Wednesday, May 15, 2019


I thought about him on the subway. The things he liked--that bright yellow book he left on our kitchen table, Watchmen, that I read and half-understood. Running, his face contorted with effort and hair blown back by the wind. The Beach Boys. Adrianna and I both expressed horror at that one, but eventually the notes of "Good Vibrations" came seeping out from under her bedroom door.

Before we left Redmond for good he invited us to hang out, joining a bunch of other teenagers made shiftless by those summer nights to sit on camp chairs around a fire in the woods. How she perched on his lap and looked so happy in the flickering light, and after, when we were stowing liquor bottles back in the trunk of his car, I made a motion as if to swig from one. My sister shook her head disdainfully. He tossed me an egging-on grin. Said something like, Let her have a drink. 

At the end of high school I was just his girlfriend's kid sister. Now I am older than he was then.

As grown-ups we revisit places from childhood that seemed enormous and feel discomfited by their real scale. What happens when the place is gone? Then it's just stuck, towering in your head, not quite right. In my head he is old and I am small, but really I'm swaying on the subway coming home from work, sort of an adult, bills to pay and my name on a lease, almost 2 years older than he was when he died, this unfixable discrepancy that will never quite stop twisting my heart around, in the remembering.

Thursday, May 09, 2019


The news of the "heartbeat" abortion bill in Georgia filled me with a peculiar sense of rage. Peculiar because it felt more like sadness. Sometimes it's easier to shiver in the cold than keep a fire going. I don't know if there's a point to writing another abortion essay. Others have done it more skillfully and with more personal stories, yet here I am, remembering something a high school teacher said once, that "some issues, like abortion, are so personal and contentious you'll never change anybody's mind."

If you're reading this, you probably agree with me. I'm writing anyway because to demand an ear for my feelings as an adult woman feels like a small way to resist the notion that these feelings are trivial, secondary to serious, manly, discuss-over-steak-and-cigars-type issues, like The Economy.

Fuck the economy. I know people's fates rise and fall on those green lines shooting across CNBC screens like EKGs, but but there will always be another day for writing a hot take on finance capital. Focusing solely on economic issues at the cost of reproductive justice is a smoke and mirrors show that distracts from the denial of bodily autonomy as a threat to our equality. That's why it bothers me so much when progressive men dismiss abortion as a "women's issue," or say the problem with the Democratic Party is that we've failed to widen our tent by sticking to our guns on reproductive justice.

Next time someone says that I will ask, Do you think I'm a person? 

I'm one of the lucky ones. I haven't ever needed an abortion, and I've had access to inexpensive contraception. In college I got a small piece of plastic shoved into my uterus in an outpatient procedure widely described as "blindingly painful." They told me to take two ibuprofen pills. I lay back stiffly on crinkled paper, gripped my partner's hand, stared at the white light above my head, and took jagged breaths. It was searing for three seconds, my whole body transfixed with the wrongness of having something pushed in that place, and then it was done. The nurse practitioner left me with a maxi-pad and a juicebox. The second time, I was about to graduate and keen, after Trump's election, to get an IUD that would last 5 years. Bracing for it made it hurt less; later I nursed a crust of bread while curled up on the carpet groaning, and then I played a bad game of squash. It didn't matter; I felt victorious. The IUD has a 99% effectiveness rate. It is the gold standard of contraception. It could have hurt worse and I would have done it again. This was worth it to avoid pregnancy.

I asked for an IUD because of the effectiveness rate, but also because I wanted this physical investiture of my reproductive self-determination somewhere nobody could touch it. It provides me some comfort when I think about rape. I think about rape every day. That sounds terrible but feels ordinary. There were all those crime report printouts in my freshman year dorm lobby: "Sexual Assault at Fraternity," "Sexual Assault at Dormitory," "Groping At Student Union." The specter of latent violence has perched on my shoulder since I was three, when my mother taught me both my address if I got lost and to scream if someone tried to kidnap me. Later: "Let them rape you if they'll kill you otherwise, because the only thing you can't undo is death." There is no undoing rape, either, but our society is very good at letting silence masquerade as reversal. Better to be raped and alive than un-raped and dead. Women have thrown themselves into wells en masse over a different equation being drummed into their heads. It's about to be Mother's Day; should I tell my mom that this is the advice she's given me for which I am most grateful?

The hypothetical rapes play in my head, briefly and matter-of-factly, like natural disaster drills. Just as I don't vividly imagine the earthquake or the fire, only the before and the after, I mostly think about who to call after getting to the hospital and medical care (e.g., a rape kit that will probably go untested, prophylaxis against HIV). I wonder if it would be someone I know (3 out of 4 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim), and if so, if I would report. I worry much, much less about pregnancy, because of the IUD.

In this sense, I am lucky: I get to think about rape separate from pregnancy. It may be the closest I will ever get to feeling like a man. I wonder what it must be like to have your identity forged outside of constant reminders of your own violability. To walk down a dark street and think, maybe, about someone mugging you but not someone hurting you inside of yourself. I think of both things when a car drives too slowly beside me on the street. There's not much I can say about that except that it makes me feel small.

I was 15 when I started having sex. Too young to buy Plan B when a condom broke: where I lived, you needed a prescription if you were under 17. It would have been an awkward conversation with liberal parents (even then, I would have been luckier than most) and a last-minute doctor's appointment, but my then-partner was old enough. What a classic high school scene: a dark bend in a rural road, a backseat cacophony of "Wait, shit, shit, shit," driving in silence to a pharmacy and waiting in the passenger seat. Hands folded in my lap, I watched him out the window, Nikes tap-tapping on the asphalt of the parking lot until he was a drop of ink between automatic doors that slid open and let light pour out like water. When he came back I took the pill, and then I thanked him for not charging me.

So much could have gone wrong. I could have been with someone abusive; women are less likely to use contraception in violent relationships (Pacific Standard), often because their partners see reproductive health as an arena to exert control. I could have had parents who stigmatized sexuality, threatened punishment, and blocked my access to healthcare. I could have thrown up after taking the pills, too soon for them to take effect. Instead, I got a period that lasted two weeks. I went to the farmer's market and wrestling practice and stared down my AP Psych teacher's inspirational poster of Steve Prefontaine in a last-ditch effort to try not to fall asleep in class. Every one of those mundane moments a gift.

That's what choice is about: having the reins of your life in your hands. But I didn't. I was just lucky. And luck is not good enough when we live in a country where it's unevenly distributed. Not everyone has the means to fly to another state for an abortion (and if that's prosecuted, even rich folks are screwed). We talk about rape when we talk about abortion, comforting ourselves with the idea that maybe the restrictions are not so horrible: "Exceptions in case of rape or incest." But we know even that line is a movable one. Remember Missouri's Todd Akin: "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." With the intense stigma surrounding coming forward about sexual assault, plus behavior by police that can further victimize survivors, many people may not have their assaults documented as "legitimate." Subsequently, they'd be denied access to abortions.

We cannot pass laws that make every person with a uterus as helpless as that 15-year-old girl I once was, waiting at the window for him to come running with a pill.

It's not an accident that I'm thinking back to 15 now in such clarity. Restrictions on reproductive choice anywhere make me feel small. To the politicians who seek to control us: know that I am already scared enough. Know that living under the cloud of the constant possibility of sexual violence is like having a low-grade fever you can never cure. We give up so much, trying to wend routes around this shifting threat we can't contain: staying in at night, developing elaborate sets of precautions, leaning on safety in numbers at the cost of time spent blissfully alone.

Forced pregnancy is yet another violation of bodily autonomy that sows terror and limits our lives.

If you would protest in the streets about state-sponsored violence in the form of bullets, protest state-sponsored violence that seizes a person's womb and locks their hands behind their back. Across the United States, there are legislative proposals to effectively ban abortions. It's on all of us to fight for a day when this is the "land of the free and the home of the brave" for people with uteruses, too, liberated from the shadow of fear that our bodies are not our own.



