Vocal

Here is a small gem from class that I want to remember. This exchange took place during an introductory phonetics class in which I am a graduate TA.

Professor X: Now, if you know the length of a person’s vocal tract, you can easily calculate the frequencies of the formants of the vowels they produce using this formula…
Student: Professor, how do you measure a person’s, um, vocal tract length?
Professor X: Well, first you die, and then we take it out of you.
[Entire class laughs]
Other TA: This is why we love Professor X.

Okay, now reading this in retrospect, it sounds awfully morbid. I promise that it was very funny in the moment, though.

This semester, I am teaching an introductory phonetics course as a graduate TA, which means that I don’t give the lectures, but I do lead three smaller discussion sections, with a total of about fifty students. I really enjoy this part of being a graduate student, and as I tell everyone who asks me what my future plans are, it’s because I believe teaching is one of my talents and something I definitely want to keep at the forefront of my career as a linguist. Which means that one day I would like to be like Professor X… maybe with a slightly different sense of humor, though! I crack jokes all the time during discussion sections, and I really do wonder whether my students think I’m funny or just incredibly awkward.

I’m grateful for the privilege of having the time and resources every week to influence, even in small ways, a group of very smart and talented young people. I know that I’m not just teaching them linguistics, but that other things I say or do in class, even offhand or subconsciously, is being picked up and encoded somewhere in their minds. That’s why I try hard to make my classroom completely accessible, fair, friendly, and tolerant. There are simple things an instructor can do to help all of their students achieve. For example, I can give the class problems to work out in small groups, then walk around and help the individual who is struggling get to the answer, and finally call on that student to explain their findings in front of the whole class, which boosts their confidence.

Unfortunately, there are also simple things an instructor can do that can unintentionally set a student on the course to failure, such as a microaggression or a flippant remark about a mistake they made. I have a tendency to ramble when I give my own lectures, and I do worry that I’ll say something stupid that will have an adverse reaction with a student and cause them to lose their trust in me. It’s tough, but I think it’s important to learn how to maximize the opportunities for student achievement and minimize the risk of alienation. On top of figuring out the actual course material, this is one of the more interesting aspects of teaching. (Plus, it’s one of the aspects of teaching, given the human element and the need for improvisation and mindfulness, that a robot cannot replicate, at least not yet…)

I will, of course, joke about my students from time to time, but don’t get me wrong: I care deeply about all of them. I care about their educational attainment, I care about their mental health, and I care about their physical safety. That’s why the other TA in the class and I decided to allow all students an excused absence last week during the height of the “Free Speech Week” debacle during which anti-fascist protests overtook parts of campus and the predicted presence of a huge contingent of the alt-right, plus a minor bomb scare, understandably made some students fearful of coming to school. We feel that our role as instructors in a public university carries with it a tad more authority than just that of experts in the subject matter. I want to demonstrate that we can be role models, too. And with our authority comes responsibility. It was the responsible thing for us to send a message to our students telling them to be safe, and telling them that they were all valued regardless of their religion, ethnicity, legal status, sexual orientation, or gender.

Every day I understand more and more, usually from firsthand experience, what it takes to be an excellent teacher. As long as I am “in school”, or part of an academic institution, I would very much like to continue learning. In fact, I don’t want to stop learning new things until the day that I die. And then you can take my vocal tract out and measure its length.

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Word of the Day: keen — in this case, the noun/verb keen that is derived from the Irish caoine, not the adjective — is a wailing lament for the dead, or the act of mourning. My heart goes out to the families of the victims of the Las Vegas massacre. END GUN VIOLENCE THROUGH STRICTER GUN REGULATION NOW. Call your Congressional representatives and shame them if they do not support legislation that brings the United States one step closer to all those other Western countries that don’t experience massacres like this one on a regular basis. My lament starts with words and ends in action.

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The Word of Your Body

Who gets to be body positive? Asking for a friend.

Actually, no, I’m asking for myself. A word of warning: this post is going to sound very self-centered, because I am going to talk about my own body for a couple thousand words. (That’s worth a picture or two, but I’m not posting any here!)

A few months ago, at my college reunion, I ran into a friend whom I hadn’t talked to in five years. Of course, we’d been following each others’ lives through Facebook during that time period, so it wasn’t as if I’d completely lost touch.

“Heyyy! How’s grad school? What year are you in again? And what program are you in again? And what school? Oh, yeah, that’s totally awesome.”

Social media does weird things to friendships. But that’s a topic for another time.

What really intrigued me about our encounter, which occurred while we were both fairly drunk, was this: at one point he put his arm around me and said, very earnestly, “Andrew, listen, I’ve seen your photos on Instagram and DAMN you been working out! You look so good!” Before I could even say thanks, he went on, “I’m really inspired by your body positivity, man. Look, us Asian males are so emasculated by society, today, know what I mean? We don’t get to be hot. But you, putting yourself out there with no shame, it’s a good thing. I really mean it. Keep it up, bro.”

This was at first amusing, and then embarrassing, and then thought-provoking. Amusing because I thought he was just drunk rambling. Embarrassing because attention was being drawn to my habit of sharing photos of myself that I like in a quasi-public arena. Thought-provoking because he associated it with the concept of body positivity.

Let’s go deeper into this. Lots of people post photos of themselves on Facebook and Instagram. If their outfit looks good, if their hair is cooperating, if their makeup is on point: “Wait, let me take a selfie!” The shot gets posted, the likes start flowing, and the content creator gets a small boost of self-esteem. Some would call it vanity. Honestly, these are just two points on the long and complex spectrum of personal dignity. But I digress.

