On the ethics of pandemic-era travel to indigenous land

As awful as this pandemic year (and a half) has been, one thing I won’t take for granted is that, due to my relative economic privilege, I have at least been able to travel a lot. For reasons of COVID safety, all of this travel has been strictly domestic, and for the first summer, it was also strictly road travel. What better way to really see the incredibly diverse landscape of the United States? Since this time last year, in addition to visiting friends and family on both coasts, I have also been to eight national parks: Zion, Bryce, Pinnacles, Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Glacier, Denali, and Kenai Fjords.

These were all wonderful experiences. I’m so glad that our country has guaranteed vast swaths of land to remain conserved for recreation and public enjoyment, instead of endlessly exploiting and developing it. But I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about the national parks, land use, and the historical context of present-day tourism. The first time this occurred to me was last August, when my ex and I made plans to visit Zion and Bryce.

Zion has always had a reputation for being quite crowded with visitors, but during the summer of 2020, it was fully overwhelmed. People came from all over the United States because international travel was prohibited, and the park simply couldn’t handle the crush. It instituted strict ticketing and lottery systems to try to control the flood of visitors, which made it tricky for us to do everything on our itinerary. But we were successful and had a wonderful time.

Fast forward to the summer of 2021, and the issue of overcrowding at parks was once more made manifestly clear. Last week, I flew to Alaska to visit Denali and Kenai Fjords with friends, and a week before that, I was in Montana to visit Glacier National Park with my parents.

As anyone might guess, 2021 was even worse for park overcrowding than 2020. In 2020 COVID-conscious Americans were still more or less willing to cancel vacations altogether and hunker down at home. By 2021, with many people vaccinated and restless, but maybe still unwilling to travel abroad, the crowds at national parks and other domestic vacation destinations reached several breaking points. The parks and the tiny towns that border them couldn’t sustain such high levels of tourists. I heard again and again from service workers in Denali and Seward that they had extreme staffing shortages. During the worst of the pandemic, thousands of service workers got burnt out and quit. Their work carried a huge health risk, and restless, anxious customers made their lives hell. It goes without saying that many service workers also contracted COVID-19 and died, which may have contributed to the shortage.

And so there weren’t enough staffers to keep many facilities open at Glacier, not enough drivers to drive the transit buses at Denali, not enough rangers to deal with the number of visitors at each park. The number of guests who could enter the most popular destinations per day was strictly limited. At Glacier, everyone wants to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road, but only 400 tickets were released each day, and they sold out online in seconds. At Denali, the only road open to private vehicles was cut short at the 15-mile marker; past that, guests had to purchase a ticket for a transit bus, and those also sold out on most mornings.

And that’s just within the parks. In the town around Denali, mom and pop restaurants and inns shuttered or severely curtailed their businesses halfway through the summer season due to staffing shortages. Only the big resorts (owned by Disney) were able to move staff from other parts of the country to the middle of rural Alaska to keep their doors open and businesses running smoothly. My friend and I ended up eating dinner at the same resort restaurant three nights in a row, for lack of other options. We quickly learned that there’s no longer any such thing as call-ahead reservations at any restaurant in Alaska: you have to go in person, as early as possible, and deal with absurd wait times.

Let me be very clear that I’m not trying to complain about the state of affairs in the rural areas I visited. I knew what I was getting into, and I don’t think any lesser of the national park system or their surrounding towns for these less-than-ideal circumstances. Much of the country and the world continues to struggle to survive a deadly virus, and it would be very callous of me to gripe about restaurant wait times in this context. Rather, I’m only pointing out that the parks are clearly under-resourced and particularly ill-equipped to handle recent large waves of tourism due to the pandemic. Which brings me to my main point: obviously the parks need more resources (in terms of funding and staffers), but maybe they also need fewer visitors.

View from Flattop Mountain, Anchorage.

The national parks have always been advertised as America’s treasure, or our country’s best idea. Unfortunately, we fall into a Catch-22 if the advertising works too well: allow unfettered access to the parks, and the massive crowds will ruin the experience for everyone, not to mention the impact on the environment itself; but restrict access, and people will not have the opportunity to be enriched and educated about why nature is so important in the first place. Actually, I don’t know if it’s a Catch-22 or just a lose-lose situation.

A good example of the lose-lose is the case of Hawai’i’s national parks, including Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island and Hale’akalā National Park on the island of Oahu. Actually, no, this point really stands for the entire state and colonized former sovereign nation. You see, Hawai’i has had a really tough time during the pandemic. In 2020, tourism dried up, and while the island was able to keep COVID out for the most part, the economy tanked. Then, in 2021, tourism came crashing upwards like a tsunami, and everything else besides the economy suffered.

The island of Oahu is experiencing a climate change-induced drought, and the glut of tourists using tons of water on the island resorts is not helping. When a local ordinance was created in June to restrict water usage for upcountry residents, the locals complained that their needs were being overlooked in favor of maintaining the status quo of a “tropical paradise” for visitors who were straining the island’s resources.