Guttmacher Institute
Planned Parenthood
More listed on Wikipedia: "Pro-choice organizations in the United States"
If you're at Berkeley: Students United for Reproductive Justice

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

French Polynesia and some thoughts on travel

I capped off 2018 with a spontaneous solo trip to French Polynesia (which you may know as "Tahiti" or "the islands of Tahiti," though Tahiti is the name of one of many islands that make up the country). It's a land I first encountered in the pages of my high school AP Art History textbook and the paintings of French artist (and all-around sordid dude) Paul Gauguin.

Tahitian women on beach, 1891 - Paul Gauguin

Many friends know that I have a complicated relationship with traveling. I did a lot of it, especially as a kid, for speaking engagements at conferences. Airplanes to sleepless nights before speeches, spent in gleaming hotels. I used to love the hotels and remember the name of each one until there were too many and then I didn't anymore. They started to blend together: the same smell (Eau d'Generic Clean Room), the same sounds. Sometimes there'd be a woman's voice when I walked in the room. I'd realize it was the hotel channel on the TV. Have a pleasant stay, on an endless loop. I'd write my speech last-minute, fly out the next day, and try to get what I could out of the city I was in from the ride to the airport. A backseat window view of the world: that was how I saw Newport News, Green Bay, Wichita, Grand Rapids, Indianapolis, and some other places I'd have to search in my Google Calendar to recall.

Given all that, maybe it didn't make sense that I decided I would go somewhere by myself for fun--I clearly didn't have the best track record. But travel is cast as introspection and self-discovery and liberation in so many narratives. Wild; Eat, Pray, Love; every Instagram post in a foreign destination by some well-traveled friend. Meanwhile, I religiously maintained a moratorium on going out of town during major holidays. Spending time at home seemed like peak relaxation. Seeing all these people who really liked to travel made me wonder if some mechanism in me was broken.

I reflected on this in fiction and poetry. In 2016, shortly after I got back from spending two months in India doing an internship in corporate social responsibility, I wrote a monologue for a "Creating Character Through Dialogue" workshop. It was from the point of view of a young Asian-American woman complaining about a travel companion named Elli. After a stream of invective, she says,
"OK, I know you think I’m overreacting, but there’s this part of me that just cringes every time she acts like THAT American. You know the type, right? Drinks PSLs, cheer in high school, hundreds of dollars in Lululemon apparel. They make up for their lack of personality with copious drugs and trips to poor-ass countries where they can take pictures of everything and rack up the social media likes while they marvel at how exotic and mystical everything is. Frankly, I can’t do that. I’ve read my Edward Said and the canon of thinkpieces about How to Not be a Basic Bitch in the Third World. But mostly I can’t be Elli because she actually…well, she actually likes to travel. She finds something genuinely magical—no matter how problematic the language she uses to describe it—about everywhere she goes. And like, I dunno, I kind of wish I had that. I don’t think I ever have. Growing up I joked about going to visit relatives in China the same way all our other Asian friends did. Going was not a treat. It was the sort of thing you were condemned to do until you went to college and got to decide where you went during your summers. We didn't get "exotic" and "mystical"; we got pollution, no Facebook or Wikipedia, taxi drivers filling their cars with cigarette smoke, endless diarrhea. Relatives complaining about corruption, how they’d have to pay bribes to get a doctor to do some uncle’s open-heart surgery."
No place is experienced in the same way by every person who visits. The subject position of the traveler--age, gender, class, race, nationality, linguistic ability, disability, sexual orientation, and much more--may all affect the experience, something I thought a great deal about in one of my favorite seminars in college. In "Travels to the Lands of the Indians," we read writing by visitors to South Asia (as well as Indians traveling abroad, as in the case of Amitav Ghosh's In An Antique Land). I remember European writers who marveled at flora and fauna and foreign peoples, writing with a sense of magisterial authority about things they had only just encountered. Those early Orientalists, trying to document, categorize, and catalogue everything they saw, put knowledge production in the service of empire.

The narratives that European armchair adventurers eagerly sought out had in common protagonists who were paragons of normative masculinity—strong, adventurous, and bulwarks of Empire. Men who could, in the Kipling vein, keep their heads, “meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same.” These men gallivanted around the subcontinent getting into scrapes and emerging unharmed. It's harder to sell books where narrators speak from a place of permanent vulnerability, easier to promote male heroics and a promontory gaze that makes the narrator “the monarch-of-all-I-survey” (Mary Pratt in Imperial Eyes). Pratt goes on to write that many female travelers “do not spend a lot of time on promontories. Nor are they entitled to. The masculine heroic discourse of discovery is not readily available to women." Mrs. Meer Hassan Ali, writing about her time in India, begins her first letter with a disclaimer: “I must entreat your kind indulgence to the weaknesses of a female pen.”

When I've traveled alone, various people have inadvertently made me aware of "the weaknesses of a female pen." In Atlanta one night I ate at a hotel restaurant with my orange journal in my lap instead of my phone and the waiter said with a half-patronizing, half-pitying expression, glancing at the unused place setting opposite me, "Writing the next great American novel?" In other countries I have heard phrases like "be careful!" and "stay safe" and "don't go out after dark" more than any of my male compatriots, and I am sure that abiding by those well-meaning imperatives means that I am losing out on some stories to tell. The truth is that I don't, and probably never will, gallivant around continents veni, vidi, vici-ing; I am a little woman, no one's stock photo idea of what an American looks like, certainly not a Hemingway or a Gauguin. (Given the former's famous misogyny and the latter's penchant for marrying underage girls, I think that's a good thing; art be damned.)

All the same, traveling by myself helped me realize that I was stronger in ways I didn't know, that I could be really scrappy when I needed to be, and that things would work themselves out. My first day in the country I jumped off the plane and onto a ferry, walked about 15 miles on the island of Mo'orea in my sandals, accepted rides from kindly women who screeched to a halt by the side of the road when they saw me, and accidentally swam with stonefish (the beach had a sign with a warning, but I figured whatever stonefish were, they couldn't be too bad if local families were swimming with their kids. Then Google told me I could die if I stepped on one). Back on Tahiti I accepted a ride on the handlebars of someone's bike and then had to extricate myself from an extremely uncomfortable situation when he persistently hit on me. It was scary and I found myself wondering if this whole going-to-Tahiti-by-myself idea had been a bit stupid, but then I learned how to say "Je veux être seule," or "I want to be alone"; the next morning when he wheeled up beside me, I looked him in the eyes and said it out loud. 

I learned that traveling alone doesn't have to mean traveling lonely. I met two guys at my hostel who grilled up swordfish filets and made salad and lent me a biography (of Paul Gauguin, whose ghost really followed me around this whole trip) to read by the pool as the day grew dark. On my last day in French Polynesia I tagged along with two Nebraskans who let me join them in a rental car adventure around Tahiti Nui and Iti. We blasted Polynesian tunes from the radio of a jank little Fiat and shared taro chips and caramel M&Ms. We took a boat out into the Pacific and watched surfers catch waves, then watched the sunset from a black sand beach. 

Like the blind men with the elephant I piece together impressions of a place in fragments. Here are a few: people blasting music from boomboxes on the street and dancing by food trucks in downtown Pape'ete. A tour guide mentioning as we jounced along in his Jeep that the country had a high unemployment rate. Brightly painted murals on buildings in the capital, the gleaming windows of the National Assembly, pineapples looking prim and fully-formed sitting on their plants. My favorite image: seeing land crabs scuttling into their holes, the way moles do here. The sand coming alive with claws that disappeared in an instant, quick as a wink. These dueling twins of ripeness and rot--mangoes sunset orange and soft to the touch, little crabs' translucent shells smashed by the side of the road, verdancy spilling out over mountaintops, piers rusting into the ocean. 