Fewer people, though still a good number of them, post photos of themselves that highlight their bodies, rather than (or maybe in addition to) other parts of themselves such as clothes or makeup. Maybe they just finished a workout and want to pose in the gym mirror to create a record of their progress. Maybe they like the way their legs look at a certain angle, in a certain light that they just happened to notice. Maybe it’s a hella hot day, so they’re wearing a crop top or no shirt at all, and their friend took a picture, and why not post it? It’s summer, they’re having fun.

Well, I’m one of those people. I post photos of myself that allow others to see my body. A quick look at my own social media pages reveals: fifteen percent (six out of forty) of the photos I’ve tagged myself in since January of this year are photos of myself without a shirt on. My Instagram account is a worse offender: nearly one third of my “me” photos are unsubtle shots of my abs. And while I may jokingly deny any ulterior motive if you bring this up with me in person (“Come on, it’s just a photo of me at the beach!”), I’ll be perfectly honest here: of course it’s about the attention. Of course it’s about getting comments. Like, yes, I want to show people where I’ve been, what I’m doing, I want to my friends to know that I’m alive and well, blah bah blah. But, also, I’ve been working out for years, and you know what? I have something to show for it, and I would like that to be acknowledged, especially by those who knew me when I was a skinny little kid who couldn’t do a single pull-up.

This helps me put into perspective what my friend told me back at the reunion party. He may have been drunk, but he was completely serious: Asian men who grow up in American or Western cultures have to live with the stereotypes of being weak and unmasculine (along with perpetual foreignness and emotional unsophistication). The manliest of men are, according to all mainstream advertising and entertainment media, tall, white, blue-eyed, and broad-shouldered. They have chiseled jaws and abs; they look like Greek statues (which used to be painted in vibrant colors but are now, well, all white). Men of Asian descent are unlikely to have blue eyes; our limbs and torsos are differently proportioned; we are not White. We will never be White. We will never escape emasculation, but what we can work on is our musculature.

I was a skinny kid and I was never interested in sports. But I am competitive, and I also hold fast to ideals. So I set goals for myself. I want to run races. I want to squat three hundred pounds. I want to gain muscles. And I want to look good.

There’s a very good question I know some of you are asking yourselves: Andrew, why on earth are you ascribing to white American standards of male beauty, anyway? Screw them and their definition of what it means to “look good”; dismantle the system that continues to give more power and influence to people who all arbitrarily look a certain way. What’s wrong with the abs-less version of yourself, anyway?

I fully acknowledge that line of reasoning. I don’t want to give any more power to embodied racist ideologies. But it’s also true that my performance-based goals and my physique-based goals are very closely intertwined. I know, of course, that they don’t have to be. Perfectly healthy and very fit people come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve just noticed that there’s a close relationship between how many shoulder presses I can do and how well my shoulders themselves fill out the t-shirts I wear. My current goal is to get to 5*5@110, or five sets of five repetitions at 110 pounds, and also to increase the roundness of my deltoids. I mean, one of these goals is specific and measurable in the way that most goals should be, and the other sounds pretty vague and vain, but the point is that both motivate me equally.

Now here’s the tricky part. I talk about my workout routines pretty often, my friends and colleagues all think I basically live at the gym, and yes, I am shameless about the photos I post that demonstrate progress toward my goals. Is this body positivity? I’m actually unsure. When that phrase gets thrown around these days, it’s mostly in the context of self-esteem education, like, “It doesn’t matter what your body looks like, you should love yourself and take care of yourself. You are beautiful.” I get that a lot of this messaging (and marketing) is aimed toward people, especially women, who are on the larger end of the spectrum of human body sizes. This is obviously because American culture currently prizes a certain type of thinness for women, and a different type of skinniness (also paired with a specific musculature) for men. So, those who fall outside of the narrow window, which for a majority of Americans means being rounder and heavier than the ideal, are regularly subjected to shame and disapproval from every direction, especially in the form of microaggressions.

Body positivity is, as I understand it, a movement to counter this by reminding all people that they should not feel like they have to look a certain way to be happy, that not all healthy people are thin (and not all thin people are healthy), that the body you’ve been given is amazing just the way it is.

But because it’s essentially only the larger folks before whom body positivity is paraded as the key to happiness, won’t we inevitably see a semantic shift toward polite euphemism? What I mean is, “body positive” will soon only be associated with large people since they are at the physical and referential center of its use in society. “He’s body positive” will be interpreted as, “He’s fat, but (at least) feels good about it.”

Can skinny people be body positive, too? (I can imagine the argument that people who have experience with certain eating disorders or self-harm may also want to reclaim ownership of their bodies, and in so doing adopt a spirit of body positivity despite also being very thin.) How about people whose bodies are really quite average, in the statistical sense? Not fatter than average or skinnier than average, not a super sculpted physique, either. What does embracing body positivity look like for them?

And lastly, is it possible to be body positive if you have trained your body for years to look like Wonder Woman or Black Panther, if you’re incredibly ripped or toned or swole or whatever, and you post photos of yourself flexing in gym mirrors, and you caption them #fitfam #gainz #nevergiveup #beachbody #selflove and also #bodypositive… Hey fit fam, how do we feel about this? Is their appreciation of their bodies somehow different, because contextually their bodies are glorified by the majority of society and not just themselves? My gut says yes, but I am not, well, positive…

So I’m asking again: who gets to be body positive? Who gets to claim ownership of a part of this movement? If only those who fall short of the cultural ideals do, then will they ensconce themselves in a bubble of affirmation? If those who physically embody those ideals do, does it smack of insincerity? Do we have to take into context the reality that people’s bodies are capable of change, and that many, if not most, of us genuinely desire for our bodies to conform to an ideal that looks different from their current state?

