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.

Posted in conference, musings, summer, what even is linguistics | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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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Qualification

The past three years have been good to me as a graduate student. I’ve done everything by the book. I wrote my qualifying papers on time, passed my first round of oral exams “with flying colors”, got good teaching reviews. Because academic work has always come to me naturally, it has never occurred to me that I might not be exactly where I need to be to succeed in this industry. I receive positive feedback from my adviser. I have three conference presentations lined up in May and June. I get to design my own course for the upcoming summer session. Anyone would say that my performance as a budding scholar is satisfactory.

So it’s jarring, in light of the the comfortable speed at which I’ve been cruising, to hit the minor road bump of nearly failing the PhD qualifying exam for my program. I have been studying hard for the past month, and I’ve read over a hundred papers in the different subfields of linguistics in which I want to specialize for my dissertation. Today was the culmination of it all: one three-hour oral exam with four professors to determine whether or not I’m ready to begin the research project that will kick-start my career.

Well, the short version is that I did pass the exam. But the long version is that it was a truly excruciating three hours, during which my mind completely blanked several times, and I found that I could not answer what I knew were simple questions from my examiners. Some of it was a matter of having prepared the wrong thing, like reading up on second language acquisition but failing to refresh my memory on first language acquisition. Other times, I repeatedly gave slightly misguided answers to questions and needed my examiners to lead me down the right track, which was more than embarrassing. But not as embarrassing as just being wrong, which happened, to my chagrin, at least once with each of the four.

“Well, you passed”, the exam chair told me at the end, “but it was a close call.” They said that there are key concepts in all of these subfields (that I’m supposed to have mastered) that I could not adequately explain. Of course, this was under pressure, and who is truly always on top of their game even in their area of expertise? Still… the feeling that I can’t get over right now is a heavy disappointment that sits deep in my gut. Don’t get me wrong: I am relieved that I managed to pass at all. It wasn’t a total shit show. Like my peers have told me and will continue to tell me, I could just as easily have been failed and asked to retake the exam in the fall — this isn’t uncommon. “You wouldn’t have passed if you didn’t deserve it.” I know.

But what’s bugging me is not whether or not I deserved it, I guess. It’s more that I thought that this would be an opportunity to impress foremost scholars in my field with what I have done and what I have the potential to do, but I did absolutely the opposite. I gave them a reason to pity me and to keep an eye on my work over the summer to make sure that my future research meets the baseline of expectations. It’s almost as if I qualified, but with qualifications — meaning here that even though I don’t have to retake the exam, I have to go the extra mile now to prove my worth. I wonder if having done just fine for the past three years has lulled me into a false sense of security, because I know I’m not as prepared for academia as I should be.

The Impostor Syndrome rears its ugly head again. It was just one mistake — and it doesn’t even amount to a mistake because I passed, yes, I did it, I’m a PhD candidate — but nevertheless it is going to linger with me for at least a few weeks, this idea that I did not do my best. Or even worse, that I did do my best and my best was still, in the eyes of those who judge, barely satisfactory.

Sigh.

But I’ll get over it. I’ll probably even joke about it if you ask me in person. I can move on.

You see, at the end of the day, I know that my professors believe in me and that they think I am a worthwhile investment of their time and energy. (I can’t not think that, or else this is all a huge waste of my own time and energy.) So I’m not going to take it for granted. Give me some time to recover, and I’ll get straight back to work. I’m going to take the conference presentations seriously, and I won’t goof off during the summer when I don’t have any other academic plans. My dissertation prospectus (a sort of outline that I have to present to the committee in the fall) is going to make up for my poor exam performance. I am making lots of predictions right now. Ha — one thing I know for sure is that we can never know anything for sure. But for someone like me, losing is great motivation to try harder. And with motivation, a little faith, and a little luck, who’s to say that it can’t be done?

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Word of the Day: tenebrous means dark, gloomy, or obscure. It can be used to describe the ominous sky before a storm or a person’s face when they are upset about their exam results. It comes from the Latin word tenebrae (“darkness”), which is also the name of a type of Christian religious service in observance of Good Friday (that’s today!) and the end of Holy Week. As a Christian, I acknowledge Good Friday with reverence and humility. I know that my all my woes and worries are trivial compared to the weight of the world that Jesus bore on his shoulders when he died, and it is a comfort to believe that in a few days we can celebrate the joy of new life and redemption from the darkness.