As I was leaving Tahiti, I saw an exhibit of Polynesian art in the airport. I stopped to look. Under all but one of the approximately seven figurines displayed were notes like "Original at the British Museum" or "Original at Museé d'Orsay" or "Original in Wellington, NZ." It made me recall how I first saw French Polynesia through the paintings of Paul Gauguin, and how so often the first--sometimes only--view that we get of a far-flung place and its people is refracted through a colonial prism. Travel and travel literature by Westerners have often done little to challenge those views. I hope to get better at it--undoubtedly, a work in progress. I'm grateful that I had the means to visit Tahiti and Mo'orea, meet incredibly kind people, eat tropical fruits and bask in the shallow waters of the Pacific in the middle of winter. Most of all, I'm glad that Gauguin didn't get the last word on what I thought the islands might be like. There are wonders out there, both near and far, that beggar illustration. May we all have chances to get closer to them in this new year.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Teach your kids to be more than just "nice"

My friend J., a scion of that kind of enlightened Berkeley family with beautiful décor in the living room and magic mushrooms in the freezer, told me that his mom had taught him in no uncertain terms not to rape. Oh, like to be careful, I wondered?

Not just that, J. explained. She had literally sat him down and talked about consent. No Means No. I was impressed—California universities moving toward a “yes means yes” affirmative consent standard notwithstanding—because I hadn’t met any other guys who had told me about receiving such a direct, pull-no-punches lesson.

I’ve been thinking about that lesson a lot more now in the wake of the whole horrible Kavanaugh situation and the allegations of serious sexual assault that took place in high school and college. Some have responded by claiming that young men, or drunk men, can’t be held responsible for their actions, even though our society regularly chastises women for drinking too much or acting “provocatively” as if they are to be considered more agentive in the violations of their bodies than their violators.

The Kavanaugh assaults hid in plain sight, in carefree high school and college parties largely thrown by and for the benefit of privileged white boys. We’ve seen the yearbooks, the smiling faces, the prestigious names of their expensive prep schools. If we’ve learned anything from this cesspool of elites, it’s that becoming an ethical person is not as easy as looking like one. Your good name is not enough. Your good school is not enough. Your scouting badges and your volunteering and your church on Sunday—if all this “goodness” is just smoke and mirrors, a show to distract from entitlement and rapacity and avarice, fuck your goodness. Stop telling your kids to just "be nice" if that quality is so vague and general it elides the very real differences in power that affect all relationships.

Here’s what I mean: one generic piece of advice we frequently tell kids is “Be a good friend.” What if they’re the guy (or girl) in the room when their friend jumps on another person and tries to claw their clothes off? Loyalty might dictate silence: that was certainly Mark Judge’s take. “Bros before hos.”

Eschew the simple story. Teach your children that there are values more important than loyalty to friends and its attendant code of silence: compassion for the vulnerable, rejection of physical force to compel the submission of others. Tell them, early, that sometimes your friends will do things that are wrong. Sometimes it will fall on your shoulders to call them out (or call them in), sometimes to intervene and stop it. This is a harder conversation to have. But it’s a necessary one.

This conversation, or ones like J.'s "Don't rape" talk, are all too rare right now. When we talk with and about children, I think we want to imagine that they're in this realm of innocence immune to our grown-up problems of racism and classism and sexism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kids can say horrible, bigoted things to each other, and imposing silence in the name of innocence just makes it harder for children to come forward and confide in parents about their experiences. What would it mean if parents looked at their children differently: not just as potential victims but as potential aggressors? 

There are so many different meanings of “the Talk,” depending on which parents you ask. For some, this hardest conversation of all is explaining the mechanics of sex. “Where do babies come from?” For others, it’s a dispiriting conversation with children of color, particularly black children, about how to interact with police. In all its stripes, we are used to seeing “the Talk” as a conversation we have with the ones we love to keep them safe. It’s time to see it as something more: the conversation we have to make sure they keep others safe, too.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Friendship now

Omnibus; Anders Zorn 1892

The other night coming home on BART I reflected that I did not want to write, or read, or do much of anything really. I imagined the tantalizing possibility of unintellectual pursuits. Maybe I could watch something on Netflix. Netflix! It had been ages. I had a running list in the Notes app of things to watch when I had time. It had never been true that I didn’t have the time, just that other things had seemed more important.

Now, facing down this gaping expanse of time that belonged to me and not my ambitions, I realized that I wanted to spend it with someone else. Two friends who I might have asked automatically lived across the Bay now. Others had partners who they’d be curled up with; mine would, in two hours, be asleep. There were friends still in school, but I remembered how my weeknights had been not so long ago: frantically finishing assignments, collapsing into bed.

Who, if I reached out to them, wouldn’t see it as an imposition? Who did it feel effortless to spend time with, like our time together demanded no performance?

It was the kind of space that in the weeks of late June, with so many school friends gone, I might have filled with N—. Tempted curiosity turned force of habit. A 9pm muscle memory. Opening Facebook Messenger on my phone and sending something insouciant, the kind of language you use when you’re aspiring to an attitude like Melania Trump’s Zara coat: “I don’t really care, do u?” The therapist listened patiently when I mentioned hanging out frequently with N— and then remarked that it sounded like I needed to push myself to reach out more, or get better at being alone. In the moment I felt a twinge of resentment at this advice, but then time passed. N— became more familiar and less shiny. If once I’d wanted to see them because it had been uncomfortable in a thrilling way, now I wanted to see them because I felt lazy and un-daring. Because I wanted to ask somebody to do nothing in particular with me, and this smallest of requests seemed most intimate of all.

When you're little, you can run across the street to knock on someone's house and demand they play with you. Suddenly puberty happens. The ask becomes "Do you want to hang?" The ask becomes nerve-wracking. 

It was only when I was sixteen, on the cusp of leaving my hometown permanently, that I was daring enough to ask people I didn’t know well to spend time with me for the sake of it—no pretense, like a meal, a concert, or a movie. In the face of impending departure, I thought every night spent alone was a missed opportunity. One night I thumbed through contacts in my phone. I saw the name of a classmate I’d nursed a minor crush on for months. M— liked Camus and came tardy to our first-period class so many times he’d racked up enough absences for administration to warn him he might not graduate. I’d always wanted to talk to him more. Impulsively, I called him. 

After a couple rings, he picked up. “Hey?” A question.

“Do you wanna go on a walk?” I blurted.

M— sounded surprised. He said yes and then messaged an hour later saying that something had come up, could I take a rain check? I haven’t seen him in five years, but I like the memory. Later I called a different boy, who came and sat with me on the roof of my house as the stars came out. Calling people to hang out with no prior planning—it feels quaint, like it belongs to another time. Something out of an 80s high school movie where a girl with crimped hair in a high ponytail reaches for the pink telephone on her bedside table. 

Moments that come to pass with no preparation: these are the ones I remember most fondly, more than the meticulously planned trips or the group hang organized by some long-suffering friend who has to coordinate everyone's schedule with Doodle. Maybe my gratitude for spontaneity reveals its rarity. I'll cop to being clumsy at some of the mechanics of friendship, the kinds of little things that other people I know both intuit and take for granted. At a concert, listening to a folk singer, the friend I went with asked if she could hold my hand--a sort of novelty to me, but maybe not to her. We interlaced our fingers. When the song ended and we clapped, I realized that I missed the warmth of her palm, that the simple touch had been a balm to something I hadn't realized before was raw. There was a friend who delightedly threw his arm around me when I was ridiculously using a straw to forklift whipped cream from a Starbucks drink into my mouth, said something outsized for that moment like "I love you." After speech and debate in high school I got a ride sometimes with a friend to his house, and we'd look for something to do--play Halo on his massive TV, eat dosas and sambar his mom made. My mom would call. I'd decline, wanting to extend my stay in this place where time didn't seem to matter. There was the all-night hackathon where my friends and I didn't do much (any) coding but snuck out to a skate park at midnight to play Truth or Dare; later, we walked up to our high school track, sitting on the ice-cold bleachers as the metal shone orange in the rising sun. One New Year’s Day I lounged on a friend’s couch, sunlight dripping in like maple syrup through the living room window. I half-disbelieved that this idleness, this glorious lack of motion, could be allowed. When I think hard many more cherished moments come tumbling forth, most the fruits of spontaneity, not planning--premeditation, I think, would almost stop such things from happening at all.