I like that when I search the #bodypositive hashtag on Instagram, I am returned images of a large variety of people: black and white, curvy and thin, chubby and muscled and both (#transformationtuesday), mostly women but no shortage of men, either. What this tells me is that, at least in the here and now, anyone can feel free to use this as their personal mantra and incorporate it into their version of showing off online.

And I maintain that there’s nothing inherently wrong with showing off online. Oops, did I go there? Yes, yes, I know. “All is vanity”, Solomon declared; everything that is of this world, including our bodies, is ultimately meaningless and will waste away. Our lives are so short, why bother trying to look good? Why put in so much effort to gain others’ approval or arouse their jealousy? I am almost ready to chastise myself for taking my focus off of the spiritual and eternal in even writing this post.

On the other hand, while the looming impermanence of our lives can be instantly sobering, it’s also true that from our own perspective as humans, life can be long, and it can be fulfilling in the physical realm. Our bodies are temples; we are meant to take care of them through exercise and healthy living. We are even meant to enjoy them. We were created to delight in one another. I see no reason why a person’s physique, or a creative outfit they’ve conjured up, or even their smile, should be restricted from being a source of joy to those around us (unless it comes at the heels of abuse or narcissism).

In the end, well, I’m not sure what kinds of concluding remarks I can make. Let’s see. I was mystified at being commended for my body positivity, because I thought that the phrase could only be used by those who have been shamed for their bodies. But as an Asian male, the archetype of my body has rarely been praised, even though as a skinny person, I’ve never had to experience fatphobia, either. I wondered if body positivity could be fairly used by people whose bodies are always regarded positively, and then I explored the slight tension between appreciating the things of the physical world and keeping one’s focus on the metaphysical one.

For me, at the moment, I think that embracing and advocating for body positivity should mean that you take care of your own body and love it every step of the way toward any goal that you have in life. I also think that you should actively unlearn the warped ideals of American beauty that you have probably unconsciously adopted just by virtue of having grown up here (if you grew up here), and embrace the beauty in all other people regardless of body type (or skin color, or height, or hairline, or whatever). But I might still hesitate before using the hashtag on my own selfies when I post them, unless I offer an appropriate context (e.g., claiming #bodypositive ownership of my Asian appearance in defiance of White norms).

So that’s where I’m at now, and I would be so intrigued to hear anyone else’s thoughts on the matter. Leave a comment below!

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Word of the Day: panniculus, from the Latin pannus meaning cloth, refers to a layer of tissue, usually subcutaneous fatty tissue around the abdomen. In other words, belly fat. Everyone has belly fat. It’s totally normal to have belly fat. Don’t worry about it.

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Haii Hawai’i

Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Hawai’i, the fiftieth state1 of our nation and the only archipelago of tropical islands I can fly to without a passport. I almost panicked for a minute when I realized I hadn’t brought mine to the airport, but luckily a driver’s license is enough. There were plenty of other things to focus on while traveling, though, including my cousin’s five-month-old baby! It was a fun group; little Noelle had her two parents and two cousin-uncles to take care of a whole lot of carry-on luggage: a car seat, a stroller, and so many suitcases. We’d packed beachwear and snorkel gear, of course, but also our nicest clothes for our friends’ wedding!

This was the first time I’d gone to a destination wedding; Rebekah and John are both from California, but it was their dream to get married in Hawai’i, complete with trips to the beach, snacking on shaved ice, and a Disney character lunch at Aulani! Naturally, we had to stretch it out into a week-long trip, so I got to enjoy some time off in between the end of summer session and the beginning of fall semester.

I have a lot of disparate thoughts about Hawai’i that I’d like to just present in brief.

1) First of all, it’s so beautiful. I have never been to a beach as gorgeous as Sandy Beach nor seen as deep a blue in any body of water as the ocean from Makapu’u2. It was thrilling to realize that at all times I was completely surrounded by the Pacific. Oahu is so small! And so much of it is gorgeous, mountainous, Jurassic Park-esque forest (or jungle?), peppered with the “country”, or rural areas. Honolulu, the capital city, didn’t scintillate or inspire awe in me in terms of its architecture — notably, one towering apartment complex downtown caught everyone’s eyes because three floors of it had completely burned out in a recent fire — but every evening as the sun set, the city simply glowed. I felt fortunate to be in a place of such natural beauty.

2) Rebekah and John’s wedding was beautiful in a more metaphorical sense. I have known Rebekah since elementary school; we basically grew up together in the same church. I am so happy for her in taking this big step in her relationship with a wonderful man, and I am especially happy that their relationship is solidly grounded in their shared faith. During the ceremony, they did a foot-washing ceremony, one that takes inspiration from a passage in the Gospel of John in which Jesus, a leader and respected teacher, serves his followers by washing their (probably very dirty) feet. The ceremony as seen in Christian weddings today is meant to symbolize the two partners’ mutual dignity, humility, and servant-like attitude toward each other. It may strike some as being awkward to watch, but I think that’s part of the idea. We go to great lengths today to put on appearances of elegance, cleanliness, and propriety. Washing someone else’s stinky foot (I mean, it was humid on that island!) is sort of the antithesis of this. Even when it’s done in a pretty place set to pretty music, the juxtaposition is strange. But that’s why I appreciated it all the more!

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Me, Josh, John, Rebekah, Irene, and Dan (carrying baby Noelle!)