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A Run for Your Money

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Oh I, I’m running out of breath, but I // I got stamina

It’s nearly 3am here in Los Angeles. I can’t really sleep, even though I’m physically exhausted, because I have been napping in fits and spurts all day. There’s a pretty awesome reason behind this, though: my friend and I went to Joshua Tree National Park last night to take star photos. And by last night, I mean that we hopped in the car at 11pm and drove for three hours until we reached the middle of the park, then set up our tripods in the frigid air to shoot the night sky for a couple more hours. By the end of it, I was extremely cold and tired, but as the sun came up, it woke me up enough to appreciate the desert beauty around me. I was inspired to take a few more photos on the desert floor, remembering that I am trying to raise money for a charity run I am doing in a few days. Narcissism aside, I hope the photos will get more people to click through to my fundraising website and contribute a few bucks to the cause.

I am running the Oakland Half Marathon in support of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee. They are an organization based in Oakland that works directly with prisoners at San Quentin and Solano state prisons, as well as the reentry population in the East Bay. They contribute to education, advocacy, and community activism with the ultimate goal of ending the modern incarceration crisis that affects prisoners who are of Asian and Pacific Islander descent and the low-income and/or immigrant communities they come from. I strongly support the work that APSC does and volunteer with them from time to time. After reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, I knew that I wanted to do something to raise awareness about mass incarceration (other than simply recommend to all my friends that they read the book). I think that raising money for my run does a lot of things in tandem: it gives me a fitness goal, it helps take my mind off of my upcoming qualifying exam, it can inform more people about APSC and the under-reported incarceration statistics for the API community, and, of course, it will directly help APSC! The money we raise will matched by the East Bay Community Foundation.

Will you consider donating to the cause? My run is on Sunday, and I am aiming to raise $1,200 total. At the time of this posting, I need just $100 more in the next few days to achieve my goal. Click here to go to my fundraising page, and please share! Thank you!

And now, without further ado, photos from Joshua Tree National Park!

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This photo probably needs some editing first, but that’s all right. Long-exposure shot of the Milky Way (!) between the constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius. Facing southeast from Keys View, that’s Salton City glowing yellow at the bottom.

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A natural arch at Joshua Tree. The rock is all white tank granite, exposed after millennia of weathering.

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Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia) were named because their oddly-extending branches reminded mid-19th century Mormons of Joshua raising his hands toward the sky to stop the sun in its tracks. (Joshua 10:1-15)

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Word of the Day: yucca is a plant species native to the arid regions of the Americas. The name has an unclear etymology; it may be from Taíno, an Arawakan language of the Caribbean (Haiti), and originally these plants were confused with the cassava (or ‘yuca’, or also ‘manioc’, which can be fermented into a pungent beverage that many fieldwork linguists at Berkeley are familiar with…). Anyway, yucca is not the same as yuca; the french fry-type snack you might get at a hipster cafe is made from the latter, whereas the former isn’t often used for eating. But it is pretty when it blooms in the springtime.

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The Committee Meeting

Not too long ago, I was sitting in a committee meeting with a few professors as we discussed a new initiative for our department’s undergraduate students that would award them a certificate for participating in an extracurricular linguistics activity or project. The idea of the initiative was to encourage our undergraduate majors to do “a little extra”, whether that be through writing an honors thesis, participating in the research apprenticeship program, getting a linguistics-related internship, or even doing community outreach for science.

I was all for this initiative until a few doubts began to creep into my mind. I was trying to put myself back into my undergraduate shoes and thought, “Well, if I had had a program like this at my school, what would have happened?”

When I was at Swarthmore, I participated in something we call the Honors Program. Senior majors in every field who choose to do Honors not only have to write a thesis and defend it, but they also must take two to three additional oral exams administered by academics from other universities at the end of the year. It’s rigorous and difficult, but those who do succeed get those fancy Latin words at the end of their diploma: cum laude, or, “with honors”. I struggled in my Honors experience and barely scraped a pass, but I do believe the experience was worthwhile.