And there I was on BART, wondering who might want to be my accomplice in killing time and coming up empty. I guess that's part of growing up, this slow contraction of the circle of friends who you spend time with doing nothing. God knows my parents, responsible adults, didn't have people over to our suburban house to just aimlessly watch episodes of Bob's Burgers and lie on the floor in the dark, looking at glow-in-the-dark stars stuck on the ceiling and talking about mortality. If losing these long stretches of unplanned time with friends is the price we pay for adulthood, I have begun to clear my debts. I set dates with friends over Facebook Messenger. We plop appointments two weeks ahead for brunches and coffees and dinners after work into our Google Calendars. Everything is planned because nobody has any time, except, of course, when we do, and in these years those moments still catch us by surprise: standing with strangers on BART, watching the still necks of cranes in the Oakland harbor through blemished glass, drifting back to the wooden embrace of our silent homes.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Time, y'know

A friend tells me the next thing I write should just be called "Time, Y'Know." He says, the entirety of the body will be "duuuude."

It's a well-deserved ribbing: we're messaging about a picture Facebook reminds me we took exactly 4 years ago. Looking at our young faces, our bodies propped up insouciantly on the rail between us and the Hudson River, I can't decide if it feels like it's been longer than 4 years or shorter.

How does one make sense of time?


Senior year of high school: I get into a verdant liberal arts college in the Northeast. I know I won't go, but I like the free pennant they send me and the heft of their brochure, glossy and pregnant with deep black ink. White letters announce that college promises to be the best four years of my life. This frightens me. If this--youth, what Fitzgerald called a "chemical madness"--is supposed to be the pinnacle of life, what remains in the six-some decades left over?

Are we to measure the pace of time in spirits: innocence, debauchery, responsibility, senility?


Or is crisis the natural benchmark of time?

It's 7 minutes until my clothes are dry. At the laundromat, I announce to my boyfriend's brother that I read an article about Quarter-Life Crises. The Quarter-Life Crisis being a phenomenon established enough to merit its own piece in Lifehacker by some underpaid freelancer makes me feel better about my own uncertainties. He is unimpressed by the terminology. Why do people arbitrarily split time up into these neat stages of crisis, he wonders. Quarter-life, mid-life. Aren't there crises happening all the time?

But if there's no happy, stable, crisis-less future to work towards, I cry out, what's the point?

Of course there's no point, he says.


Then there's keeping time with people. The Etruscans, Nathan Heller writes, kept time with a saeculum: spanning "from a given moment until the last people who lived through that moment had died."

Time for small children begins and ends with their own existence. At an age when you think people disappear when they duck behind a couch, it's difficult to conceive of a world without yourself in it.

Mommy says keeping journals is a gift to your future children. In a bile-yellow journal from Big Lots! with thin paper and spiral binding, I start entries with "Dear Dairy."

I don't question why my future children would have this voyeuristic interest in my past self. I know it to be true because I am deeply interested in my parents' childhoods. When my granddad shows me a box filled with sheafs of yellowing papers, old quizzes and tests from my dad's elementary school days, I marvel over them. It's an exotic kind of object permanence, realizing that your parents existed before you. And that you might exist after them.


People choose odd ways and places to try to freeze themselves in time.

Camping on an ugly mountain with a pretty view, I go to a bathroom, sticky and airless, lit by a dusty skylight. I notice "A+N 2016" carved into the toilet paper holder.

What kind of romantic puts their initials in a bathroom? There's something I admire about the cynicism: as if long after the bridges and redwoods and geological formations that other fools in love mark up have broken, burned, and crumbled, this piece of shit-stained black plastic snagged on concrete will announce A+N's undying love to a dying sun.


Maybe my own method to preserve the essence of this moment in time is less well-thought-out than A+N's. I'm not even preserving the essence of one moment, but two: one in a tea shop playing 80s electropop, sitting on a wooden bench that keeps shifting jerkily under the moving haunches of my neighbors, and one in a dry office where the windows are so thick you can't hear the street.

When you're there alone, as I am, the silence creates an environment that I imagine is similar to floating in a sensory deprivation tank, except with light and air instead of darkness and water. Like a transparent womb, floating in the sky.

What do we do with all our time?

Some people keep meticulous 'time journals' to better understand how they actually use all their time. The results frequently reveal they have more time for leisure than they think they do; it's just wasted on tiny chunks of browsing Facebook, usually.

Maybe one of the reasons that time is so strange, that looking back on it feels trippy, is because we actually don't think about it most of the time. It'd be petrifying to, I think--like thinking too hard about chewing or breathing. So a lot of it passes unbeknownst to us.

For me, there are all these spaces where it feels like time is hardly real: on BART, in the shower, my bedroom late at night. In these places time slips through my fingers while I am doing nothing in particular: like standing in a line at Costco staring into space until the Nigerian man behind me says, not unkindly, "Excuse me, are you going to leave your things in the cart?" and then I am suddenly jerked back into the present, putting a creaking plastic clamshell of organic strawberries and two baguettes in a paper bag and a glass bottle of vodka (heavy enough to club a man in the head and kill him) onto the black conveyor belt that whirs, onward, ceaselessly, until it slips under.



Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Young people doing cool things who you should follow

My old shop at TEDxRedmond

Since I was a kid, I've had opportunities to travel around the world and give talks at conferences (sometimes very much in my wheelhouse, like education, youth, and literacy events, and sometimes very much not--shoutout to the lovely folks at the property market MIPIM, or the Association of Energy Services Professionals).

I'd be an asshole if I thought I actually deserved all these opportunities. I don't really believe in merit, and I know no one advances in life on their own; as Barack Obama said more poetically, "you didn't build that." I've been lucky, and I know a lot of peers with more drive and grit than me have not. Given that I believe strongly in equality of opportunity and other fine democratic ideals, I often wonder: how do lucky people live ethically?

Answering that is an ongoing process, but one idea I'm trying to work on is amplifying the voices of other folks who are doing interesting work. In advance of this talk I'm about to give at this year's InstructureCon in Colorado, here's a list of young people doing cool things who you should follow that I'm going to announce during my talk and invite the 2500 attendees to check out! List is certainly incomplete -- reflects biases in my own communities and who I've met personally. (If I know you, you do cool things, and you're not on the list, I think you're awesome but the sleep deprivation and 9000' elevation in Keystone, CO got to me. Will try to update this when it's not midnight MST.)

There are so many other people and I can't write a little blurb for each person but follow them on Twitter, amplify their work on your networks, and invite them to give a talk at your next conference!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

On Aziz Ansari, and Talking to Men

In a recent conversation in the wake of the story about Aziz Ansari I found myself trying to explain to a man that thing that many women do around men. If this were a circus, it could be something sensational and cute: the Magic Shrinking Act, the Play-Doh Woman, the Mansplainer Charmer. But it's not a circus, just daily life.

By way of explaining, here are some stories.

There's T., a guy I know. We were at a social event together once when some other guy provoked him--maybe with some comment about T.'s purported romantic prowess or lack thereof. T. responded by loudly declaring something to the effect of "just wait until I show them my [tech company] pay stub, which is bigger than yours." I made a joke about that, at which his expression darkened. Knowing that he could be quick to anger, I hurriedly said, "Sorry!" Another time, he gave a couple friends and me a ride. He swore at almost every other driver on the road. I laughed nervously and tried to keep the mood light, feeling somehow guilty for the perturbed air between us. I knew he liked classic rock, so I queued up seven songs, just for him, to play on the car speakers. I'm on the highway to hell / Highway to hell...

I'm not myself when I'm around T.

S. is a friend who I've known since I was fifteen. Our conversations alternate between analytical discussions of the article links we send each other and sarcastic banter. He sent me the Aziz Ansari article and the NYTimes response, "Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind-Reader." What did I think, he wondered. He must have seen my ellipsis flicker onto his screen and then off a couple times then. I typed and backspaced and backspaced some more, all those tender-looking machinations of steeling myself. I was trying to prepare the right sort of response. A calm, certain, and measured one. I thought that Ansari had behaved badly, that any instigator of sexual activity needs to consider their partner's interiority. I said this. But there would be the concessions, the disclaimers: what he did was not criminal, and certainly not Weinstein-level.

I was able to type up all the things I thought. Why was it so hard to write what I felt?