Just a few months later, Hawai’i declared that it was seeing a statewide surge in COVID-19 cases, due mainly to the Delta variant, which was, of course, brought into the archipelago from outside. Despite all the vaccinations and mask mandates, Delta still got through. And who has to deal with the fallout? Not the tourists, that’s for sure.

Some Hawaiian activists, and now even their politicians, have been really pushing hard to get tourists to stop coming to Hawai’i, but who’s going to listen to them? Just like Denali, Yosemite, or Zion, everyone in the country has been itching to go somewhere, anywhere, and Hawai’i has always been painted as a nearby, convenient paradise. It’s become an ugly, embarrassing cliché: Americans think of Hawai’i as our own backyard third-world country, dependent on wealthy outsiders to keep the local economy churning. And that kind of mindset is absolutely insulting.

Hawai’i was a sovereign nation; it used to be independent and self-sufficient. When it was forcibly annexed by the United States, American capitalists saw a land to be exploited for agriculture and a strategic military base. Tourism followed not far behind. And today, Hawai’i is dependent on tourism, but it doesn’t have to be.

Many Native Hawaiians, the people whose ancestors watched their land become manipulated beyond recognition, would prefer all the tourists to leave, to stop using all the water, to stop polluting the beaches, to stop ruining backcountry roads, to stop bringing in COVID-19, to stop indulging in neo-colonialist fantasies. But the way things stand now, if the state took a leaf out of Australia’s book and banned all inbound air travel until COVID-19 were under control (which seems now unlikely ever to happen), then a lot of people (including Native Hawaiians) would suffer before the economy found balance again.

To those who want to argue, “But Hawai’i needs tourists to keep functioning”: consider that the state could conceivably restructure its economy so as to be less dependent on tourism, if only the endless stream of tourists could let up long enough for those changes to take place.

Illustration: Francisco Navas/Guardian Design. Source: The Guardian

I’ve just been thinking a lot lately about the impact that non-indigenous people have had on the lives, histories, and present-day realities of indigenous people. In history, it’s pretty easy to observe how White people exploited and screwed over indigenous nations again and again. They broke treaties and carved up ancestral land, stole artifacts and suppressed indigenous languages and cultures.

But in the present day, any non-indigenous person, including non-indigenous Asian Americans and African Americans, can be complicit in the continued exploitation of land and people under neoliberalism. We may not be conquistadores or Crusaders, but we are certainly part of the settler colonialist legacy, whether we like it or not. My individual actions or inactions didn’t create a system that exploits people and land, but I certainly continue to profit from it. I could travel to Hawai’i while asymptomatically infected with COVID, have a great time, and seed the idea for a dozen others to make the same trip. I wouldn’t ever have to think about the potential impacts of my “harmless” vacation. But the people who live there do.

All I can think about these days with respect to Hawai’i is how many of my friends have visited this summer – for weddings, or just for fun, or for temporary relocation because of flexible work arrangements – and how I can’t reconcile that with the messages I kept seeing all summer from radical Native Hawaiian activists and government officials alike: stop coming, change your vacation plans, prioritize indigenous needs, please stop coming to Hawai’i.

How could I blame my friends? They’re all vaccinated and scrupulously follow COVID safety protocols. None of them were breaking any government mandates, and they’re all super conscious of the optics of travel during a pandemic. (They probably even planned “regenerative vacations”, which are without a doubt a flaming beacon of late-stage capitalism.) But… I don’t know. I’m not an ethicist or philosopher by any means, and there’s just too much to weigh here: what counts as socially acceptable behavior; what do we do when the legal and ethical courses of action are at odds; who determines what is ethical in the first place; how important are an individual’s actions in the grand scheme of things… And what do we owe each other?

So anyway, going back to Alaska and Montana, when I first realized my friends were all flying to Hawai’i, and when I also learned that my parents are thinking of going later this summer (I’m trying my best to persuade them not to), I had to sit down for a bit and think about my own year of travels.

Glacier National Park is on traditional (and forcibly ceded) Blackfeet land. Zion is on Paiute land. Yosemite is on Ahwahnechee land. Denali is on Athabaskan land. Kenai is on Sugpiaq land. There were indigenous people living in these places long before White settler colonizers, and there are still indigenous people living here, who have a special connection to the land. And that land was taken away from them, too, and turned into American settlements, American states, and American national parks.

While I haven’t heard the same kind of anti-tourism messaging from Alaska Native activists that I’ve heard form Native Hawaiians (probably partially because the COVID-19 situation in Alaska is not presently as severe as it is in Hawai’i, among other reasons), it remains true that Alaska and its parks are a product of American imperialism, too. And insofar as its economy is partly built on tourism, then I, as a tourist, am participating (however unwillingly) in the exploitation of indigenous land for non-indigenous benefit.

