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.


*

Duuuude.

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 are...like, 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 their...um, themselves? Their culture, their habits, ethnicity? To...um...say 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.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Half a Motherland Part 2: Pride

"In order for a culture to be really itself and to produce something, the culture and its members must be convinced of their originality and even, to some extent, of their superiority over the others" -Claude Levi-Strauss

I'm proud to be X.

Insert what you want for X: Asian-American, mixed-race, woman, descendant of ridiculously long-lived Chinese people except for one unfortunate soul who died from dysentery, descendant of a Czech orchestra player whose violin my sister inherited and plays, and--according to my grandma--also a descendant of Mayflower dude Miles Standish. 

“I’m proud to be X.” 

Insert what you want and I still can’t say it. 

Maybe it’s a vestigial hang-up from my white side. Racial pride in the hands of ethnic minorities is the wholesome material of multiculturalism in modern liberal democracy, of urban parades and campus celebrations. Racial pride in the hands of white people is combustible material. But accepting this set of facts in my own divided body--throwing myself at Mao while ignoring Miles--always felt awkward and contrived. Some artists and activists attempt to bring us ethnically confusing folk into the proud-of-my-identity fold: there are books like Kip Fulbeck's Part Asian, 100% Hapa, a collection of photographs of people of mixed/partial Asian descent. As much as I appreciate seeing media representations of people who look like me, it feels...well, kind of weird to express a pride for my ethnic identity. 

I could be like my sister, who went to Chinese school briefly with me but also picked up a Czech phrasebook and attempted to learn the language (well, for maybe a month). But learning everything about all the histories of my inheritance would be a life’s work. It felt easier to just run away from it all. 

What would I be running away from, though? The same labels that can be used to stereotype and exclude also give people a vocabulary to express love and support. (See #BlackGirlsMagic.) 

Plus, many would agree that some measure of pride in your culture is a necessity for its continuation. If you don't like it, why bother carrying out its rituals or sending your kid to weekend school to learn the language? It's in this context that I finally understand my Ye Ye (grandfather) and his constant, fearsome lectures on the civilizational supremacy of China (including several entreaties to read the complete works of Mao). 

Maybe these weren't lectures about the past and the present so much as an insurance policy for the future--trying to instill some kind of innate pride in me about my culture, so that even if I inevitably ran astray and married some non-Chinese-speaking foreigner (foreign to him, not to me) the anchors he'd dropped would always pull me, and hypothetical descendants, back to some version of a Chinese identity. 

Did those lectures work? 

To this day, I cringe at exceptionalism--even when it wears new and prettier masks. 

My suspicion of the impulse to say "This [nation/culture/language] is [super great/uniquely blessed/the best]" probably comes partially from childhood; my parents never did the sorts of things that Other People's Families did, like watch Sunday-morning football and cheer on a favorite team, wear their college sweatshirts, say "God bless the USA," or imply that one religion or philosophy was better than the rest. Sometimes, I think that what my parents were proudest of was not being proud of anything. 

And in some ways, they had good reason to be. The very pride, or school spirit, or religion, or nationalism that glues some groups together can also drive wedges in humanity. 

Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, one of India's most prolific poets, was a fierce critic of nationalist and ethnocentric sentiment; in one of his poems in Gitanjali, he wrote of a vision "Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; / Where knowledge is free; / Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls." Through his novel The Home and the World, Tagore critiqued nationalism and ethnocentrism as being opposed to more universal values of justice and fairness. One of the novel’s characters, the ill-fated and mild-mannered nobleman Nikhilesh Chaudhary, says, "To worship my country as a god is to bring curse upon it.” 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to bring curses upon the things I love. 

Nations are imagined communities. Their boundary lines are often drawn by outsiders as the product of colonialism and violent conflict, not any special logic of geography or progress. Our cultural identities, too, have tenuous grips on reality; what binds us to our identities aside from our adherence to a set of norms, adherence informed by a certain kind of pride? 