Perhaps it was wise not to delve into pathos and personal experience. After all, S. said later, after he said that he agreed with me, that he thought the tone of the story was an issue. I agreed that it could have been improved, but felt hesitant when he remarked it should have been written "professionally" rather than "hysterically."

It was a revealing choice of words, if accidentally so. The word "hysteria" comes from the Greek, hysterikos, "of the womb, suffering in the womb." The word became a catch-all phrase for a variety of female afflictions and irritations thought to be caused by a "wandering womb." The advances of medical science have thankfully disabused us of any notion of a uterus magically traveling around the female body (side note--I'd love to see someone make an animated GIF of that), but we continue to use the word disproportionately to refer to women. Hysterical: the classy way to say "bitches be crazy." I wonder if S. knows this.

Either way, I didn't want to be a crazy bitch, or an angry one. And oh, I am. I am angry at Aziz Ansari for repeatedly sticking his fingers in a woman's mouth (how can you assume she's into that without asking, "Yo, are you into fingers in your mouth?" That's a pretty non-standard part of your sexual repertoire, my dude). I am angry at him for making a move on her after he had suggested "just chilling on the couch." I am angry at him for his utter oblivion, the "I had a great time!" text after she went home crying in an Uber.

I would be angry if it was my sister.

I would be angry if it was my friend.

Wouldn't you?

But if it were me? I don't know if I would know how to be angry. Maybe I would just be numb.

I hooked up once with a frat guy. He muttered that he'd had too much beer and smoked too much weed before I came over, so he was having a hard time getting it up. I wasn't really looking down there, just kind of sitting and waiting. Apparently he sobered up, because he gave me a kind of look and then it was happening. I lay there and crossed my fingers that it wouldn't hurt and felt quietly relieved when it didn't, much. Then I realized he wasn't wearing a condom and felt, suddenly, terrified. Like I'd entered an elevator in freefall. What did that feeling do? Make me slap him, like Caitlin Flanagan nostalgically hearkens back to in her Atlantic article? ("They [1970s magazines] told you to slap him if you had to; they told you to get out of the car and start wailing if you had to. They told you to do whatever it took to stop him from using your body in any way you didn’t want, and under no circumstances to go down without a fight.") I did not. I felt scared and small. I said, very nervously, "Um--are you not wearing a condom?"

"Don't worry, I'm clean," he said.

"Uh--but I'm not on birth control or anything..."

He said he would put one on later.

"Could you please put it on now?" I asked timidly. When it was over I walked very quickly back to the takeout sushi I'd ordered to a friend's dorm and ate it and laughed when one of my floor-mates jokingly called me a slut. Later I took a battery of STI tests.

"And then everything was negative, so it's fine," I told a female friend over pizza. I related the story the same way I told stories about my floormates' drunken escapades--can you believe the buffoonery of these harmless people? I did not mention the copay for the tests, or that first twinge of terror, and feeling small.

Even so, she was horrified. "He didn't have your consent to do that. That's sexual assault."

I reeled. "I mean, no, it's OK, I'm just not going to see that dude again."

It was painful to see my night through her prism, even if it made logical sense: my consent was predicated on a condition that was violated. That was enough to send a man in Switzerland who removed a condom without his partner's consent to jail; the Federal Supreme Court there decided such actions constitute rape. But I wasn't raped, I thought. I had a bad hookup.

Noted scholar Catharine MacKinnon writes in her paper "Pleasure Under Patriarchy,"

“Immense energy goes into defending sexuality as just fine and getting better all the time, and into trying to make sexuality feel all right, like it is supposed to feel. Women who are compromised, cajoled, pressured, tricked, blackmailed, or outright forced into sex (or pornography) often respond to the unspeakable humiliation, coupled with the sense of having lost some irreplaceable integrity, by claiming that sexuality as their own. Faced with no alternatives, the strategy to acquire self-respect and pride is: I chose it. […] The mind fuck of all of this makes the complicitous collapse into “I chose it” feel like a strategy for sanity. It certainly makes a woman at one with the world.”

Caitlin Flanagan would tell me, you didn't slap him, you didn't start wailing, you went down without a fight. There's a strange comfort in her pernicious logic--one that equates inaction with consent, timidity with choice. Because then you can think, I chose it. And suddenly you're not hysterical anymore.

When S. asked me what I thought about the Aziz Ansari story the first place my mind went to was that frat guy and freshman year. But something made me hesitant to bring it up.

I guess that I am not fully myself around S., either, even though I like him a great deal.

I hesitated because it was a story about the complicated nature of how we narrativize our own lives. In reminding me that my consent had been violated, my female friend shook my narrative. Today, I can say honestly that that night was a scary moment that I have thought little of since. But I am thankful that my friend responded more zealously than I did: her anger reminded me, in a moment when my grip on it felt tenuous, that my consent was important, that my body was my own.

The story about that frat guy was never just about a condom. It was about my feelings. I was unsure if S. wanted to hear those, because it seems like many detractors of the Ansari article are unhappy the woman in question shared hers. Let's remember that in the article on babe, no criminal charges are announced, no financial reparations are sought, no boycott is announced. Yet there are opinion writers everywhere acting like Ansari's defense attorneys, responding with screeds about women needing to be more proactive. Some demonstrate an eagle-eyed attention to physical or quantifiable details--she waited that long to put her clothes back on? This myopic focus means a failure to respect the emotional details of the story. A girl's tears in her Uber home aren't blood and semen in a rape kit, but our society's sexual standard should not be to get as close to the criminal edge of harm as possible before drawing back. That means respecting sex as an emotional process, not just a physical one.

This is also where things get complicated, because it goes back to talking to men. The way that I talk to many guys constitutes dancing around a wall, trying not to challenge some nebulous masculinity. Listening patiently when they explain something I already know about, or smiling even while telling them off for saying blatantly offensive shit because I don't want to seem mad, or apologizing too much. Saturday Night Live's Aidy Bryant even did a sketch on Weekend Update, playing herself:
AIDY BRYANT [rolls out on office chair]: I’m sorry I rolled out here kinda weird, did I ruin it? [...] I just do that [apologize]…it’s kind of my natural state because I, like most girls have been taught to be accommodating and be polite…I understand the impulse to be accommodating…everyone’s talking about how women should negotiate harder and ask for more money and that’s true, but I feel like maybe, just maybe, men could be just like, this much more dece? 
COLIN JOST: 'Dece'? Like 'decent'?

AIDY BRYANT: I wanna say decent but I’m trying to keep it cool and chill so I don’t come off like a shrew! [...] Equal pay is the goal but at this point I’d be happy to just even gain like a couple of yards, and that’s a straight-up sports reference for da boys! All I’m saying is that if I’m going to be more like Mark Wahlberg, maybe Mark can take a trip through my brain, which is just a tornado of ‘is he ok?’ ‘Is she ok?’
The sketch is meant to be exaggerated but it rang true--trying to keep it "cool and chill," the cringeworthy "sports reference for da boys." And that tornado which Aidy later describes as a "prison of the mind" is one that comes with silver linings: on balance, I've encountered more emotional perception and disclosure when I talk with girls. Yes, I may dance around other girls' feelings too, but it's not around an entire wall, an entire system, the way I try not to challenge masculinity. I've never had the feeling of "oh shit, I can't challenge a girl's femininity" because it's laughable to even imagine--what would be construed as an affront? This is one of the advances of feminism--that there is a wide selection of ways in which to be a woman, and as Gloria Steinem said, "We have begun to raise daughters more like sons," with all the riches of the world spread out for our grabbing.

But the second part of Steinem's quote, "few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters," with that Aidy-Bryant-tornado-in-the-mind, is still too true. Andrew Reiner writes in the New York Times,

"Last semester, a student in the masculinity course I teach showed a video clip she had found online of a toddler getting what appeared to be his first vaccinations. Off camera, we hear his father’s voice. “I’ll hold your hand, O.K.?” Then, as his son becomes increasingly agitated: “Don’t cry!… Aw, big boy! High five, high five! Say you’re a man: ‘I’m a man!’ ” The video ends with the whimpering toddler screwing up his face in anger and pounding his chest. “I’m a man!” he barks through tears and gritted teeth.The home video was right on point, illustrating the takeaway for the course: how boys are taught, sometimes with the best of intentions, to mutate their emotional suffering into anger."