View from Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park. Photo by Ashley Park.

I was thinking about all of this literally while hiking in one of the most gorgeous landscapes I’ve ever laid eyes on. All of my travel is solely for my own pleasure. Why Alaska? Why did I want to walk on a glacier? Am I just heeding some abstract notion of “adventure” without deeply understanding the social construction of “wilderness” and its neo-colonial undertones? What am I contributing by being here? Where is my money going?

Matanuska Glacier, which is two hours north of Anchorage, is a stunning landmark. You can hike right on the glacier itself and watch freshwater waterfalls carve out deep crevasses in ice that is thousands of years old. But you can’t get to the glacier without buying a pricey ticket for a guided tour, because most of the land around the glacier is privately owned – and not by Alaska Native citizens. It’s the consequence of a white guy who saw an opportunity decades ago, back when Alaska was “unclaimed” and allowed “homesteaders” to buy up massive amounts of land, and continues to profit off it today. That’s where my money went, not toward reparations for various crimes committed against Alaska Natives by my government.

(NB: the full and ongoing story of Matanuska Glacier is, of course, way more complicated than what I just wrote; the articles I’ve linked to tell a more interesting story!)

So, at the end of all this, I feel like I’m wallowing in something that sounds a lot like White guilt, and I’m not really sure what to do about it. At the very least, I’m continuing to educate myself on the history and present-day realities of indigenous people in North America. (One recommendation is This Land, a podcast about indigenous history and the legal system, which just released Season 2. Another is David Treuer’s excellent Atlantic article on indigenous sovereignty and national park ownership.)

I can also make a little bit of a ruckus in my social circles and help other people heed indigenous voices and consider indigenous needs. And I imagine that part of the solution relies on individual responsibility. I ought to consciously place indigenous people and culture at the center of any vacation that I plan that ostensibly focuses on “nature” or “wilderness adventure”, and to remember that there is no such thing as “untouched” land in the North American context. When I travel, I must respect the local indigenous culture, and not consider it like a mere museum exhibit or an afterthought. I should not treat any land like a playground, or act like I have a right to do whatever I want, whenever I want, in the spaces that are not my ancestral home. And, most importantly, in some cases, I have to simply cancel my plans to visit a place when the local and indigenous caretakers request it, no matter how long I’ve been dreaming or planning.

But to truly become an accomplice in the radical movement to decolonize is something I guess I can admit I’m not yet equipped for. Is it possible to enjoy the grandeur of this land in a way that authentically honors the people who took care of it for thousands of years, and does not just resist, but effectively dismantles, the capitalistic pull to erase and to exploit? I don’t know, but I’m open to learn.

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Word of the Day: coir is the fiber taken from the husk of a coconut, which can be used for weaving. It comes from Malayalam (Dravidian) kayar (കയർ) “cord,” from kayaru “to be twisted.” It is pronounced /ˈkɔɪər/ (rhymes with “employer”).

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Thoughts on “Who We Be”

Jeff Chang’s Who We Be: A Cultural History of Race in Post-Civil Rights America was published in 2014, and I’ve been told by many people over the past seven years to read it. I finally got around to it when I found a used copy at the Housing Works Bookstore in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. (Housing Works runs a bookstore and a thrift store to support the unhoused population in New York City.) Then, with lots of time to kill on several flights, I tore my way through the first half. It took me a few more weeks to finish.

I really enjoyed Chang’s style of telling a grand narrative about a decade or two in American pop culture history, but weaving in very specific anecdotes about individual people or artists (many whom I’d never heard of) and small political movements to really drive his points home. At times, the stories seemed a little disparate, and I was always a little unsure about the timeline of events, since most of them occurred before the development of my own racial consciousness, or even before I was born!

My overall take on his thesis is: after the Civil Rights Era, politics and culture in the United States stumbled toward a modern idea of multiculturalism, but real progressive justice for Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, and Asian American communities was always thwarted by various other pressures, including capitalist appropriation of progressive ideas, politically-instigated culture wars (think Southern Strategy), and confusion over the meanings of color, race, and multiculturalism itself. All throughout, art and activism played complementary roles in bringing new ideas into the public sphere, or promoting recycled ideas from decades past.

These days, I’m collaborating with several other Asian American linguists on an article that discusses the idea of Asian Americans as a model minority, and how this myth, as well as the pervasive logics that underlie it, do not serve academia, or Asian Americans, in the pursuit of true diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. I had our ideas in mind as I read Who We Be, and so in the rest of this post, I’m going to just reproduce some of the quotes I highlighted, along with some commentary on how it relates to my ongoing education about the history and theory of race in Asian America.