But having pride in my heritage as special and unique is an act of resistance in a society that constantly belittles Other-ness. Pride is about cultural survival, I think. Every day, we see evidence of how minority groups in the US come under pressure to assimilate by shedding parts of their culture that don't fit neatly into the dominant culture: think of the way some teachers will say "I don't even want to attempt to pronounce that" if they see an Asian name when they're calling roll (or the more recent and widely criticized instance of Jimmy Kimmel joking about Mahershala Ali's name at the Oscars). 

Let me be clear: this is super shitty. 

But isn't it possible to counteract these pressures without teaching little kids "Your culture is [this essentialized definition], and oh by the way, it's the best"? Because exceptionalism in the name of cultural preservation still falls into the trap that Gary Younge, writing on identity politics, decried: presuming a "fixed notion to who and what we are," essentialism even while the "meaning and relevance" of identities are constantly in flux. 

Many of the modern-day essentializations of culture that we reproduce, knowingly or unknowingly, may be products of colonialism. For instance, if you ask someone what a Sikh looks like they may mention turbans, uncut hair, and long beards. Historically, this physical presentation was not always a kind of synecdoche for the Sikhism; when Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) introduced the khalsa (meaning something like “pure”) order in Sikhism, most Sikhs were not part of it. The British recruited Indian soldiers with a belief in the concept of "martial races," or the idea that certain “races” were more predisposed to the military arts than others. Khalsa Sikhs, with their swords and turbans, were considered one such group, and more people had an incentive to present as Khalsa Sikhs. To this day, 20% of the Indian Army identify as Sikh. 

Last summer, when I was interning in India’s capital, I met a young girl while staying overnight with a family in Gurgaon, the concrete jungle southwest of New Delhi. She and her brother had perched themselves cheerfully on my bed, asked me a great deal of questions about life in America, taught me the name of “the best” cricketers, and somehow started on the subject of religion. “The Muslims of the North are the bad Muslims,” she told me confidently. “The ones in the South are OK.” She paused, then chirped, “And the Sikhs are just angry Hindus.” 

There was a lot to think about in what she said, but I thought the "angry Hindus" was perhaps the (darkly) funniest. Angry Hindus? I wondered. Where does a young kid get that description? 

Family, I assumed. But it was later, in a South Asian history class at Berkeley, that I learned (at least part of) the real answer: the British. 

No culture exists in a vacuum. Rather, we live in complex feedback loops. The example of Sikhs and the British conception of “martial races” evidence the fact that how peers, elites, and governments view culture all construct the daily lived reality of what culture is. 

In many cases, the weight of expectation can be oppressive. Elizabeth Povinelli writes in The Cunning of Recognition that the multiculturalism of the modern, liberal state may inadvertently hold ethnic minorities to high standards of “authentic” culture. These standards breed stagnancy: the answer to how Chinese culture is performed--in the Chinese restaurant in A Christmas Story, in San Francisco’s Chinatown, in suburban Seattle--in is the same, year after tiresome year. The psychological burden of this is difficult to encapsulate. Maybe it’s something like when white people travel abroad and find that people assume they love eating hamburgers and drinking Coke, and that everyone owns a gun. You’d protest that it wasn’t true. You’d try to make people see the you underneath the American. 

But to face such stereotypes in America because of the relentless essentialization and freezing-in-time of your culture means feeling like a perennial visitor in your own home. You are that guest whose inner life remains illegible, written in invisible ink between the lines of filial piety and Tiger Mothers, dragon festivals and dumplings. At some point, maybe the strokes blend so much that even you don’t remember the difference. 

To some degree, culture makes all of us. I think a lot of people fear that if we unmake what we have learned is our culture, we unmake ourselves. Maybe that’s true. But it’s also necessary--because culture doesn’t stand still, even though every day, we treat it like it does. 

Our nation is multicultural, and interactions in our modern world are increasingly transnational. The winners of this world order will be those who know how to travel. This point is belabored by travel brochures the world over, but encounters with the Other can elicit positive change. 