3) Also… damn. Weddings. Marriage. Concepts that often bring conflict to the queer heart. I’m reminded of a funny stand-up piece by John Mulaney about how every time one goes to a wedding, it begets nothing but reminders (in the comedian’s case, reminders from his girlfriend) that, well, the clock is ticking on that whole marriage thing! Like, when you hit your mid-twenties — and I’m almost in my late twenties, good heavens — it seems like there are more and more weddings every summer. In the past three months alone I’ve been to two and seen eight more on Facebook. The conflict, though, stems from the years of adolescence I spent thinking that I would never get married, not because I didn’t want to, but because I couldn’t, as a Christian and a gay man, because the only choice I thought available to me was lifelong celibacy — and inevitably, lifelong loneliness. For people who choose celibacy, I respect their decision and I am not predicting that they will be lonely, but I know myself and I know I don’t have that gift. I couldn’t do it. So now, here I am, semi-cautiously putting myself out there as a guy looking for another guy to live life with, and… I mean, going to a wedding and seeing two people who have succeeded in that search makes me happy for them! But also makes me feel very aware of my current lack of success in that search. Look, I know that this is not what weddings are about; they’re not about me. God forbid I so much as appear to be resentful. And I also know that a wedding is just ceremonial, and only the beginning of a lifelong journey that has ups and downs; it’s not a fairy-tale ending. But! Our culture — especially American Christian culture — hypes up weddings and marriage so much that I can’t help but think, before, after, and during, that I would like to begin that lifelong journey with somebody, too.

4) While on the beach I took some time to record a short ASL vlog, as I’ve been doing on all my travels this past summer. It was my worst video yet! Ha. I say that because I am very rusty in ASL, out of practice and kind of adrift without anyone to converse with. But I tried my best anyway. And the cool thing is that after I posted the video, I was told by a few friends about the status of Hawai’i Sign Language, a sign language that supposedly predates American Sign Language in that region, but is almost extinct. You can read about it here. I was fascinated by this story, because I never knew anything about HSL! And I’m concerned, as a linguist, about both the status of the language and the volatility of the personal politics around it. Since there’s arguably only one native speaker left, the speech community depends a lot on her, but there will always be arguments about her reliability. It’s a difficult question for linguists who document endangered languages, whether the decisions they make about their subjects of study will cause trouble in the communities they observe. In my opinion, it’s always better to get as much language data as possible, even if it varies from person to person, because, well, the alternative is to risk losing a potentially rich source of information — not just their different versions of words or signs, but also meta-linguistic information such as why they think the differences occur, and how they are judged. All of this is important data for a linguist, and I hope that the documentation efforts underway in Hawai’i will press on.

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Alan Davis, where we went snorkeling!

5) I was both fully entertained and slightly put off by the Aulani resort in Kapolei, on the beautiful western coast of Oahu. The entire region is nothing but luxury resorts and golf courses, and Aulani is probably the most paradisiacal. It also goes to great lengths to reproduce traditional Hawaiian and Polynesian culture. For example, the restaurant we went to was decorated with woodblock carvings of common objects and their names in the Hawaiian language. The resort also had exhibits about traditional Polynesian crafts and a model of the Hōkūleʻa, a double-hulled canoe which inspired one of the large boats in the Disney movie Moana. Lastly, the performances at our “character lunch” were not limited to appearances by giant Mickey and Minnie Mouse in Hawaiian print shirts, but also a charismatic, dark-skinned Aunty who played a ukulele and sang kid-friendly songs about Aloha and caring for the natural resources of the islands. It seemed to me, an outsider, that there was lots of effort put in to show guests that this is what Hawai’i is really like. Yet I couldn’t help but think, “Well, actually, this is what Disney’s Hawai’i is really like”. I got into a discussion with my friends about how Disney is using this real estate, these people, and their culture as a means to make money for itself as a corporation. Sure, the money from thousands of visitors a year funnels back into the local economy (and there’s a bigger discussion here about why the entire state’s economy depends so heavily on tourism), but I really wonder, if native local Hawaiians could design a resort that would showcase their culture, history, architecture, and food, would it look at all the same? Would it look like a 20-story tiki hut? Would it have a lazy river flowing in the middle of it? Would it sell Lilo and Stitch dolls? I learned after reading this Seattle Magazine review of Aulani that local “elders” were in fact able to oversee the vision and design of the resort, down to the smallest decorative details, which is a comfort to know. But if it still takes Disney levels of million-dollar financing to create true cultural authenticity, then what is a little island in an ocean of consumerism to do?

Well, that’s all I wanted to say for now. Aloha~

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1and by “state” I really mean “colonized territory”, but that’s a story for another post…
2with the exception of Crater Lake, Oregon

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A beautiful sunset in Waikiki.

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Word of the Day: haole ([ˈhɔule], or “ho-lay”, sometimes “how-lee”) is the native Hawaiian term for ethnic non-Hawaiians, usually White people. It is often used derogatorily, but that doesn’t mean it’s a racist term (depending on your definition of racism). Just… watch this video, a great sound byte by Haunani-Kay Trask about the use of the term, from Island Issues: Racism and Academic Freedom (VHS, 1990).

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Summer School

This summer, I’m teaching an undergraduate course called “Language and Sex”, and on the very first day, I had to give my students the disclaimer that we would not be talking about sex sex. Nope, this is a class about sex as a concept that relates to gender and sexuality. Sorry! This is more like a gender and sexuality studies class mashed up with sociolinguistics; not at all like your high school sex ed. I hope none of them had their hopes dashed.