Multiculturalism–what a waste of syllables. (p. 67)

This quote begins chapter 4, which is subtitled “The invention of multiculturalism”. In the 1960s and 1970s, after segregation was struck down in the courts, assimilation was the assumed consequence. But cultural movements in New York and Los Angeles resisted assimilation, wanting to celebrate difference rather than erase it. They wanted to wake people up to the idea that post-segregation meant that our entire culture had to change. The problem is that the word multicultural doesn’t really carry the same radical connotations anymore. Sixty years after it was invented, it sounds like a bland or neutral descriptor of any metropolitan area in the world. Multiculturalism was supposed to be countercultural at first; it signified resistance to the kind of culture that the white majority wanted in the US, one in which minorities might have become equal on paper, but without changing the status quo. Here’s another quote:

The future of desegregation was not just about reaching mere numerical diversity. It was about fostering radical diversity, the wild protean sort. It was about what might flower when people could really meet across the lines. (p. 77)

This really gets at the problem of multiculturalism that persists today: we take it for granted the multiculturalism is “a pretty good thing”, as if it’s a handy resource to have in a city, like public transit or tech startups. People in my circles always give a metro area positive points if it’s “diverse”. But numerical diversity can’t be the only metric. It’s of course good if the numbers are evidence that minorities feel safe and supported in an otherwise white-majority area, but numbers alone are not the only way to achieve justice. Does that make sense? Wild, protean, radical diversity engenders justice, when people of different cultures do not merely exist alongside one another but actually interact, learn from one another, and form coalitions to dismantle the structures, assembled decades ago, that still keep us apart. Segregation still exists in so many forms, you know. Housing and education are two obvious examples: a city might have equal numbers of whites, Blacks, and Asians, but they’re all likely to live in different neighborhoods and have unjustifiably different economic and educational outcomes.

They debated whether there really was an Asian American aesthetic. Machida, Higa, and others argued that there was not; the community was just too diverse. A young Paul Pfeiffer […] argued that there was, and that, given Asian American artists’ lack of representation and misrepresentation, it was important to stand in support of that notion. (p. 138)

At this point in the book, Chang analyzes how the debate over the meaning of multicultural began in artistic circles in the 80s and 90s, in particular among artists of color, who were always the ones made to carry the burden of representing “their culture”. I personally appreciated realizing that the debate over what “Asian American” means has been ongoing pretty much ever since the term was coined in the 70s. In my own linguistics research, I’m asking the question of whether there is “an Asian American English” — a manner of speaking that is identifiable as specifically Asian American, but not necessarily as Korean American, Chinese American, etc. A pan-ethnic dialect, so to speak. I’ve encountered lots of opinions in the few years I’ve been asking this question, and to my surprise, some of the people who are most convinced that there isn’t an Asian American English are Asian Americans a generation above me (those who would have come of age in the 90s, when I was born). I mean, the arguments are very logical: Asian Americans are so diverse, and there hasn’t been enough time or enough geographic and cultural isolation for a separate variety to form. On the other hand, I grew up in a very particular kind of Asian America (urban and suburban California) at a very particular time, and I firmly believe that it isn’t impossible for a pan-ethnic Asian American English to exist. Anyway, I’m not making any absolute conclusions until I have more data and a journal publication to back me up, but I’m just saying: Asian Americans can argue about what it means to be (look/sound/live) Asian American. We’ve been arguing for decades. We will continue to argue for decades. I think that’s a good thing.

When you stepped into the Whitney and paid your $6, you were handed one of six museum tags in one of six colors. The first five tags were: “I,” “can’t imagine,” “ever wanting,” “to be,” and “white”. The sixth included all of the words together. They had been designed by Daniel Joseph Martinez, a Los Angeles artist appearing in the Whitney for the first time. (p. 150)

Wow. I mean, I’ve been to the Whitney Biennial, in 2017. I’d only known that it had a reputation for being a world-renowned but pretty controversial exhibit, always pushing the boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality in art. There always seemed to be arguments over who got to be represented in such a high-class, privileged space. I didn’t know that the Biennial’s entire history (since the 1930s) had always been charged with this same tension. And I didn’t know that artists who directly confronted the country’s racial insecurities around whiteness went back as far as 1993, with the abovementioned “exhibit”. It was super subversive. “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white”. What a statement, and something that only non-white people can really grasp. Obviously, it caused divisions among museumgoers, between those who were white and offended, and those who were not offended (but may have been white). But it also divides people of color, because some POCs do want to be white, or have wanted to be white, and others do not and have not. Add to this the terrible idea gaining traction in some circles that “Asian Americans are poised to become the next whites”. To that, I always say: absolutely not. We refuse to be used by whiteness (read: white supremacy) to further an agenda that continues to oppress other groups based on their proximity to an imaginary identity. I want a print of the photograph of those pins in a frame to hang above my desk. It will always keep me thinking and on my toes.