An Asian-American student wrote an article in Berkeley’s student-run newspaper, describing a childhood filled with traumatizing corporal punishment from parents. Notably, she wrote, "Being beaten by your parents and grandparents has become a sort a twisted joke in the Asian American community. Comparisons of the creative and painful punishments that they have conjured up are punctuated freely with laughter and smiles. YouTube personalities have made “on the street” videos asking Asian American millennials about their experiences with physical punishment. Being hit with metal coat hangers is not uncommon, and the interviewer himself lightheartedly recalls a time he was sent to the emergency room by his parents’ hands." 


Growing up, I had it easy. (Look, my parents didn't even demand good grades.) But we still had our twisted jokes. My sister would tell friends about how when she was very young, she would walk out of our room and stand at the top of the stairs, refusing obstinately to go to sleep. It became a tradition: she would stand there, our mom would come up the stairs and slap her, causing my sister to cry. Subsequently, she would get sleepy from all the wailing and go down for her nap. Rinse and repeat. (Don't try this at home.)

This whole story registers as hilarious to Adrianna and me. 

Retelling stories like this, laughing about them--it’s the kind of thing you do with people to signal that you’re part of the in-group. It's as if the long-faded sting of a slap is the ghost that takes you arm in arm to march you through the gates of identity. It's screwed up, sure, but sometimes I’m grateful for the stories I have of miserably sitting through patronizing lectures on morality (“only bad people go to clubs to drink and dance”) from my grandparents or my sister getting slapped by my mother--it’s my proof that I, too, at least somewhat went through that same boot camp of Asian childhood. 

When I went to a Stanford summer camp in high school, I met a new friend. He had curly hair, a guitar, and an obnoxiously cool name--in short, everything I didn't. But I didn't realize how divergent our lives really were until we started talking about family. I told the same old story about how our mom would slap us in the face if we were misbehaving (or, in Adrianna’s case, refusing to nap). 

He was horrified. “That’s awful. Your mom hit you?” he said, eyes widening. 

Our relationship at that point was mostly composed of sarcastic banter and deprecating jokes and talking about Fight Club, which I had borrowed from him to read the other night. I was surprised that someone who would gleefully stomach the violence of that book (I’d summarize it, but first rule of Fight Club…) would be so alarmed by the revelation of a kind of violence that I saw as far more normal. His tone had become suddenly serious. 

“No, no, I mean, it was literally nothing,” I said hurriedly. “Like just a slap.” I mimed the motion and smiled extra widely, as if to try to re-emphasize the nothing-ness of the whole thing. “Especially not compared to what she had--I mean, she really got beaten up by her parents.” 

He shook his head. “Dude, that’s still, like, child abuse.” 

“What? You mean your mom never slapped you, or spanked you?" I asked in disbelief. 

He shook his head. 

"Not even once?” I asked, aghast. 

At that point it just seemed unfair. Mischievous-eyed and audacious, he seemed like someone who would have been a profoundly spankable child. Maybe that's why he seems so free, I ruminated later. The rest of us have it slapped out of us

For all my traveling, it took that summer camp encounter to teach me that there was a world outside of the families I knew. Despite my parents being unorthodox people in many ways, all their best efforts could not contradict the environs of a company town. In Redmond, it seemed like everyone’s parents worked for Microsoft. Everyone’s home was glossy, vacuumed, and immaculate. Everyone had an SUV that had never seen mud, sparkling in their garage. 

The more I touched the edges of my friend’s world, the more it seemed a distant utopia--a place where atheists had godparents, dads went to Burning Man, and magic mushrooms could be the mundane subject of dinner-table conversation over wine. A place where lesbian Jewish moms homeschooled long-haired sons, wore their Chacos inside the house, and drove Priuses where mud-crusted dog hairs and breadcrumbs commingled. A place where you could watch Orange Is The New Black without any awkward fast-forwarding through the naked bits and studious avoidance of eye contact with everyone else sitting on the couch. 

I always found it difficult to explain my wide-eyed sense of wonder (or occasional tight-lipped shock) in this world, biting back my instinct to take off my shoes or affect a studious innocence I had long since lost. The rules in Delhi, where everyone was an uncle or an auntie, bhaiyya or didi, somehow felt less inscrutable than the norms at my friend’s house. None of the rules I had once learned about Other People’s Houses applied there in Berkeley. It was disorienting, and it was glorious. 