Earlier this week, we began a short unit on sexuality and how sexual identity interacts with speech and language. So far, for the past three weeks, I’ve been introducing many concepts to my students that they may consider very new. More than half of my students are international students, many from China. They have admitted to not knowing very much about Western (read: American) LGBTQ culture, very little apart from what they can glean from their limited access to our movies and TV shows.

Out of a sensitivity to the (presumed) diversity of opinions — and likely the many misconceptions about sexuality I was going to encounter from my students — I began the lesson with another disclaimer: we are here to listen to one another and learn; please try to keep an open mind to things that may strike you as unusual or even wrong!

The lesson then began with a survey of the LGBTQ “Alphabet Soup”, as it’s been called in jest. This well-known acronym can get very long, because there are a lot of gender and sexuality-related identities that people would like it to cover. (The longest I’ve seen are LGBTTQQIAAP and LGBTQQIP2SAA — yes, there’s a number in there, too!) You know, labels are language, too, so we discussed some of the terms’ etymological histories (like why “queer” used to be derogatory but is being reclaimed by many queer communities), as well as when they are appropriate to use.

The visual response from my students was entertaining as I described concepts like gender fluidity and asexuality. It was easy to tell from their slack-jawed stares that most of them were treading on completely new territory. And they were full of good questions, too! Like whether the term asexual refers just to sexuality or also gender. One student asked: “If bisexuality refers to a person who is attracted to men and women, does that mean just male and female genders, or male and female biology?” I thought that I should answer that people are attracted to other people, not just body parts, but I wasn’t sure how to say that tactfully. Instead, I deflected and said, “That’s a good question to explore; I’m not sure of the answer, but I’m also not an expert in bisexuality.”

Fortunately, we had an expert right there in the classroom.

I had suspected that she might be queer from the beginning of the semester, of course, because she had written on her introduction note card (that only I could read) that she was a leader of an LGBT club on her campus back in China. But I did not expect her to openly divulge this information to her classmates. After the other student’s question, though, she raised her hand and offered, “As someone who identifies as bisexual…” And that’s when suddenly the entire room sat up straight.

Though I cannot recall what she said exactly, I thanked her for her contribution, and then we moved on to the next part of the lecture. But she still commanded everyone’s attention, because during our ten-minute break, every other student gathered around her to ask her questions. They wanted to know when she discovered she was bi, whether she had any preference for either gender, and especially what the climate was like for the queer community at her university, since campus LGBTQ activism in China is still generally unheard of. I should add that normally, during the break, all the students whip out their phones and text silently for the entirety of it, or leave the classroom altogether. That day was the one of the only exceptions, and I just stood behind my desk, pretending to work but secretly eavesdropping on my student’s candid and brave testimony.

I know from my own experience that coming out is not always an easy thing to do, and that most queer people have to come out again and again throughout their lives. I am proud of my student for taking on the burden of answering all her peers’ questions, as she did not necessarily ask to be put in the hot seat. As a queer person myself, I believe that representation really matters, so her sharing about her personal life was important for everyone who heard it. However, I also know that we should never expect a queer person to take on that role, since it can cause unnecessary stress. It’s not the token minority’s responsibility to educate everyone else, especially if they’re the only one in the room.

Now, of course, this student was not the only queer person in the room. I’m sort of wondering now if it would serve any beneficial purpose for me to talk about my own experiences, or at least casually slip it in to part of a lecture. (e.g., “So when we talk about the stereotype of gay men all speaking with a lisp, we know that’s not true, as I certainly don’t speak with one…”?)

I’ll mull over it. There are just two weeks left in this short summer “semester”, though. When it’s over, I’m traipsing off to Hawai’i for a wedding… and right after that, fall semester begins! Dude, where did summer break go?!

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Word of the Day: sapiosexual, from Latin sapient (wise, to have taste) and the root -sexual (denoting attraction, not orientation), is a term that refers to a person who finds intelligence sexually attractive. It’s most definitely a recent coinage; dictionary.com traces its first recorded use to the early 2000s. I wonder if it started off as a kind of slang term, on par with the (maybe) facetious metrosexual or lumbersexual… but its use is clearly gaining. I find a lot of self-professed sapiosexuals on Tinder!

 

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You Had Me at Helsinki

It has been about a week since I returned from my trip to Europe, during which I presented my research at two linguistics conferences. I wanted to write a short recap about the second of these conferences, but I had to hit the ground running in preparing for the summer course that I’m teaching, leaving me no time to collect my thoughts. Every day has been spent playing catch-up, wrestling with administrative snafus, and finalizing lesson plans with moments to spare… Really, this past week has been such a blur! But it’s finally Friday. Time to take a breather.

As I step out of my classroom here, I think back to the classrooms at the University of Helsinki, where I was both a “student” listening to other researchers discuss their work and a “teacher” as I presented my own work. One similarity that I did not really expect was the language background of my audience in both situations. About half of my summer course students are international; many are from various parts of China, and their English proficiency levels vary considerably. How does that relate to my conference talk attendees? Well, the conference in Helsinki was the biennial meeting of the International Circle of Korean Linguistics. It’s a conference for linguists who work on any aspect of Korean (or the Koreanic languages), so naturally the majority of the conference delegates are from Korea, with Korean as their first language. However, most of the conference talks were given in English.

I hadn’t taken this into consideration when I planned my presentation: it was twenty minutes for thirty slides, which means that I had to talk pretty quickly. I wondered why I got so few questions and comments at the end of my presentation, despite the sizable audience, until someone brought to my attention the hypothesis that perhaps I had spoken too quickly for most of my listeners to follow along well enough to come up with anything to say in response. Either that, or too few of them had enough experience with phonetics (the sub-field of linguistics that I specialize in).