Put another way, multiculturalism itself was strategic. Perhaps it did limit the expression of identities to what the philosopher David Hollinger would term the “ethno-racial pentagon” of white, Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American identities. Perhaps it might also reduce radical diversity to what Fusco called “exotic entertainment for the dominant culture.” But multiculturalism also did the important work of validating the histories of those who were marginalized, staking their claims against the ruling class for the sharing of power. (p. 160)

In a nutshell: why we probably shouldn’t just abandon the goals of multiculturalism, even after they’ve been appropriated and abused by white cultural gatekeepers. But the other thing that really struck me about this quote is the term “ethno-racial pentagon”. It has occurred to me multiple times over the years — first when traveling to Asian countries, second when applying for jobs in the UK and being asked to identify my race, and third when talking to Canadian colleagues about the racial status of Asians in Canada versus the US — that race is not only completely socially constructed, but it is constructed very differently in different countries, and sometimes only by random flukes of demographics and political histories. The US has a pentagon. Singapore has a quadrangle (Chinese-Malay-Indian-Other). Canada and the UK have more complex shapes, including categories for “visible minorities” (Canada) and “Gypsy” (UK) and separation between “Black and Caribbean” from “African” (Scotland). If I want to be a language and race scholar, I have to work with or toward a theory that recognizes the slipperiness of “race” as a category per se.

For many of the activists who had, at one point not so long ago, believed that better media representation would make for a more just world, one thing became abundantly clear: identity politics weren’t fighting the system, or even subverting it. When it came to the vast new industry of corporate branding, they were feeding it. […] Why, in other words, were our ideas about political rebellion so deeply non-threatening to the smooth flow of business as usual? (p. 188)

This quote is actually a quote from Naomi Klein, writing in a book titled No Logo, published in 1999.. This chapter of the book deals with how the advertising industry began to see multiculturalism as a sexy new way to make money. They capitalized on the average American’s acceptance of shallow diversity, defanged it by removing the most aggressive political messages, and used it to sell soda, sweaters, music, etc. Twenty years later, Asian Americans are still busy fighting for better media representation, but the hope is that we will also recognize that media representation — another kind of shallow, numerical diversity — is not the end-all be-all. If power is not shared and true racial and economic justice isn’t achieved, then media representation will only be twisted into more tools of oppression. “Identity politics” is a loaded term with multiple nuanced meanings, so we have to be careful when we use it and when we really use it.

The scholar Claire Jean Kim argued that Clinton’s advisory board […] refused to press the government on racial justice or equality. This kind of racial reconciliation, Kim said, devolved the burden of change from the nation’s institutions to its communities and individuals. (p. 208)

Just a quick shoutout to Dr. Kim, who is currently at UC Irvine! And also: the same problem goes for academic institutions. Way too often, the burden of changing the culture of a school or organization (let alone a government, society, or country) falls to the individuals who are already the most affected by injustice. We need more top-down change; and for that to happen, we need radical organizers in those top positions of power. (So vote!)

As a display of radical diversity, the show became, Karin Higa said, “an anti-identity identity show.” “The whole point was heterogeneity,” she said. “What could you glean from the Asian American experience from looking at this show? Well, what you could glean from it is, ‘Wow, you can’t really fix it ’cause it’s all over the place.'” (p. 227)

And another fun quote about Asian American heterogeneity, here as part of a reflection about an Asian American art show, “One Way or Another,” that opened in New York in 2006. (By this point in the book, I was at last beginning to recognize the bits and pieces of art and pop culture that I grew up with, after two hundred pages of discussing cultural flashpoints that happened before I was even born.) Here, I’m curious about what Higa meant by “fix”. Fix as in repair, something that’s broken? Or fix as in seal into place, so that it can be properly identified and secured? I prefer the latter, but if it’s the former, then I’m wondering what was “broken” about the Asian American experience? The curators thought that an art show with “Asian American identity” as the only theme was pretty weak overall, but had to reconcile that with the reality that without playing this identity politics game, then many, if not most, of the artists who exhibited wouldn’t ever get a spotlight in the first place.

And, finally…

In each generation, race is rearticulated and reconstructed. (p. 278)

Something to remember. We’re going to be fighting different battles in twenty years. It’s incumbent on me to keep a pulse on the national and local conversations. A good policy is to always be open to continual learning, and to not just not get left behind, but lead the charge in each new generation’s fight for justice.

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Word of the Day: persiflage — a word I learned from this book! — means lightly contemptuous joking or mockery. It comes from the French persifler (‘to banter’), which itself is derived from siffler (‘to whistle’). The context of its usage in Who We Be was a comment about 1970s Republicans, whose ongoing discussion of increasing outreach to Black voters was merely persiflage, as their Southern Strategy involved mobilizing Southern white Christians against the “cultural elites” of the Northeast and the integrationist Democrats in their backyards for political victory.

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Postdoc, Round 2… Fight!

Now that I’ve signed the paperwork and it’s official, it’s time to make the big announcement: I accepted a job offer as a postdoc at Simon Fraser University! And now that I’ve made the big announcement, it’s time for a quick Q&A.