Reiner goes on to say that we socialize vulnerability out of young boys, and this argument is borne out by research showing men are less likely to visit physicians and more likely to engage in risky behaviors. All this to say that inculcating boys with a narrow kind of masculinity, one that denies them an emotional vocabulary, has deeply negative consequences for the men they grow up to be.

It also makes life harder for the women (or more emotionally communicative men) who talk to them. My dad often mentions being in high school and feeling alienated by his male peers, who always just seemed to want to talk about cars. Sometimes I find myself standing in his shoes, perplexed by the conversations I hear groups of boys having. How is it possible to talk for so long, at such volume, about mutual funds or poker? I like your jokes and your volubility, I want to say, but I wish I knew the answers to different questions (and that you sometimes asked them): how do you know when you're falling in love? What keeps you awake at night? When was the last time you cried?

A guy I don't know very well, who I'll call N., was sitting across from me at a party one night. He wore neat, preppy sweaters, like he'd walked off the cover of a J.Crew catalogue, but seemed earnest and not douchey. During a drunken game where we all asked each other exceedingly personal questions someone asked N., who we'd already established had a girlfriend who he liked very much, "Have you ever cried after sex?"

He looked shocked for a second that it was even a question.

"Of course, yeah," he said, like it was obvious.

Some guys around the table expressed mock horror.

"It happens," he said calmly. I think he said something about things being "emotionally intense."

I don't know why that moment made me respect him so much. I suppose it was because we were sitting in a room with so many men whose vulnerabilities I had danced around like tripwire. In contrast, his nonchalant answer felt like a rare communion. I was looking across the table and picturing him curled up next to someone he loves and weeping into her shoulder. It was a fragility which I suppose he could not have known registered to me as strength.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Tidying Up

I recently spotted Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing on sale for $2. Tidying is a self-help staple. What Dr. Spock was to nervous new mothers in the 50s and 60s, I imagine Marie Kondo is to millennial women trying to get the #minimalist #aesthetic for the 'gram.

I've read the book before, but $2 was hard to beat. I snatched it up to bring to my parents' over Winter Break.

Kondo's book advocates aggressively removing any items from your home that do not "spark joy," in the pursuit of creating a more fulfilling, functional, and minimalist living space. Grown out of those clothes ten years ago? Sell them. Don't know why you own twenty-eight dysfunctional pens? Throw them out. Finish reading a book and think you won't read it again? Give it away.

"I'm going to start consolidating around the house. I bought The Life-Changing Magic-whatever book on sale," I announced at dinner.

"You already had that book," my mom said.

I didn't let the ironic origins of my cleaning mania stop me from attacking an old bureau, opening drawers to complain loudly about odds and ends being in the wrong places. There was a mysterious key. A bubble mailer just filled with nails. Behind this year's Christmas cards and some of the stars of our family's inexplicable collection of owl statues (actually explicable: inherited from a great-grandmother) were two fluorescent tubes.

"Yo Dad, do these work?"

He shrugged. "It's not the kind of thing you can just throw out. You'd have to take that to a toxic waste facility or something."

I moved on to easier targets, sorting books no one wanted to read into boxes.

"Isn't 1984 a classic?" my mom asked.

"Yeah, but we have two copies. And this one's font is too small."

Decluttering felt good. There was something cathartic about putting books that had gathered dust for ages into a clear plastic bin, for new lives at used bookstores or the Prisoners Literature Project, a Berkeley-based non-profit that sends books to inmates in California jails. Even more fulfilling was recycling: mounds of old receipts, Post-It notes with scribbled reminders from years past, brochures and guides for places we didn't want to go.

"Are you doing all this cleaning so you don't have to when we die?" my mom said suspiciously.

"No!" I protested. "I'm doing it so that you have a better quality of life."

In the middle of all the cleaning, I went to the backyard patio to check on some line-drying laundry. The landscape that day was picturesque--the sun shone over the distant hills and illuminated the dry leaves fluttering around my feet. Everything looks prettier bathed in sunlight. Even all the random odds and ends lying around gained a bucolic Kinkade painting quality. There was the half-broken table that had practically come apart when my grandfather and I tried to move it, some vase shards, too many cast-off wooden planks to count.

Chief of all the odds and ends was one woven together: what looked like an old bedsheet or maybe something of a stiffer constitution, like a curtain, strung up into a shape approximating a hammock. It hung from the patio roof beams by a sort of composite rope. It was several old lanyards and pieces of yarn, tied to one another.

Growing up, my sister and I played in a backyard littered with the ambitious skeletons of house repairs and landscaping projects that never were: broken bricks and rusting nails and dried-out paint pans. We ground things up and made bad sculptures with Found Materials before we knew that was a thing some fancy artists in museums did. There is a Life-Changing Magic to Making Random Things Out of All That Shit Lying Around, too. There's clearly a line to be drawn between having some bric-a-brac and being featured on A&E's "Hoarders," and in general I agree with the principle of getting rid of stuff you don't need. But part of me also wonders what happens to the kids who grow up in immaculate homes with tame grass-lawn backyards. What happens when you live in a Marie Kondo-ized house?

On my quest to throw away all the random things lying around the house that no one could describe as functional or "sparking joy," I realized that I would have thrown away the old lanyards that made up the improvised chain link holding up the hammock, and probably the half-falling-apart wooden table and bag of rusty nails, too, all banished off to some land across the sea where our unwanted things go.

And I couldn't tell, then, if I missed them.

I stared at the hammock for a long time. Then I went back inside, and I kept on tidying.

Monday, December 18, 2017

An ode to BART

I recently met an SF resident, a friend of a relative, who I'll call Trina. She said blithely that she had never taken BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit, our local subway system).

"I just Uber everywhere," she said, shrugging.

To well-heeled Bay Area tech workers, the cost of Ubers everywhere might be chump change. But it's actually incredibly costly in terms of its effects on governance and society. Folks like Trina choosing to never step foot on a BART train has detrimental consequences for the system's maintenance and further development--as Keith Barry writes in Wired, public transit is underfunded because the wealthy don't rely on it.

On another level, there's something about public transit that teaches you about how to be in the world, how to sit with people who look and talk and think differently from you. After high school and college, where people from different kinds of family backgrounds get squished together in lunch periods and dorm rooms, there aren't a whole lot of opportunities to meet people who are different. (Side note: educational systems aren't exactly always shining paragons of diversity, either.) Place of worship? Millennials are less likely to attend religious services than older generations. Relationships? Modern folks are increasingly likely to marry someone of the same education level.

But then there's public transit. Riding BART, I've heard couples fighting and tech bros talking about weddings in Napa. Smelled tobacco and vomit and bergamot perfume. Seen shirtless street performers and hipsters in orange Patagonia puffers leaning on their bikes, kids in polka-dotted strollers and weathered old men with belongings in plastic bags. I've rested my head on the window and considered my reflection, swimming in the scratched-up glass next to the towering container cranes of the Port of Oakland.

In Ubers or Lyfts, I squirm on leather seats and charge my phone. Sometimes I talk to the driver, if they're game, if I'm not too tired. The last time I took a Lyft, back to my apartment from a pre-birthday dinner with my sister, our driver started with "You're my first passengers--ever! I just started driving!"

"Congratulations," I said, "uh, welcome to Lyft, I guess?"

As we went the wrong way and our driver pulled over to do a U-turn, she commented again, "Sorry, this is my first time, thanks for being so patient." She apologized a couple more times, asked us if the music was too quiet or too loud or if we wanted to listen to anything else in particular and if she should turn the heat up.

Drivers for Uber famously can get kicked off the service for getting less than around a 4.7 rating; I'm not sure about Lyft. It made me feel icky about our driver's solicitousness. It felt like it was something out of that Black Mirror episode "Nosedive"--in a dystopian, pastel-colored land of seemingly perfect people, everyone rates each other on their phone after every interaction, and your rating, much like a credit score, determines the class of goods and services you can access. It's certainly not quite Black Mirror, but Uber and Lyft link your behavior to access, too.