Thankfully, what my parents did instill in me was to try to reject the impulse to self-segregate. If my parents had told me, implicitly or explicitly, that I should stick to my own kind, that people who seemed like me were where safety lay, I never would have questioned the corporal punishment that many people inadvertently normalize. If I had had the same conversation that I had at summer camp with an Asian-American friend, the response might not have been a shocked “your mom hit you?” but a distinctly un-astonished “mm, me too” or even a “oh my god once I had it so much worse.” 

What does this echo chamber do for culture? What does this do to who we are, and what we think “being Asian” means? 

As a child, I thought that the gatekeepers of identity guarded temporal heavens. I now see that jealous gatekeepers only guard places of excarnation. If we breed insularity in the name of “preserving” culture, we are only huddling in our towers and waiting for the vultures to come. We think that by doing this we are keeping our bodies of culture alive. 

We do not see that, in doing this, we have already declared them dead. 

What "Chinese-American identity" means can and should change. It doesn't have to forever mean a staid, essentialized grouping of beliefs and customs--the Confucius lite of fortune cookie slips, cloying mooncakes crumbling in my hands, cash in red envelopes. 

Cui Jian understood this. China’s “godfather of rock n’ roll” heard something he liked in the recordings of American music that friends smuggled. He started learning guitar after hearing performers like Simon & Garfunkel, John Denver, the Beatles, and the Talking Heads. His songs blended influences from American rock, Chinese peasant songs, and even Communist sayings. When students marched in Tiananmen Square, his song “Nothing to My Name” became a rousing anthem for the protesters. Cui Jian said in an interview with the Washington Post, “Back then, people were used to hearing the old revolutionary songs and nothing else, so when they heard me singing about what I wanted as an individual they picked up on it.” 

I like Cui Jian’s story because it reflects that cultural change does not need to be unidirectional, constantly the product of Western repression or appropriation. It implies that we “ethnic” people of the world--whether members of diaspora communities or of non-Western countries--can jump out of our cultural lanes too, pulling strands out of foreign cultural experiences to thread together new creations. There are people like Paris-born Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whose Silk Road Ensemble includes Armenian duduk, Korean janggu, Galician gaita, and countless other instruments from around Eurasia. 

There’s art like the designs of prominent Beijing-based fashion designer Guo Pei, which evince the influences of both Chinese motifs and European icons; Vogue wrote “each passage represented a different rarefied archetype: ice queen, Art Deco diva, Belle Epoque enchantress, Russian princess, first lady, neo-Joséphine.” 


Maybe Chinese identity means singing along to Cui Jian in the shower, turning Silk Road Ensemble up on Spotify, or admiring Guo Pei’s designs in the pages of Vogue, and maybe I do it not out of fear--whether my grandfather's, of lost culture, or mine, of identity gatekeepers--but because I like the art. 

I like that version of the story better, because it feels more free. 

Marisa Meltzer writes in New York Magazine about how, to some, the movement for “body positivity” only creates new, more exacting pressures--some women now not only blame themselves for failing to regulate their bodies physically, but emotionally, as they look in the mirror and fall short of the high bar of self-love. Therefore, some women seek instead to cultivate “body neutrality” instead--what Meltzer terms “a kind of detente, a white flag, a way station between hating oneself and loving oneself.” 

I related to the article, in thinking about identity, because my cultural agnosticism has always felt like a kind of identity neutrality, a failure to wave some brightly colored flag with any genuinely felt enthusiasm. That’s why I am happy with white flags and way stations. I don’t believe in climactic clashes of civilization and culture wars. All I know, as a biracial person, is the messy business of becoming a certain kind of person around one set of relatives and a different one around others, of dancing in between worlds and trying not to disown them all. 

I recently added my Chinese name in parentheses after my English name on Facebook. I did it not out of pride, but self-recognition. 

The name, I realized after too many years of running away from it, was mine.

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Next up is Part 3: Vote.