If I remember correctly, about one-third of the graduating class does Honors. (This amounts to a hundred and twenty-odd students out of around four hundred. However, in recent years the numbers have been falling.) In my eyes, the distinction exists not just because it is a difficult task that we have achieved, but because not everyone does it. That is to say, I deemed the value of the Honors degree to be correlated with the selectivity of its conferral: the fewer who earn it, the more valuable it is. After all, only one or two students in each field could nab the summa cum laude, “Highest Honors”. What I got, in comparison, was merely a participation award.

“Participation award.” Wouldn’t you agree that there’s more than a bit of contempt behind this concept?

I am writing this post to admit that I am learning, slowly, just how much there is to unpack beneath this attitude, the idea that an individual’s achievement should always be compared to those of their peers.

Back to the committee meeting. I wondered aloud whether the proposed certificate program might not be, well, a little bit “easy”. I had looked over the suggested requirements for activities that might merit a student the certificate and seen the research apprenticeship program on it. Undergraduate students can participate in this program for course credit, and they can also cite their experience with it on a resume. Why, I asked, should this also qualify them for a certificate? In addition, how is being a graduate student’s slave — ahem, I mean, apprentice — for one semester equivalent to the amount of work one must put in to write an honors thesis, given that both would count equally for certificate eligibility? And more importantly, our research apprenticeship program has grown considerably in the past few years; dozens of students, and a high percentage of our majors, will participate, some for multiple semesters. If all of them were eligible for the certificate program just from this one activity, that would mean awarding the certificate to a majority of our majors, at least fifty percent.

My professor acknowledged this with a smile.

“That’s great, isn’t it?” she said, further explaining that if we got to about seventy percent participation in the program, it would really boost our department’s image in the college as a whole.

I tried to explain gently that having such a high participation rate might decrease the value of the award. Thirty percent is selective enough; seventy percent would be overkill. And this is Berkeley we’re talking about: our undergrads are hyper competitive as it is. Make the program too easy or accessible, and they’ll all go for it; we’ll end up handing out awards like candy. Won’t this look like free CV padding for our majors? I was thinking entirely in my own logic: there’s honor in this achievement, but we don’t want to dilute it.

I do not know how much you might agree with me up until this point, but my professor clearly did not. In fact, she was momentarily taken aback, and then exclaimed, “What is it with the zero-sum game thinking?! The award is for students to demonstrate individual excellence, not compete against one another. Having more students do the program won’t make it any less valuable for them, and that’s what’s important, isn’t it?”

I didn’t quite know how to reply. I knew she was right. The professor (who is European) continued, “This really is something about American culture and education that I am still trying to understand… In my country this would not even have come up as an issue.”

And that comment in particular struck me so deeply that I have been thinking about it ever since.

This is something about American culture that I am still trying to understand.

The zero-sum game, the inherent expectation of competition, the winner-takes-all and losers-try-harder attitude behind so much that drives our economy and our society: it’s a stark reality when you stop to think about it.

There will only be one bachelorette to win the suitor’s hand, and all the rest have to go home.

Moonlight and La La Land cannot share the Oscar, because only one is allowed to take home the title.

The most prestigious schools flaunt their low acceptance rates; my alma mater will only allow twelve percent of applicants into its hallowed halls. We are the few and the proud.

Soccer moms and hockey dads agree: Participation Awards are stupid and my kid shoulda won.

This is our American idol: there is and there can only be one Best of X. The greater the pool from which to choose, the more difficult the win, but also the more deserving. We impart more meaning when the stakes are arbitrarily raised. And, critically, the attempts people make to diffuse this competitive spirit (by giving everyone a car! or, like, I dunno, universal health insurance… or A’s for effort) are very often derided.

Why?

Goodness, I don’t know. I grew up here and have marinated in American ambitious-sauce for over two decades. All of my friends would describe me as competitive, and they laugh when I say, “Well, as long as I have fun, I’ll have a good time,” because they think I’m being sarcastic. “No, Andrew,” they say, “you only have fun when you win.”