On BART, you have to think about what we owe to each other when it isn't mediated by ratings and money. How to share space and give directions to a lost tourist and when to stand up and offer your seat to someone else. You can't pay a premium to get a roomier train car or skip stops or quiet the train's metal-on-metal scream on the tracks in the tunnel under the Bay. When there's no more space for hands on the center pole, you'll learn how to stand upright in a crowd. And when you're grumbling in your head about all the strangers around you, you'll realize that it's those strangers who will catch you if you fall.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Half a Motherland Part 3: Vote

“The faceless, sexless, raceless proletariat. The faceless, raceless, classless category of “all women.” Both creations of white Western self-centeredness.” - Adrienne Rich

In spring semester, campaigns for elected student government positions at my school are in full swing, and I’m reminded constantly of the identities we prioritize with every candidate's Facebook post. Someone promises to represent the South Asian community at Berkeley, posting Instagram photos from Holi and a “Dosas and Mimosas” night hosted by the South Indian students’ group. A frat guy I've never met, poised to uphold the interests of the ROTC and International Relations communities. I’m kind of shocked that IR even counts as a “community”; when I think back to my last Development Studies class, I remember looking around at a group comprised of profoundly disparate elements: a few international students who rarely spoke up in class, a lot of white girls in athleisure leggings and Birkenstocks who sipped iced chai lattes out of mason jars.

One year a professional co-ed association hosts a raucous blacklight party for Halloween. Everywhere are transnational elites in training--there are Asian products of American schools in Middle Eastern expat compounds, people whose neutral-sounding English exists on a geographically unplaceable plane of its own. They grind on each other and down Jell-O shots, sold 4 for a dollar.

I look around this room of Cheshire cats--our grinning teeth gleam purplish white in the blacklight--and muse, Is this my community?

Before I’m even done asking the question, I’m shaking my head.

If my academic interest can’t define my identity group, then what should? Ethnicity? That doesn’t work either. There are some Asians who are scions of industrialists made rich by post-market reform prosperity in their home countries. These kids pay enough tuition to sustain the rest of us. I see them walking in big groups sometimes, swathed in Burberry trenches and wearing Nike Flyknits. Their rapidfire chatter is familiar and yet, their skin color and language render them no more “my people” than bushmen in a NatGeo issue.

Then there are the Asian-American students who remind me of old friends and high school classmates. They discuss carrying the weight of the “model minority” and the expectations of eager parents on their shoulders. These are expectations that I can’t fully relate to...partially since I think the “model minority” is a myth that engenders continued racial oppression of other people of color, but mostly because my parents never toed the Tiger Mom line with me. (I got a C in a class once and they congratulated me on passing.) The most burdensome expectation they had for me? That I would challenge traditional hierarchies and oppressive norms. But if I sought to build community based on that expectation, I’d be left high and dry. Despite that whole Communist Revolution thing, “resisting hierarchy” is not an experience that I find widely relatable among Asian-American friends in describing their families and upbringing. Rather, a sort of apolitical inoffensiveness rules the day.

One girl running for student government at Berkeley even says in her campaign literature, “Growing up in a traditional Asian family, I’ve been taught to always care about others and respect others’ backgrounds.”

After all, Confucius say: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Jokes aside, this student government election is a microcosm of broader tendencies in American politics. It is frequently cast as the Holy Land of left-wing politics in the United States, but it’s less liberal than you might think. While some college Republican groups across the country (e.g., Harvard’s) broke with the national party to disavow Donald Trump’s candidacy during the election, the Berkeley College Republicans supported Donald Trump. In the wake of protests surrounding right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulous’s visit to Berkeley, the campus magazine where I’m an editor hosted a debate between the Cal Democrats and Berkeley College Republicans on the subject of free speech. The Cal Dem representative was a white guy, while the spokesperson for the BCR was an Indian student (from India, not Indian-American).

During the audience Q&A portion, I asked a question that many were probably thinking as they looked at these debaters: had President Trump done enough, quickly enough, to respond to hate crimes in the wake of his election? I alluded to hate crimes against Asian-Americans, including the killing of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas, or Harnish Patel’s murder outside of his home in South Carolina.

The BCR debater took the microphone and said that Mr. Trump should have acted more quickly, but that people should not be so quick to blame Trump for all the actions carried out by his followers. An Indian-American friend and I exchanged a glance. She rolled her eyes, and in a look, a sentiment passed between us: how can he be a Republican? After all that has happened? Conservative journalist Michelle Malkin has said, “Minority conservatives hold a special place of gutter contempt in the minds of unhinged liberals, who can never accept the radical concept of a person of color rejecting identity politics.” I guess that in that moment, we were those unhinged liberals.

Once upon a time, to try to be a Republican politician and the member of a racial minority at the same time meant purposefully denuding yourself of anything that reeked of the “ethnic.” Bobby Jindal changed his name from Piyush to Bobby, converted to Christianity, gave a speech in which he said that he was tired of “hyphenated Americans,” and commissioned a gubernatorial portrait widely mocked on social media for its skin tone, far whiter than Jindal is in reality. Although these actions elicited scrutiny and derision from many in the Indian-American community, they were good politics in Louisiana: Jindal served two terms as governor.

Today, perhaps you can be a player in Republican politics without needing to disavow or minimize your racial identity in the same way as Jindal. For some Asian-Americans, supporting Trump made sense not in spite of identity alignment, but because of it. During the 2016 election, some Indian-Americans with ties to Hindu nationalist groups saw Trump as a natural ally due to his rhetoric on Muslims, securing the borders, and tough talk that evoked comparison to India’s right-wing prime minister, Narendra Modi. Trump appeared in an advertisement where he said, in Hindi unintelligible to native speakers (as Jimmy Kimmel would document in one of his show’s man-on-the-street segments), “Ab ki baar Trump sarkaar,” or “This time, Trump government”--a nod to a famous Modi campaign slogan.

Relying on minority groups to uniformly be good Democrats had lulled me into false security. I was shocked every time I learned that an Asian-American friend’s parents were supporting Trump. Trump’s rhetoric may have stoked the flames of white supremacist indignation, but this was not frightening enough for highly-educated men and women with college-aged children begging them to vote for Clinton; they chose instead to vote for the man with the bad hair, three marriages, and infamous lines on pussy grabbing.

Then there are people for whom race doesn’t register as an important identity category that affects daily life.

At the invitation of a friend I went to a meeting of a campus group called South Asians for Social Justice once. The meeting was at her house. In its cozy, carpeted living room, we sat around on couches and ladled hot chai tea out of a massive pot. Despite the welcoming environment of the SASJ meeting, I felt like a bit of an intruder as a non-South Asian. I messaged my boyfriend and his roommate (both Indian-American) for backup. I didn't expect them to come, but they messaged back, shockingly: “On our way.”

The group had started a silent writing session about the prompt “Write about a time when you felt brown/racialized” (i.e., a time some external impetus had made you aware of your difference, your non-whiteness). We were all quietly scribbling things down on pieces of paper when the door creaked open and my boyfriend and his roommate bounded in. The roommate was wearing a giant Seahawks jersey and high-top shoes; in the midst of this quiet living room, he seemed like an especially loud interloper. As my friend re-explained the prompt and they shot each other blank glances, I started wondering if inviting them had maybe been a mistake.

We finished up writing and people began to share their moments. Listening, I sat aghast. Some had been the only brown kids at school. They had had classmates who called them curry-eaters, “sand niggas,” and terrorists.

Neither my boyfriend nor his roommate described an incident from their own lives.

We all walked out of the house after the meeting was over, and it didn’t take long for them to begin talking.

“These kids, way different,” the roommate said.

My boyfriend nodded. For them, he explained, it was difficult to write about the “moment they’d felt brown” because they’d grown up in an area where they were part of a sizable, and empowered, Asian-American population.

