what was right, even if it was controversial, misinterpreted, or cost me some pride. After all, my perspective was that people should deal in the currency of empathy, not ego.
So my caring wasn’t about how I was personally affected, but rather, if it would cause suffering in others in some way. In other words, I wouldn’t be moved by negative comments about me (that didn’t) but if those thoughts came out of distress, the negative energy and torment of others would weigh heavily on me. Likewise, I wasn’t motivated by praise. But if that praise stemmed from deep, overflowing joy in another person, I would be deeply moved.
Thus, the day of my so-called “First Amendment victory” was a cataclysmic mix of trepidation and sorrow for who felt that a primary protection against offensive speech was lost that was mired with exhilaration from knowing that the win liberated marginalized groups from government overreach and inequitable processes.
I felt as if my heart were on a pendulum, wildly swinging from one end to another, but without the ability to stop and process the experience. When reporters and angry activists pulled me to one side, comments like those from Spencer brought me back to my center. I didn’t care what other people thought, I cared about how they felt. The problem was I just didn’t know how I felt.
Almost eight years of my life – about 2,800 days – was poured into this battle for self-identity. But I didn’t even have 28 minutes to pause in solitude and reflect…until I mowed the lawn.
After the final scheduled interview of the day, I go out to dinner with Faina for a low-key celebration…at least it’s supposed to be a celebration. Like the rest of my day, my mental and emotional state is a graded blend of bittersweet contradictions. I am weary, as if all eight years of my journey was being experienced in one day.
She says I look depressed. I muster up all of the positivity in me and we talk of happier things instead: what life would be like moving away, starting over, and living without the expectations of others pressing down on us. I spent so much of my life focusing on the idea of expanding liberty for others; I just wanted liberation from my life. Throughout the dinner, my phone screams at me like a petulant child. When the waiter gives us the check, she says I don’t have to work on the lawn if I don’t want to.
It’s 8:00pm and still sunny.
I open the back door of the house but it feels more like opening the door to a blazing oven. It is so hot that I swear I could cook an egg on my skin. I start up the electric mower and begin crisscrossing my way across the lawn, avoiding the cord at all costs, since I already ruined one earlier in the month. A moment of panic sets in: I can’t hear my phone or feel it’s incessant vibrating notifications over the sound and bumps of the mower. But I think about Faina’s words from earlier: You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. It rings some more.
I don’t answer.
I turn the phone off.
All of a sudden, the heat doesn’t feel so bad.
I finally have some peace to think to myself and consider everything that has taken place: the trip to the Supreme Court in January, the weeks I spent on the road talking to law students and experts about our story, the wedding…and today, decision day. Words and emotions swirl, kicking up memories like the blades of grass flying around me and sticking to my skin.
Some of the messages of pain and anger replay in my mind. Comments about me being self-absorbed and apathetic to the plight of others sear through me, cutting me into pieces. It doesn’t matter if they know me or truly understand the nuances of obscure trademark laws or not: my heart aches at their suffering. Perhaps they’re right, even.
On the other side, I think about Spencer’s words and all of the people I’ve met over the years who sent their personal congratulations. People who understand the pain of having the agency over their own self-identity stripped away. Now they have the ability to empower themselves without the full weight of the government used against them. Maybe they’re right, too.
My vision begins to blur and I can’t tell if the saltiness I taste is from pouring sweat or tears inching down my face. I continue working my way around the yard, going over the contours over and over again like it is a soothing mantra for meditation. My heart’s palpitation slow and calm starts to settle in. This isn’t so bad. I can help those who are hurting; I can find peace in this process, too. Instead of feeling oppressive, the ninety degree weather coats me like a warm bath.
I accidentally run over a solar-powered pathway light at the edge of the grass. At first I’m angry. Then, I feel guilty for knocking it over.
For a second, I’m tempted to ask the light how it feels. But its decapitated structure tells me everything – it’s how I’ve been feeling all day long.