Remind me again what a postdoc is? The term “postdoc”, short for “post-doctoral”, refers to a number of different types of jobs, all of which are academic and occur after one has completed their doctorate (PhD). Postdocs are not tenure-track jobs, which means that they have a time limit: usually one to three years. Some (most?) postdocs involve doing research with a tenured professor, known as the Principal Investigator (PI). Others involve teaching undergraduate or graduate-level classes, or a mix of research and teaching. In my case, I’ll be joining the Language Learning and Development Lab at SFU, which is run by Dr. Henny Yeung. The lab focuses on language acquisition, in particular in young children. So I’m going to do linguistics research with kids!

Okay, wait, aren’t you already a postdoc, though? Yes, my current position is a postdoc in the Bilingualism, Mind, and Brain Lab at UC Irvine. This position was my first job after finishing my PhD, but the contract was for one year only. I have to wrap up the projects I started “here” at Irvine by the end of August. It’s funny to say “here” because I’ve technically never been to the lab in person. This entire academic year has been remote!

So where is Simon Fraser University? It’s in Burnaby, Canada. Burnaby is a suburb-y city that borders Vancouver, in British Columbia. So, essentially, I’m moving to Canada.

Holy moly. When??? And for how long? I start on September 1st! I’m aiming to move after Labor Day, so early/mid September. Fortunately, in the age of remote work, I can sort of take my time with the relocation and still get work done while I’m in California. As for the duration, the initial contract is for one year, and it is renewable for up to three years. My current plan is to go for at least two years, mostly because if I only planned for one year, then I’d have to start applying for new jobs in less than six months, and I’m really tired of writing those cover letters… A one-year reprieve from the academic job market would be most welcome. The plan is to develop my career while I’m at SFU, and finally land a tenure-track professorship somewhere when I’m done.

Oh gosh, Vancouver is so cool! Yes, so I’ve heard! (This isn’t a question, but so far it is the first thing that 90% of people have said to me in response to this news.)

What comes to mind when you think “Canada”? First, because I’m a linguist interested in sounds, the Canadian Vowel Shift and Canadian raising. Second, coniferous forests? Maple syrup? What else… A song from the Avenue Q soundtrack… “Hellobonjour” and Canadian French… “America’s hat”… soh-ry, everyone, it’s just a bunch of stereotypes! But I’m excited to explore a new city and a new country. It’s been nine years since I last left the United States in order to work abroad (for my two-year stint in South Korea). Even though the “abroad”, this time, is close enough to drive to Seattle to get dinner with my brother who lives there, it’ll still be a good, horizon-broadening experience for me.


I am cognizant, of course, that an international move is a big life change, and with that comes a host of potential stressors. I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting since I got the job offer. (The offer itself came in early June, and I held out on accepting for several weeks.) I’ve learned over the course of this past pandemic year that I value having a close community much more than I ever admit. Last winter, when I found myself isolated — living alone, no partner, no friends, in an unfamiliar city — and under more stress than I let myself realize, well, let’s just say it was an experience I’m determined not to repeat.

The pandemic isn’t really over, so socializing “as normal” isn’t a guarantee. Plus, I have even fewer existing connections in Vancouver than I had in Los Angeles. And the last time I moved abroad, Fulbright gave me a cohort of eighty incredible people to bond with. This time, I’ll have all of the burdens of career, health, and acculturation to balance, but without the instant community. I think that one of the first things I’ll do when I get to Canada is find a therapist to help me with the adjustment. (Three cheers for socialized comprehensive healthcare!)

But on the brighter side, I’m legitimately excited about the research I’m going to do. I’ve learned a lot in my coursework about the kind of linguistics research that people do with kids, but never got the chance to work in a “baby lab” myself. Postdocs are a good opportunity to flex the expertise one has (in my case, phonetics and phonology) while picking up useful new skills. For example, I’ll learn how to put baby-sized headphones on kids and track their eye movements as they listen to sounds spoken in various languages. (Writing that sentence made me smile.) We’re also planning to run an experiment that involves recording parents who speak English as a second language while they talk to their infant children and then analyzing the acoustics of their speech.


Before I sign off, I’d just like to thank a few people who really helped me over the past few months with the decision to take this job. It should probably start with my PhD adviser, Keith, who didn’t directly advise me during this past job cycle but has always encouraged me to apply for every job I’m even remotely interested in. “Don’t reject yourself before they reject you,” he used to say. It’s super true in this case, because I was almost not going to apply for the position at all, having told myself that since I’d had no experience working with children before, I was surely unqualified.