At ISB, the bilingualism conference in Ireland, I got plenty of very good feedback, so I’m not too bummed about the ICKL talk. At the very least, my colleagues told me that my presentation was very well done, and that even if they didn’t have any questions, they were interested in the work I’m doing. Another net positive is that I got to connect with other young Korean scholars, as well as one big name in the field, and I was inspired by a few other talks to take my project in a new direction in preparation for my dissertation.

(A net negative was the realization that my conversational Korean fluency is very, very poor now, after years of not practicing. If I’m going to consider myself a specialist in Korean, I need to be able to speak the language better! And just because English is the lingua franca among academics doesn’t mean I have to rely solely on it to communicate.)

Anyway, it was nice to be in Helsinki at this time of the year, too. First of all, Finland is celebrating its 100th year of independence from Russia (Happy Birthday, Finland!). Part of the reason for having ICKL in Helsinki was to honor both Finland’s centennial and also a prominent Finnish linguist named Ramstedt who worked on Korean and other languages of the Altaic language family during the 20th century. Secondly, it being just after midsummer, the days were long and the sky was always a spectacular shade of blue. In addition, it was nice to see Pride flags everywhere since Helsinki Pride was the same week! (I was sorry to have missed the parade, since by then I was already back in the States.)

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My dad came to Helsinki, too! He took some photos of me giving my presentation.

So now, after three weeks and six countries (plus one week to recharge), I have the rest of the summer left to tackle a fairly lengthy to-do list. I need to put in a lot more time until the syllabus for the sociolinguistics course I’m teaching is where I want it to be. At the same time, I need to get back into running experiments for two of my side projects, which is going to take a big chunk out of each week, time-wise. Lastly — and probably most importantly — I need to prepare my dissertation prospectus, which is sort of like a sample chapter of my dissertation, and discuss with my adviser if the idea I picked up at ICKL is a worthwhile one to pursue.

Then there’s the typical slew of academic administrivia: grant writing, abstract submissions, data analysis, plus the new specter that looms over rising fourth-years: practice job applications! That’s right: this fall I am going to pretend that I have marketable skills try to convince an institution of higher education to hire me to teach and do research independently. The odds are slim, but that’s why we do this “practice round” before things get real serious next year.

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Word of the Day: An orrery is a mechanical model of the solar system. The name derives from the title of the Charles Boyle, Earl of Orrery, to whom an early clock-based model built by George Graham was dedicated. The title itself comes from Irish Gaelic Orbhraighe (or Orbraige, pronounced something like [ˈɔrvare] or “orvery”?), meaning ‘people of Orb’ and presumably referring to an old tribe. I spent three weeks at or above fifty-five degrees latitude, and as I watched the sun swing across the sky in a most unusual manner, it was cool to realize that I was really witnessing the effect of being in a different part of the same planet, rather than any change in the sun or earth’s positions themselves.

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Multilingualism and Its Discontents

Greetings from Ireland! (The way they say it here, there is aspiration in the intervocalic /t/!)

I’m at the University of Limerick for my first international conference, giving the first presentation of a research project that is entirely my own. Truth be told, this is pretty exciting! And the conference itself, the 11th International Symposium on Bilingualism, is really neat. It’s an academic conference, but it’s not just for theoretical linguists. Anyone who studies any aspect of bilingualism is here, from anthropologists to psychologists to education researchers. Since we’re in Great Britain, lots of folks who work with Celtic language revitalization have come; there also seems to be a bias toward Europeans/Westerners and research done in Europe and North America.

There are over 900 abstracts being presented as talks and posters by delegates from over sixty countries, with every morning or afternoon holding between twelve and twenty (?!) concurrent sessions. It’s sort of overwhelming. I’ve listened to so many great talks already (and some not so great ones, but that’s bound to happen at a conference of this size), sticking mostly to sessions that focus on heritage language speakers and ethnic identity or bilingual cognition and codeswitching.

I gave my talk this morning in a session that was pretty sparsely attended. I was somewhat grateful for this, since having too many people listen to me would have made me more nervous. Some talks I attended had seventy, eighty other folks crammed into the small classroom, but I think the average has been more like twenty.

Fortunately, those who did attend my talk were great audience members who listened respectfully and had positive feedback for me at the end. Although my presentation wasn’t 100% where I would have liked it to be, I gave it my best shot. (I’m feeling much more relieved now that it’s over and done with.)

Being in academia has its ups and downs; there are some days when I wonder if I’m doing anything right. But it helps when your friends and colleagues (shoutout to Alice, Melinda, and Charles!) attend your talk to silently offer moral support. It also helps when strangers (who look like they have more experience than you and could actually be famous researchers) tell you that your work is interesting! When people whip out their phones during your talk not to check their texts, but to take photos of your data. When they ask intelligent questions at the end. When they request a copy of your slides. After this morning, I felt validated in a way that can’t come from the well-wishes of one’s friends and classmates, because people who had no reason to give me their time or attention did, and were even happy to.

I’m still a novice academic, but I do feel like I’m in the right place. Now, I can fully enjoy the rest of the conference and be wowed by the cool ideas I’m hearing, without worrying about my own work or constantly feeling like I need to Do Better to fit in.

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I want to switch gears here and report on this afternoon’s plenary talk (in Irish English, that’s [pʰlinəɹi]!) that I found to be wonderful, though it seems that the overall reaction was mixed.

