Dispatches from the Moth · Posted On: May 05, 2020

The MOTHerview with Storyteller Carmen Rita Wong

by Suzanne Rust

Carmen Rita Wong

“It’s scary as a kid to realize that your parents keep secrets, big ones.”

What did it feel like to finally share this story on The Moth stage?

It felt like an incredible honor and responsibility. It also felt like the best challenge—the challenge to simply be me and tell a very personal and at times painful story. I loved it. I’ll even say that I needed it. 

You said that, as a brown girl growing up in New Hampshire, you often felt like an alien. Sometimes there are gifts that come from being treated differently. How did being an "outsider" shape you? 

The true “alien” gift was being a part of many cultures and races, even though not fully belonging to one. But in New Hampshire, I learned how to survive and advance in a majority white culture that did not value me. It gave me a tremendous professional edge to be able to code switch. However, contorting myself, even losing myself at times, in order to fit in to get ahead, was a high price to pay. I’m glad I don’t pay it anymore. Though I still do great impressions. 

I wanted to ask you more about that encounter at school when Sister Rachel said that your math smarts must have come from your Chinese side.  When you talked to your mother about it afterwards and noticed the smirk on her face, you knew something was up. Was that the first time you were aware that your mother might have had some secrets?

I knew she was hiding something with that smile but, it’s scary as a kid to realize that your parents keep secrets--big ones. Secrets can feel like betrayals. Keep in mind that this was a generation of parents whom you did not question. You’d get shut down with a look. But I was savvy enough to know that every time my mother met a question about her life or family with silence, I took it as a clue that I was on to something. It’s why I used to sneak into my parents’ bedroom when they were out and dig into the box of photos my mother kept in the back of her closet. Sometimes I’d get lucky enough to discover new faces and feel just a bit closer to knowing who my mother really was.

You credit your stock market-savvy to Charlie and your street hustle to Papi Wong. What did you get from Lupe? 

Fortitude. Goddamn fortitude. At my core, I’m a rock. I’m far from level, but if I get knocked down, I always swing back up. Always. And usually better off than before. She made sure that I knew I came from a long line of women fighters and survivors and that my legacy as the first girl to be raised in this country was to lay claim to its possibilities and grab them by the nuts, (She literally would pantomime: “Grab dem by dee nuts!”), in spite of my color and gender. It was not an easy way to be raised but I’m happy that I can now take the fortitude and hunger she gave me and use it for art and justice, not only opportunity. 

Who are your favorite storytellers and why?

Oh, I could never choose a favorite Moth storyteller or even rank them! Each stands alone in such a special way and feels like a friend. But storytelling is everywhere. I’ve found reading difficult during this crisis, so I’ve been leaning more towards visual storytelling that expands the idea of who gets to tell stories, like the Moth does. Paola Ramos of ViceNews is doing incredible investigative journalism. Firelei Baez is a fellow Dominican-American artist who fills your eyes with the real and surreal of Caribbean history. And Jeremy O.Harris the writer and creator of “Slave Play” on Broadway posts a mind-bending daily “Coronovirus Mixtape” on his social media. So exciting to see and hear storytellers like these now. 

What was your proudest moment?

I’m glad you asked for moments not accomplishments. I am deeply proud of all I’ve accomplished, and it has all been extremely hard won. But as I’ve gotten older it’s the most personal moments that I’m truly proud of. Moments when I’ve been loyal to my self-respect, when I remain value-driven, when I’ve stood up for others and promoted equity (much of the nonprofit work I do), when I’ve reached ah-ha moments that move me forward personally. Finding inspiration in the life of my late older brother and dearest friend, and every day that I feel my child’s deep love. 

If you could talk to your biological father, what would you ask him?

This is a tough one. First, I hope he’s alive and willing to answer questions. I’d want to know about his time with my mother, no matter how brief. What does he remember about her? I’d want to know what brought him to New York City from his country of origin (which I now know is actually Cuba). Who the rest of his family is (my family, I guess?). And, really, does he want to know me? That may be a hard answer to hear but I’m being realistic. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to buy a DNA kit? 

Er, be ready? I doubt most people using genetic testing are going to find giant secrets like mine but, I’m sure, with the history of this nation, folks will find secrets regarding race or ethnic origins that may be surprising to them. Just, be ready. And, use it as a tool to connect with the story of your family and the world. 

Please finish this sentence: storytelling is important because… 

It’s uniquely human. It weaves us together as human beings. And yes, it can be a tool of power. True power. That’s why it’s more important than ever to hear more stories from more kinds of people, especially those who have been and are usually silenced.

Finally, Lupe asked you, and so will I, "Carmen, are you an A or B?" 

I transcend grades. Everyone should.

To keep up with Carmen, follow her on Instagram @carmenritawong or her website (www.carmenritawong.com) where you can also find links to her podcast and more.

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by Carmen Rita Wong

Carmen Rita Wong uncovers the complicated layers of her family's past.

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