This is why I think it’ll be hard for me to reorient myself and adjust my attitude toward the concept of merit. You see, steeped in the myth of meritocracy as I am, my starting assumption tends to be that the playing field is and always has been level; that the Bests of X, in their rarity, truly always are the most deserving. This makes me feel better about myself when I win, because I feel that I’ve “earned it”. Well, the hard truth is that… I didn’t build that. And they didn’t deserve that. They got lucky, even if that luck is having been born in neighborhood A rather than neighborhood B two freeway exits south, or having been given an opportunity to let their hard work bear fruit when so many others work equally hard and never get a break. This is all somewhat beside the point though; in my progressive circles, we are all aware of systemic inequality. But that doesn’t stop us from playing into the system, does it? We still agree that there can only be one winner, and just mutter under our breath that it was his white male privilege that got him there.

Who is going to stand up to interrupt the awards show and say, “Can anybody explain to me again why we need this competition in the first place?”

Any takers?

I don’t know how much of this is an American thing. I know from firsthand experience that Korean culture is just as hyper-competitive, if not more so. (But they probably inherited that from us, along with other postbellum exports like xenophobia, religious extremism, and “democracy”.) But whether or not my non-American friends find it shocking, or at least oddly different, the degree to which our culture prizes the exalting of the few in tandem with the discouragement of the many, it doesn’t seem to come up in conversation much.

Perhaps I need to meet more people from, like, socialist Scandinavian countries. They say that they’re mostly happy there. Happy and healthy… and also eerily homogeneously white — but that there’s my American bias showing again. Huzzah for diversity?

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And the award for the Biggest Boat We Could Fit through the Panama Canal goes to… this tanker from Copenhagen!

Actually, I think that brings up another disadvantage of this country’s competitive spirit: it is applied to the wrong kinds of competition. In America, the shiny simmering melting pot of the Western world, we appear to be having a problem with newcomers because of an idea perpetuated by the zero-sum attitude. People are saying, “I can’t get a job because of all of these (non-white) (illegal) immigrants!” The more that come, they believe, the less room there is for those who are already here, good ‘Murican families who have been here forever (but not indigenous-peoples-forever, mind you).

It doesn’t take much to unearth the statistics that don’t fall in this opinion’s favor. Highly-skilled immigrants take jobs that many Americans are not qualified for. Refugee immigrants take jobs that many Americans wouldn’t deign to do. And, crucially, immigrants make up an invaluable part of the country’s economy.

There is so much room in this country; there is clearly enough geographical and economic space for thousands more every year. But the distribution is unequal. Kansas is basically empty, but San Francisco is bound on three sides by water. And guess where everyone wants to go?

But I don’t blame them. I wanted to be here, too. And I beat hundreds of others to get my golden ticket to Berkeley. I even had the privilege to choose it over somewhere else.

I suppose that being competitive is very much in our nature as citizens of a nation with a history as unique as ours (namely, the inheritance of Manifest Destiny and our settler colonial success story). This could be a neutral thing, but recently and along many dimensions I think it is turning out to be a bad thing, so… make it stop, I dunno.

For now, what I plan to do for my part, at the very least, is to be more generous, especially with my praise and with my money. Everyone can get an award! Encouragement costs nothing. And for things that cost something, well, I can look to Pope Francis for some good advice: give without worry. (Do read that NYT article. It’s short and great.) If I do this successfully, I can impoverish the idol of competitiveness in my life and slowly but surely lay bricks down on the foundations of a society that does not give more to those with merit, but gives equally to all with value. Imagine an America that thrives not on competition, but on cooperation. Can we do it?

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Word of the Day: demesne (/dɪˈmeɪn/ or /dɪˈmin/), from the Old French demaine (itself from Latin dominicus) + mesnie, meaning “land belonging to a master”, refers to the possession of land, or to the land or estate itself. It can also be used to mean the domain of a sovereign or state; actually, demesne and domain are essentially the same word, only the latter comes from Middle French via Scottish in the 15th century and the former from Old French via Anglo-Norman in the 13th. The ‘s’ is silent — cool!

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