The featured speaker was Alexandre Duchêne, whose work I was not familiar with but should really begin paying attention to. His research subject is multilingualism as a concept, a commercialized object that he calls Multilingualism, Inc. (hearkening to Food, Inc. and other discourses of corporatization). He spent a few minutes lauding the achievements of bilingual and multilingual studies as a relatively young academic field: bringing awareness of multilingualism in society into greater prominence since the early 90’s, productively complicating older linguistic theories, and even positively influencing language-related public policy in some cases. But the rest of the lecture was a gentle criticism of all the ways that the academy stands to lose (or has already lost) control of it, because multilingualism, like any other subject of scientific study, can be turned into a tool for economic profit, corporate or nationalist gain, and the perpetuation of social inequality.

Mr. Duchêne shone a stark light on multilingualism as a business (e.g., advertising that says, “Science has proven that your kid will be smarter if he’s bilingual; enroll in our Mandarin-only daycare today!”; or advisers that say, “You need to know a foreign language if you want to be competitive in the job market”). While multilingualism arises naturally in individuals or communities who need to solve a communicative problem, in the progressive parts of rich Western nations, it is celebrated only insofar as it can be appropriated and commodified. In addition, only certain types of multilingualism are legitimized: Spanish and Mandarin are useful now, and French is sexy, but how much do we care about the Navajo-English bilingual community? Speaking English with a foreign accent is a sign of bilingualism, but why is the Brazilian accent attractive while the Japanese accent is stigmatized?

And as academics, are we complicit in promoting these very narrow views of who multilinguals are or allowing (quasi-nationalist) monolingual ideologies to flourish in our heterogeneous countries? (Fun fact: English is not the official language of the United States. We have no official language. And yet…)

As the people who discover that there are (some) cognitive advantages (in some cases) for (some) bilinguals, are we guilty of allowing public erasure of the ongoing debates over the ideas that are packaged and sold from these discoveries?

As the scholars who contribute to an ever-proliferating lexicon of new behavioral models, new schools of thought, and new coinages for language behaviors (e.g., “translanguaging”, “neo-native speaker”, “Dominant Language Constellations”), are we aware of how much of the push behind this academic creativity comes from the publication mill and the “knowledge economy” (i.e., journal$$$)? From our need to write interesting grants and design brandable projects that spotlight the latest jargon in order to win a limited amount of funding?

Or did you think that you are truly only driven by a thirst for knowledge, a calling to teach, and/or some noble social cause?

Are we aware that the ivory tower — such an old, White, patriarchal institution — has always been a part of an unequal system of distributing intellectual, social, and economic capital? If we join it, even if it is in order to put food on the table, how can we simultaneously confront it and prevent this new-ish field of multilingualism from going the same way as every other?

Keep in mind that all of this was delivered as featured talk at an academic conference. There were journal and textbook vendors right outside the doors of the auditorium, and Mr. Duchêne was informing us that buying them was buying into the System. Brilliant! But he also said that every one of us, by having paid to be present on the campus of this institution of higher education and enjoy the intellectual bazaar, was also now a part of the knowledge economy. Whew. And while he stressed multiple times that none of this was inherently bad, the final point was that it does also need to be deconstructed.

He encouraged all of us to take on the social responsibility of being in academia. To identify when and how we involve ourselves in Multilingualism, Inc. and look for opportunities to divest, or to pour our own resources into helping the underprivileged even within our own circles or research sites. To make sure our advocacy is not in bed with either monolingual or multilingual ideological regimes. To remain humble in our continuing quest for “legitimate knowledge” and keep the debate going outside of our ivory towers.

This plenary talk was so full of such rich and engaging ideas. It was also, admittedly, filable under the “White man tells a room full of white people to be more aware of their whiteness” trope. But overall, I think this was great stuff, and it was controversial, and it was necessary. We dream of a world where individuals and societies are as multilingual as they see fit, with full social support for the inevitable conflicts this brings, and without too much (if any) capitalistic pressure or sway. Until then, may we all be more open and communicative… in whatever language(s) we desire to use.

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Word of the Day: the Gaeltacht ([ˈɡeːl̪t̪əxt̪], or “gale-tuct”) are the small rural, mostly western costal regions of Ireland in which Irish (or Irish Gaelic) is traditionally spoken. Decades ago, most native speakers of Irish lived in the Gaeltacht, but due to age and emigration, these populations are shrinking. New speakers of Irish, which some call “neo-native”, are learning Irish in school (and not from their parents), which is great in eyes of some who desire revitalization, but does not help the declining cultural and economic situation of the Gaeltacht.

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The Last Five Years

The paradox of being an internal processor in the Internet age is that while I prefer to do my thinking through writing, as many who keep journals can relate to, I also admit to following that irresistible urge to share my thoughts with the world online. There is a delicate balance between writing honestly about my life — which is necessary for personal reflection and deconstruction — and writing engagingly and relevantly — which is necessary for the entertainment of my audience, but sometimes requires being less than completely frank. I think that more often than not, I aim for the more candid version of anything I might set out to write. But here’s the funny thing: it seems that the blog posts that generate the most traffic are also the ones that address the darker and sadder parts of my life. At least, they’re not the ones that I would necessarily call “entertaining”. They are just starker, realer reflections of my current worldview: life is tough, but hope is there, and though it be small, it is yet powerful.

Anyway, where am I going with this? I’m reflecting on my blogging after having attended my five-year college reunion. (Five. Years. Time just doesn’t give a damn, does it?) A lot of my peers came up to me over the weekend and commented on how they have enjoyed keeping up with my blog posts over the years. One of my friends told me that she still reads whenever I share a link to a new post on Facebook, even though she might never leave a comment. And this made me realize that even though we have only had the briefest of text message conversations over the past five years, she must know a hell of a lot more about my current life — the good and the bad included — than I know about hers. I find this very interesting and ruminated on it long after she had caught me up on everything she’d been up to.

