Dis.Harmony | On sisterhood, growing up and growing apart.
Growing up, when people asked if we argued or fought, we’d collectively look at each other, smile — pause to think — then shake our heads:
“No, we just don’t really argue.” And it was true.
That was then; this is now.
This year felt like the unraveling of our sisterhood. The same polarization out there in the media — red and blue, left and right, right and wrong — showed up in our conversations. Harsh words were said; phone calls ended abruptly. Anger, denial, rage, grief.
If we’re being precise, the cracks in the road, the forks in our identities, and the divergence in our worldviews started much earlier — decades earlier. But this year, we realized how different we’d become — the annual family get-together (sometimes every other year if we hadn’t coordinated) or the occasional monthly call wasn’t enough to keep us on the same page.
In 2007, I met cousins in Taiwan for the first time, my father’s siblings’ children, and experienced the cognitive dissonance of strangers being family. This year, we had the opposite experience: family — that we thought we knew — felt estranged.
My two sisters and I span seven years in age — in the years between my oldest sister and me: a miscarried boy child, my grandparents emigrating to America the year before I was born, and untold moments of beauty and pain that we, as children, didn’t see.
But that’s my parent’s story.
This is about the sisterhood of Tanny, Tina, and Tiffany. The very alliterative litany of our names seemed to say, “You are parts of a whole.”
From the outside, we were riffs on a melody; variations on a theme — one sister two inches taller, another two inches shorter. Tall. Slim. Warm. Extroverted. Kind. Creative. Pretty. Adjectives that could’ve described any one of us — or all of us.
From the inside, the subtle gradations emerged: Tanny had lighter hair with unexpected glints of red and gold in the summer, while Tina had the satiny, pitch black hair of a china doll. My hair was somewhere in between. Tanny, with chocolate brown eyes that were almost black, and Tina with hazel irises and a black rim. Again, mine — somewhere in between. Tanny was the social butterfly; the resident artist/creative, and Tina was the studious, thoughtful academic who was voted homecoming queen because she was kind to everyone. Again, I was somewhere in between.
In childhood, we felt like a set: Tanny, Tina, and Tiffany. The kids against the adults in the family. We’d lie for each other, fiercely protective of each other more than our own selves -
My Mother: “Did you all practice the violin and piano today?”
“Yes,” we’d chorus together, no side eyed glance needed to ensure alignment — we’d collectively been watching afternoon cartoons together instead of practicing. We had each other’s backs at school, church — always.
We were also unified in our trauma. Our maternal and paternal grandfathers were both in the military — from one, we had a legacy of explosive anger; from the other, a deep conflict-avoidance paired with a strict adherence to hierarchy. Together, a family culture of seething, toxic silence until buried anger finally erupted in a destructive volcano of words and broken items.
The three of us would huddle together in a room upstairs, waiting for the storm to pass.
Looking back now, perhaps we didn’t argue because the only model we had for arguing was either silence or scorched earth. Perhaps we didn’t argue because there was no way to disagree civilly in our household. Perhaps arguing just wasn’t allowed — and so we didn’t.
Arguing would’ve also required us to have publicly stated our differences — and we either didn’t have differences (unlikely) or we didn’t have a safe space to share them (more likely).
As adults, we each have shared how lonely our childhoods were — despite the sisterhood — and I wonder if that’s because the differences and gradations that make us who we are, our very individuality or sense of self, didn’t have space or permission to exist. Perhaps we felt lonely because our truest selves were hidden, suppressed for safety.
Or maybe, we simply didn’t disagree because to that point, we’d lived roughly the same exact lives. And in the years since our shared childhood, we have lived vastly different lives: different coasts, different industries and careers, different husbands — or no husband.
In the two decades since we’ve lived together, we’ve gone on our own distinct journeys to claim our own voice and identity — theirs found through the crucible of motherhood & ministry; mine forged through the grind of startup and corporate America. In some ways, the conflict we’ve had this year is the natural outgrowth of our separate journeys, not unlike a gardener transplanting seedlings into different pots — we have each flourished in our own worlds.
Yet this year taught us that we are still babies in our ability to be ourselves in the intimate, complex, interdependent dynamics of our nuclear family of origin. I wish we’d learned then to disagree — and accept our differences — when we were 11, 14 and 18, when the stakes were lower and the issues simpler. I wish we could offer each other the gracious acceptance we extend to strangers everyday.
It’s around this point that my non-collectivist friends metaphorically pull their hair in frustration: “You are 36. Why does it matter what your sisters think of you? Why do you care? Why do they care what you think? Why do you need to agree on anything at all?”
This is the tension of being Asian and American. Being Asian means that the collective matters. While we might chafe at the circumscribed rules and expectations of what is acceptable, there is safety, shared resources, and unquestioning acceptance when you are part of the collective. But being American means that you have the freedom to prioritize the individual over the group — from little things, like ordering the appetizer you want at dinner even if no one else does, to the big things, like dissenting on what actions our government should or shouldn’t take.
Wanting harmony is as much a part of me as the color of my eyes. Separating oneself from the motherland (or family of origin) is the story of America (and immigration), writ large.
When my sisters and I do get together, there is this sense of completeness. (I nearly started this essay, “Like the Trinity, there are three of us.”) The deep irony is that, despite our seemingly vast differences when we’re disagreeing, we still, from the outside, very much look the same — especially as I sit here in London, which is post-religious and incredibly ethnically diverse.
We are all of Asian descent. We are all American — in both passport and mentality. While we disagree on technicalities, we share the same monotheistic worldview. We are all ENFs on the Myer-Briggs personality inventory. We love people. We are fiercely protective of those we love. We love stories. We love art. We love singing. We love roses and peonies. We love each other.
It is sometimes physically painful to be on a different page from my sisters; the emotional gulf is worse than the continent and ocean that separates us.
But this truth remains: Even as we lean into our individuality and wrestle with our differences, we still have much more in common than what separates us.
Postscript: Despite the tumultuous year, we are rebuilding our relationships, practicing active listening, paraphrasing and other conflict resolution skills. Despite our differences, we are intentionally making space and time for each other, while also accepting that we do and may always disagree on certain topics. We’ve learned to avoid them, like picking around green beans as kids. Or at least, to handle them gingerly until we have enough relational capital in the bank to venture back out into the disputed areas. It is not easy. It takes work.
This is Part 3 in a 4 part series, titled “Dis.Continuity | On Being Asian and American”, a series of personal reflections about the contradictions, tension, and inter-generational conflict from being bicultural. Each Sunday in May 2021, I’m posting a long form article, reflecting on my own grapplings with one of the classic Asian values, through the lens of my family relationships. And every Thursday at 5 PM EST in May 2021, I’ll jump on Clubhouse (@tteng) for “Tea Time with Tiffany” — mostly to hear your reflections and hold space for this conversation.
You can read the series opener here: “Dis.Continuity | On Being Asian and American”, part 1 here: “Dis.Honor | A Love Letter to my Mother”, and part 2 here: “Dis.Obedience | Learning to set my own course — and have grace for my parents”
I hope you’ll follow along on Medium and join me.