I am an expert on writing angry letters.
I suppose I’ve always had the skill, but I began seriously honing it while teaching English to college students in Tianjin, China, a recent college graduate myself. I’d never been so stressed out, what with the language I didn’t speak flooding my ears, the constant cultural mishaps, the never-ending search for American cheese. One day I found myself at wit’s end, plunging yet again my campus apartment’s toilet which never fully flushed — and no, Mr. Maintenance Man, I was not throwing toilet paper in it.
I sat down at the computer and transferred my rage to the screen. I had an extensive list of woes — the rudeness of campus security, the inefficiency of the school library, the incommodity of our furnishings. These were issues entirely explicable by culture, but I was perhaps blinded by a touch of culture shock. Besides, it was therapeutic writing them all down. I reveled in the rush of power, knowing I resided in a country where it is taboo to complain. College students don’t even choose their own majors because the government does it for them.
The letter was never intended to be sent, but I guess that power went to my head. I printed the document and handed it politely to our school’s foreign affairs liaison, knowing he would take great pains to translate it word-for-word for his superiors. The next day four Chinese university officials knocked on my door. They sat uncomfortably in my living room chairs (which were uncomfortable anyway), and listened as I stood and proudly spoke my English, a translator on my right. With bowed-head apologies, they promised the arrival of a new toilet that very day.
I was floored. Who knew justice could be so swift — and intoxicating?
My career of angry letter-writing had begun. When a perilous shuttle bus ride on my journey back to the States nearly cost me my flight, I typed an angry letter and won all my money back. When a furniture store nicked up my headboard, an angry letter prompted an apology, as well as a peace offering of $150 in gift cards.
My pen had become my sword; it meted out my justice on a regular basis. I kept it strapped conveniently to my side … for defense purposes only, of course.
Perhaps word of my no-nonsense stance against tyrants had leaked out, because one day a sobbing woman approached me and poured out her own troubles. Mariko was my Japanese neighbor, the wife of a seminary student and mother of two toddlers.
She also had a toilet problem.
Through tears and broken English, Mariko painted for me a picture of the war zone her apartment had become. A foul odor hung in the air. The children were obsessively bathed throughout the day, especially the crawling one. And she and her husband, already feeling alone and secluded from other students due to the culture barrier, were also at each others’ throats. Why? Unbeknownst to the other tenants, the septic system in our complex was severely damaged and leaked raw sewage into Mariko’s family’s quarters several times a day. The previous tenants, an American couple, had moved out because of this very problem, but apparently the school found the apartment fit for a family from Japan.
Mariko had written her own letters, but no one was reading them. Foreign affairs didn’t speak Japanese. She’d called maintenance personnel, who came out and admonished her for throwing food in the toilet. Mariko claimed not to even flush toilet paper. She’d asked to be moved to another apartment, but the school claimed none were currently available, knowing full well that a foreign student couldn’t legally rent from a private landlord. And so their family was stuck in a stinky flat, in a country they’d begun to hate, with rules they didn’t understand.
I sat down at the computer and transferred my — no, Mariko’s — rage. I channeled her broken spirit as best I could. I printed the letter and handed it to foreign affairs, and the next day four school officials knocked on her door. They sat awkwardly in her living room listening to Mariko and her husband weep and tell their stories. Then, with tears in their own eyes, these four individuals sincerely apologized for their negligence and offered Mariko’s family a new apartment. One with a functioning commode.
This time the rush of power to which I’d become accustomed came with a prickling sensation … conviction. I opened my Bible.
There is a Proverbs 31 woman who is not quoted nearly so often as her end-of-the-chapter counterpart, perhaps because she is not so pleasantly quiet and, let’s face it, annoyingly submissive. She is King Lemuel’s mother, whom I like to picture with a hand on her hip and a finger wagging. Knowing full well the extent of her son’s power and the authority of his position, she commands him in the early verses of the chapter to spend his strength and vigor not on his own petty troubles, but on the needs of the oppressed, the perishing, and the impoverished. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice” (NLT). In her best mom-voice she preached to me, “Get over yourself, sweetheart! You don’t know real injustice until you’ve looked a sobbing woman in the eye and wept for her.”
And I did weep.
Needless to say, the incident of Mariko’s toilet has changed my career. I still write angry letters; it’s the subject matter that’s different. When my city threatened to close six libraries in poor neighborhoods, I wrote an angry letter, prompting a host of read-ins and marches and rallies. The libraries were spared. When the local Medicaid office — which provides health insurance for the majority of my city’s children — began ignoring phone calls in favor of longer smoke breaks, I typed up TWO letters. Finally someone answered the phone. And now, when I learn that my beloved state of Indiana is seriously considering blatantly racist legislature that will ensure the torment of thousands of immigrant families, I cannot help it. I find my fingers furiously tapping at the keyboard…
Originally published in the July 2011 issue of E-pistle.