It’s not just the writing, though. Social media has allowed me to keep tabs on some people from high school, college, and Korea, but I can’t explain the seemingly random subset of my acquaintances that it has chosen to send to the top of my feed. I ran into a former classmate and already knew that she’d finished a graduate program and moved to a new city. But one of my former roommates seems to have dropped off the face of the earth. (A quick Facebook check shows me that this is not true; the algorithms just decided that I haven’t been super interested in following his posts these past five years, and to an extent I guess that they were right.)

It’s possible now for an arbitrary photo to go viral, or one well-timed shared link accompanied by commentary to allow all one’s networks to get the latest scoop on your life, your looks, your stance on current affairs. You don’t have to put a lot of effort into this; get lucky with the social media algorithms, and seventy-five percent of your world can know who you’ve become without ever having to ask. And once you’ve put your big announcements out there, the burden of knowing what’s going on is on them, not you.

Yet it’s just as possible for a former friend to quietly fade from your life if you don’t take on the responsibility of sending an email or calling them up yourself.

For the most part, though, my friends and I remarked at reunion that it was so funny to chance upon a classmate and ask, “What have you been up to these past five years?” but already, in fact, know the answer.

Let’s be honest: attending a reunion requires quite a bit of performance. Sometimes you have to feign interest in your old classmate’s new job (because you’ve heard that same spiel from a dozen other people), or tell them their kids are honestly just the cutest ever (but you’ve already seen the photos on Instagram), or make a promise to hang out because you’ve just discovered you both live in the same city (or you did know and conveniently forgot). For every person I was genuinely overjoyed to see again, there were three that I was merely pleased to see again. (There was nobody, fortunately, that I had actively wanted to avoid.) But everyone gets the same smile and salutation: “So good to see you again! What have you been up to these past five years?”

I also found that I had to do some self-editing when I answered the question for my own part. If someone had just told me they had just finished grad school or were in some doctoral program, I found it much easier to describe what I’m doing now at Berkeley. But for friends who were not, I became very self-conscious of how I might come across if I talked about what it’s like to get a fancy degree or how fortunate I am to be paid to stay in school. Since some of my peers are in between jobs or are otherwise stalled in their careers, I tried to downplay how comfortable I am in my present circumstances (though I feel uncomfortable writing this), because, well, no one likes meeting up with an old friend only to discover that they’ve become a pretentious braggadocio.

Perhaps I’m being too cynical about this. Well, what did you expect? It comes from a place of honesty. See, I am always happy to get back in touch with old friends and acquaintances, but my preference has always been to do this on a one-on-one basis: grabbing a meal with a few people at a time to chat, rather than squeezing in a hundred quick awkward catch-up conversations in forty-eight hours. I had to wring the extroversion out of myself like tepid water from a very limp sponge, and I may not be ready to do it all again until the ten-year reunion. “See you all in five years!” I said brightly — and truthfully — to my friends before I left, followed up with, “Please come visit whenever you find yourself in California!” Also truthfully.

What’s funny is that my friends who went to large universities instead of small colleges were so charmed by the idea of an actual class reunion. Since I supposedly got to know every single one of my classmates, my homecoming would be much more meaningful than theirs, lost as they are in a sea of thousands upon thousands of alumni. But that isn’t really the case.

The feelings that came rushing when I visited my alma mater last year, which was the first time I’d been back since graduating, were much more powerful. It was the middle of June and the campus was deserted. Humid, buzzing with insects, and exploding in greenery. Peaceful, almost sacrosanct. I received and I revived while I walked around the amphitheater and my old dormitory. In contrast, the rush of human energy around the reunion weekend was taxing. I gave as much as I got but still felt depleted. And that’s not just because I stayed out late for the parties and after parties! There’s just something about a low-key reunion that works better for me than a big, hyped-up one.

All that said, there are two things that I realized I’ve been missing like hell for the past few years: being silly with my friends and documenting said silliness on my camera. I haven’t done as much photography since starting graduate school, and I regret it. One friend told me that pretty much all the photos of her that exist on social media were taken by me in our four years at college. I used to take my camera with me everywhere I went; these days I dust it off for special occasions only. In college I would also play games like Ninja and Contact all the time, or strike up a debate with my hallmates about something entirely trivial, and for whatever reason I never do this anymore. Is this part of growing up? Do we all prefer to pass the time on our phones now? Or is it just me?

The comforting thing is that it was easy to slip back into that familiar routine over the long weekend: just like old times, let’s all play a game while we picnic on Parrish Beach, and then I’ll take a bunch of photos and throw them up on Facebook later. Like nothing’s changed.

But perhaps it will be five years before I can enjoy that kind of comfort again.

I think that’s all that I had to say about reunion, for the time being. Below are some shots I took of my beautiful alma mater. (True to form, I am not in any of them.) And, though I may never know who has actually read this, thank you, dear Reader, for stopping by.

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Word of the Day: ergodic, from the Greek έργον (ergon: “work”) and οδός (odos: “path”), is a word whose many uses I cannot even begin to explain, but in at least one case it means, “relating to the condition that over time, a system will return to a state that is closely similar to a previous one”. I’ve come across this word to describe dynamical systems as I read up on them for my linguistics research. I mostly don’t understand any of it because I know pretty much nothing about physics and statistics. But I like taking a metaphorical stab at describing the tendency we humans all have, as complex creatures, to return to the places we’ve come from, through the concept of ergodicity.

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