Honestly, my academic self-esteem is pretty low right now. In this last job cycle, I received rejection after rejection from schools, grants, and journals. In early May, after a one-two-three punch of bad news, I started getting ready to quit this industry altogether (yes, academia is an industry). Feeling extremely discouraged, I turned to social media to vent, and two people in particular reached out: Gavin and Stephanie. They are both academics that I know through Berkeley, and I think that allowed them to draw on their firsthand experiences with the academic rat race to help me in a specific way: to listen with authentic empathy and to offer a combination of good advice and ice-cold realism. They said things like… it’s really natural to feel like you are just hitting a brick wall over and over again; that getting a job really is about selling yourself in whatever way you think others want (as icky as that sounds); and that good timing is everything: if now isn’t the right time, and you can afford to wait, then waiting is a valuable option. I don’t know if any of that makes sense, but the overall point is: thank you, Gavin, for chatting with me about your postdoc experience; and thank you, Stephanie, for your enthusiastic and empathetic mentorship.

Lastly, I want to give a shout-out to my friends Kevin and Brian, who, over pizza and beer, practically yelled at me to follow-up with my now-future-boss via email after the initial Zoom interview. It was a necessary reminder that I’ve got to “take charge” more (for lack of better phrasing) in my career and, like, be bolder. It was also a lovely reminder that my friends really do have my back, even if they don’t 100% understand the vagaries of this ridiculous career I’ve chosen.

P.S. In other news, I got a haircut (first cut in two years)! Also, my Duolingo Japanese course appears to have read my mind: the screenshot above was from my lesson just last night!

ω

Word of the Day: anagnorisis, in literature, describes the moment in a narrative at which the main character discovers something critical about themselves, another character, or the plot itself. Think of it as “the big reveal” moment, usually in dramas and tragedies rather than in comedies. The word comes from the Greek ἀναγνώρισις (anagnorisis): ana “again” + gnorizein “to make known”.

(How fun, anagnorisis is now first in my alphabetical list of Words of the Day!)

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A random flight story

I know that one day, my inexplicable luck with narrowly escaping travel snafus will run out, but TODAY IS NOT THAT DAY.

The near-misadventure began at 4pm Eastern in New York City. I was on my way back uptown to my friend Ashley’s apartment, thinking I’d leisurely prepare to head to LaGuardia Airport for a 7pm flight to Denver, via Miami. (I know, that route doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I hadn’t had a lot of choices when I’d booked.)

On the subway, I checked my email and saw that my LGA-MIA flight had been delayed by an hour. Not a good sign: I’d only been given an hour to transfer to begin with, which meant that now I’d probably miss the connection. Panicking slightly, I decided to try to rebook for a different flight on the American Airlines website. On the first attempt, I saw a 6:15pm flight to Denver with a layover in Dallas. I tried to book it, but the seat suddenly became unavailable. I called the airline; the hold time was four hours. Panicking more, I began to tell Ashley that I thought I might need to stay an extra night in New York, when after a page refresh, the original 6:15 Dallas flight reappeared and I successfully confirmed my ticket.

Now, I just had to get from the Upper West Side to LaGuardia, Terminal B, in ninety minutes.

Ashley tried to convince me to take a $50 rideshare, but Google Maps claimed I could make it there for $2.75 in fifty minutes if I took the B to midtown, transferred to the E to Queens, and then transferred again to the airport shuttle. “Risk it for the biscuit,” I told Ashley. I threw everything in my suitcase in ten seconds and said my goodbyes!

I have never felt like a subway train ran as slow as the E did when it traversed the East River. But finally I made it to LaGuardia, at 5:45pm. “Think I can make it through security in half an hour?” I texted Ashley. “You might have to cut the line and beg forgiveness,” she responded.

There was no one in line for security. (Or “on line”, as they say in New York.)

“Where is everyone?” I asked the TSA agent. “You just missed the evening rush,” she replied.

I made it to my gate with time to spare, but was greeted with a huge, impatient crowd. This flight was also delayed, by fifteen minutes. A mechanical issue. I went to the bathroom, caught some Pokémon. They announced another fifteen minute delay. I ate a granola bar and repacked my carry-on. Another fifteen minute delay. My phone battery died. Eventually we boarded at 7pm, and I began to worry about my connecting flight, but I fell asleep on the plane soon after liftoff.

As we approached DFW, I had no idea what time it was, but when we landed my heart sank. “Welcome to Dallas Fort Worth, local time is 10:15.” My flight to Denver was scheduled to depart at 10:30. Boarding ends fifteen minutes before departure. And I was in the second to last row of the plane.

About half of the other passengers were also frantic about their connecting flights, and the flight attendants provided a kind of calming, sympathetic nihilism. “We’re supposed to be on other flights, too. They know we were delayed, so they might wait for you!”

I booked it off that plane as fast as I could. (Seriously, American airports need to switch to front-and-back of the plane loading like the rest of the world.) Didn’t stop to talk to gate agents, just sprinted up the escalator to the Skylink to transfer to a different terminal, then sprinted down a non-operational escalator to Gate D29. I saw the sign as I approached: “CLOSED”. My heart sank again. It was 10:45. There were no more flights after this one. Was I going to have to book a room in the airport hotel?

