by Nick Chen
An essay about breaking down personal barriers
Crying is as much of a part of human identity as the construction of civilizations, complex societies, and the atrocity known as the Hamdog. It's cathartic, a release of the pent-up baggage we take on while living. Everybody does it. If someone tells you they don't cry, they're lying or possibly a robot, in which case you should look into that; maybe check if they have a power button. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actual Terminator, lets tears flow. However, society creates expectations for men, saying they aren't allowed to cry, they aren't allowed to express themselves in the most primal way.
Growing up, I subscribed to that mentality. A man crying was not a man at all; he was, to quote Kobe Bryant, "soft like Charmin." Throughout my childhood, images of the "man's man", Batman, Bruce Lee, and other stoic figures, unaffected by such petty and "womanly" things like emotions, surrounded me. The mindset persisted as I grew, never expressing the feelings within. My inner self was Quasimodo hiding in the clock tower of Notre Dame, an ugly side that nobody wanted to see, let alone think of.
The feelings built up, with no way for release. This was unhealthy, to say the least. The bottled-up feelings inside me would erupt like Mount St. Helens, leaving a burning wake in some of my relationships. I lashed out against those that never in my wildest dreams would have snapped at. I said hurtful things, things that if I could, I'd take back in a heartbeat. Despite all the suffering that was dealt to the innocents, I still held those feelings in a desperate attempt to prove I wasn't weak, that I was a man.
For years I dealt with this issue, trying to maintain the fade of faux masculinity. It was not until around two years ago that this began to break. My grandfather, in his old age, began deteriorating rapidly, in physical and mental health. He struggled with being coherent, mostly babbling on about how different China or Vietnam had become, even though he hadn't been back since the late 1980s. During the winter, he suffered complications from pneumonia and COPD, landing him into the hospital across from my home. Months flew by, as every single family member flocked to his room, knowing that this might be, and eventually was, the last time we would see him.
I woke at daybreak one February morning, the type of morning where you exhale dragon's breath. My cousin, a nursing student at the time, made plans for me and my grandmother to attend an awards ceremony for her, with the intention of keeping my grandmother's mind off her lifetime spouse. The house smelled of smoke and sandalwood, from the massive amount of joss sticks burning in prayer for my grandfather's recovery. She drove us the thirty minutes east to Azusa, the radio playing the same two Imagine Dragon songs. The ceremony was monotonous, listening to a bunch of talking heads ramble on about their time in Africa. We finally got home, and my cousin dropped the bomb. My grandfather had died.
I took that initial information to stride, reacting as I normally did. The news was sad, and I would miss him dearly, but I was too caught up in being a big strong man to possibly show any emotion. Showing weakness would mean the end of my credibility, disappointing everybody that fell for that illusion.
The funeral came a month later. The entire family arrived at the cemetery, cars packed like cornucopias with offerings to my grandfather, in the hopes that he would have something to bring on his trip to the afterlife. All around the chapel was an inky sea of black, speckled with the saffron robes of the monks who came to ordain the funeral. Front and center lay my grandfather, in an intricate mahogany casket, in gold traditional clothing. He looked at peace, like he was just sleeping, capable of waking at any time. The moment felt surreal, like a fever dream that I could not wake up from. The funeral coordinators then signaled for the wake to begin, and members of my family queued up to see the old patriarch one final time.
As I edged slowly to view his body, it took every modicum of willpower to stop the tears from pouring out. Yet again, the fade was maintained. But when the other attendees of the funeral began giving condolences to the family members, one little thing broke me.
"Your grandfather always said he loved you."
In that moment, I burst into tears. Years and years of damming myself up wore the walls thin, and a deluge rushed out. Streams of tears flowed ceaselessly, and my body racked heaving heavy sobs. I had finally let my facade go.
The tears didn't cease until we got to the restaurant for the post-funeral banquet. We were surrounded by my grandpa's favorites dishes. Nobody talked, still mulling over what had just happened. I sat there, cheeks damp, and eyes sore from the first heavy usage in about twelve years. It was a watershed moment for me. At last, there came a realization that self-expression was fine, showing how I felt did not mean I was weak. It just meant I'm human. The clarity this gave to my conscience could not be understated.
I grew a sentimental backbone that day. Nowadays, I find it hard to not cry. I tear up a little bit every time I walk into an Asian market, simply because it brings back memories of home, which in all honesty, isn't even that far from here. I cry looking at videos of dogs, because they remind me of my pooch back home. I even cried watching Coco, a children's movie of all things, in the theater.
The human condition needs a form of catharsis, an avenue for emotion. Without that, operating as a normal person comes with difficulty. The notion that men can't express their emotions freely, that showing weakness means inherently being less of a real man, brings up an interesting point. But that should not be and in reality, is not the case. Men shouldn't have to hide their humanity, stifle their being just to be a better person. It's okay to let the facade go.