In the Seattle area, the Asian-American community is well-developed and prosperous. When racism and Redmond come up in the same conversation, it relates to anti-blackness: the Seahawks player Kam Chancellor had the police called on him for “suspicious activity” after he looked through the windows of a gym, and a black-owned business received a KKK uniform in the mail. These incidents highlight the dark underbelly of a community where kids ride their bikes around wide suburban streets and people come out every summer to cheer on parade floats and eat cotton candy at the Derby Days festival. But these incidents also highlight the extent to which the Asian-American community in Redmond has been immune; no one would tell me to “go back to China,” or make comments about the shape of my eyes, if I were sitting at a bus stop in Redmond.

We went to high schools where there were countless classmates who looked like us. If the guy calling you a curry-eater or a chink looks like you, it’s not an expression of racial superiority as much as an expression of in-group-ness--the girlfriend-to-girlfriend “sup bitches” of racial groups. After high school we’d landed at Berkeley--where the freshman population in 2016 was 42.3% Asian.

But I’d spent a lot of time outside of Redmond and Berkeley--and I had white family members, so my understanding of myself as a person of color had happened early. It was a revelation to me, that my boyfriend and his roommate had never had some moment of looking in the mirror and seeing themselves as racialized subjects, thinking, “Society sees me differently from someone white,” thinking “this is something that could harm me.”

I wonder if Srinivas Kuchibhotla or Harnish Patel had.


Trump’s win highlighted the extensive mobilization of white nationalists, with the rise of the “alt-right” in public consciousness and the growing normalization of many of its main figures. For participants in these movements, non-white people pose a spectral threat to the integrity of a nation figured as necessarily white. Steve Bannon, Trump’s controversial political aide, has made repeated references to the racist French novel The Camp of the Saints in speeches about his political ideology. The novel features the shores of Europe being overrun with hordes of dark-skinned foreigners, and it explains a lot about the sentiments of white nationalists. If you feel under threat, of course you would form an identity group. But the obvious problem is that white people in America are not under real, material threat; you need look only at any picture of a Trump cabinet meeting to reassure yourself that the position of (particularly old and male) white people is on top of the world.

Then there are MRAs, or “Men’s Rights Activists.” Like claiming that whiteness is a status that needs to be protected from destruction, claiming that being male means being a member of an oppressed group in society is what some might call an “alternative fact”--but one with harmful consequences. MRAs have spewed vitriol at female writers and gamers on the internet, preached the acceptability of violence against women, and advocated for sexually aggressive tactics that frequently venture into the realm of harassment and even assault.

Columbia professor Mark Lilla writes in the New York Times, “Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.”

Centralizing identity and the role it plays in life has led to substantial political gains for many marginalized group, and society as a whole; therefore, unlike Lilla, I am not prepared to reject it wholesale. We must have some bulwarks to keep ourselves from falling into the trap of casting ourselves as universal subjects--the “faceless proletariat” or “all women” that Adrienne Rich critiques. If we really mean “male workers,” or “white workers” (as many trade unions historically did), or “white women,” or “rich women,” then we do truth an injustice by claiming this language of universal membership.

And the truth is that in many situations our outcomes depend on facets of our identity. It’s harder to get a job with a “black name” (National Bureau of Economic Research), harder to get your pain taken seriously by a doctor if you’re a woman (The Atlantic). These realities are something that the “identity politics are divisive” camp of people would be wise to pay attention to. Political coalitions have a duty to interrogate their own impulses to universalize, and acknowledge the role that our various identities play in our lives. It’s just the right thing to do.

Ironically, many critiques of identity politics and its divisiveness come from white men; but no one does segregation by identity quite like white people in America. Today, you can still see the legacy of housing policies that prevented black Americans from living in certain neighborhoods. You can go to places where housing is so racially split that you can walk from one end of town to the other and see a sea change in skin tone. Developers created all-white suburbs, and there was “white flight” out of urban areas. Housing isn’t the only staging ground for segregation; marriage is another. 2013 Pew Research Center data shows that white people are the group least likely to “marry out” (just 7% of white newlyweds in 2013 married someone of a different race, compared to 28% of Asians).

This wouldn’t be surprising if you knew what white social circles looked like: a non-partisan research group, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), shows that a full 75% of whites have “entirely white social networks without any minority presence.”

Two-thirds of white people in America have completely white social circles.

For minorities, there is tremendous value in groups of other people of color; in some spaces, a certain kind of self-segregation may be protective. But in places like where I grew up, self-segregating was not so much about consolidating power for solidarity in the face of racist society (Asian-Americans were doing well in Redmond) as it was about the economic reality of our ZIP code that placed us, largely, in proximity to wealthy white and Asian families.

I want to be cautious about following the historical impulse of a dominant social group trying to protect its “purity” or its property values. No matter the rationale for forming clans around ethnoracial identity, we must always consciously seek encounters--pushing for everything from increased media representation of minorities to mixed-income housing--with people who are unlike ourselves.

All of us must resist the impulse to segregate.

After all, self-segregation relies on a belief that our fates are not all inextricably bound up with each other’s; Hindu-Americans for Trump cheered on the idea of a strongman who talked tough on banning Muslims and being “strong on terror,” forgetting or ignoring that many white nationalist Trump supporters can’t tell the difference between a Muslim and a Hindu, or a Muslim and a Sikh--to them, all people of a certain skin tone are part of the same Camp of the Saints-esque invading dark horde.

I hope that we can build political discourse that is inclusive of a wide range of identities, that gives individuals space to discuss how their many varied categories and allegiances produce the realities of their daily lives. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both met with leaders of the Black Lives Matter, and Clinton talked about implicit racism in one of the presidential debates--exposing some Americans to the concept for the first time. It is possible, and indeed necessary, for politicians to dialogue with identity-focused groups in good faith and bring their concerns to the national political stage. And it is the willingness to do that actively and consistently--not the color of their skin or the community they come from or the languages they speak--that should win votes.

The expectation of dialogue should apply to relations between minority groups as well. Letters for Black Lives builds solidarity for Black Lives Matter by offering a letter that minority folks and children of immigrants (especially Asian-Americans) can send to parents, grandparents, and other elders struggling to understand the necessity of supporting BLM. The crowd-sourced letter has been translated into numerous languages

From the Letters for Black Lives Matter project:

“In fighting for their own rights, Black activists have led the movement for opportunities not just for themselves, but for us as well. Black people have been beaten, jailed, even killed fighting for many of the rights that Asian Americans enjoy today. We owe them so much in return. We are all fighting against the same unfair system that prefers we compete against each other.

When someone is walking home and gets shot by a sworn protector of the peace — even if that officer’s last name is Liang — that is an assault on all of us, and on all of our hopes for equality and fairness under the law.”

What I appreciate about the Letters for BLM project is that although the letters cite the profound debt owed by Asian-Americans to African-American civil rights leaders and community organizers, the primary logic of the argument that we should support BLM comes not from a self-serving or clannish place but rather a sense of universal humanity--that an assault on a black person “is an assault on all of us,” that we are all fighting against the same injustice. Let’s follow the lead of projects like Letters for Black Lives and build solidarity across identity groups on the basis of our shared hopes and shared humanity.

During Spring Break, I leave Berkeley for my parents’ home in suburban Sonoma County--a place of rolling verdant hills, chicken farms, and houses with manicured lawns and “Black Lives Matter” yard signs. My Ye Ye and Po Po are visiting, and Ye Ye asks me one day what my plan for the day is.

“I’m going to work on an article that I’ve been working on for a long time,” I manage in broken Chinese.

“What’s the topic?”

“It’s--uhhh, it’s really hard to say in Chinese,” I fumble for Google Translate on my phone and type in “identity politics.”

Ye Ye looks at my screen and his brow furrows. “What does this mean?”

“I don’t think this translation is correct,” I say. “Um. It’s...people using, themselves? Their culture, their habits, ethnicity? that a politician should be supported?”

“What’s your argument?”

“That people should support people who can improve society as a whole and other groups, not just their own people. Like, even if you’re Asian-American, you should support black people.” I suck in my breath, waiting for a disapproving response from the man I associate most with Chinese nationalism. “We’re all Americans.”

“Not just Americans,” Ye Ye says. “We’re all renlei.”

“What does renlei mean?”

“Human,” he says in English.