But I tried anyway. The gate agent shook his head as he took my ticket, but then he looked twice at his screen and printed me a boarding pass anyway. The gate was closed, but the plane hadn’t left yet. I ran down the loading platform and into the plane, without my boarding pass, and the agent yelled my seat assignment after me: “27E!”

And that’s how I was the last person on the plane, embarrassed and out of breath, but in my seat five minutes before departure. Mercifully, takeoff had been slightly delayed by a separate passenger seating issue, which is why they left the door open. In spite of everything, I still arrived at my final destination more or less on time: midnight in Colorado.

So now I’m in Denver! The end.

ω

Word of the Day: caltrops are a type of area-denial weapon left on the ground to prevent opponents from advancing. They usually look like huge spikes or jacks. There are lots of alternate names and spellings (e.g., galthrap, cheval trap, jackrock). Originally it comes from Old English calcatrippe (heel-trap).

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Pride & Joy

Happy Pride Month! I want to write a little bit about pride and queer joy.

Around this time last year, I told my parents for the first time that I had a boyfriend. I had been out to them for many years, but until that point I had never dated anyone seriously enough to consider “bringing home” to meet them. I can only assume they thought that I was not dating anyone this entire time, which is an easier pill for conservative parents to swallow.

So when I video called them to break the news about the relationship, I was very nervous. I had planned what I was going to say, but unsurprisingly, it came out all jumbled, fast, and awkward. And, crucially, I hedged.

“I have some news to tell you. But it’s not related to jobs. And, actually, I’m a little bit worried about telling you.”

“What is it?”

“I wanted to tell you that I’m dating someone. His name is —.”

“…” The look on my mom’s face would have been funny if it weren’t also stone cold. It just… froze into a grim stare.

“How did you meet him?”

“We met online, a few years ago, and we have some mutual friends.”

“Online???”

I felt like I had to keep talking or else the earth would open up and swallow me whole. He lives in LA. He’s a doctor! He’s also a Christian! He’s visited me in Philadelphia. He’s Asian American.

My parents asked me how long I’d been dating him, who else knew. My dad did a lot of the interrogation; my mom was mostly silent. At one point, I explicitly apologized.

“So, yeah, I just wanted to tell you, and also I’m sorry, I know you’re probably not very happy to hear this, but I like him very much.”

And it was at that moment that my parents seemed to remember their duty to love their child. They said that it was okay, and that they loved me regardless, and that they trust that I’m mature enough to know what I’m doing, and that they trust that God has the right plan for me and that I’ll follow it, etc. We didn’t say much more after that; I made plans to visit them and then hung up.

I look back on this memory one year later, and I’m rather regretful of a few things.

First, and most obviously, I’m sad that I felt like I had to apologize for giving them what should have been happy, joyous news. Love is a beautiful, wonderful thing that should be celebrated, but I told them about it as if I had just crashed the family car. It is embarrassing how I tried to salvage the situation with “but he’s a doctor!”, as if that modicum of respectability would change anything. As if I had to bring home the most perfect, acceptable gay Christian Asian doctor from a good family in order to save face from the shame of bringing home a man at all.

I’m also sad that I took my parents’ reaction as a good sign. To be clear, it could have gone a lot worse, and for many queer children, every act of coming out carries significant risk of things like abandonment or violence. My parents loved me, this I knew for sure, but their views on homosexuality were such that they had to frame their love as regardless of my “decision” to date a guy. They trusted me and they trusted God, but in between the lines of that trust lay a deep misgiving that I didn’t recognize then. It was nuanced, but became quite clear a few months later, when they tried to talk me out of my relationship. I saw then that they viewed my gay “lifestyle” as a trial that they’d have to endure, hopefully only until I eventually came to my senses and figured out God’s (straight) plan for me.

And lastly, I’m sad that I didn’t — and still haven’t, and maybe never will — bring up with them how much this hurt. It hurt me and it hurt my new relationship (which has since ended) not to have an authentically loving embrace when I first broke the news. Again, I didn’t expect anything different, and it could have been worse, but here’s the reframing: I’m pretty sure I deserve better than to cautiously ask for permission to be happy.

One day I’ll have the opportunity to introduce someone to my parents again, and I’m resolving now that when that time comes, I’m going to frame it purely in terms of love and joy. I won’t let any residual or communal shame taint the way I tell my story.

I’m reminded that Pride celebrations in American history actually began as protests, led by trans women of color, in resistance to oppression but also in defense of their own dignity and joy. They refused to live in shame; that’s what drove them to throw bricks and pave the way for our liberation.

So once again, Happy Pride. But not just happy — have a shameless, revolutionary, and joyful Pride, too.

ω

Word of the Day: chryselephantine, from the Greek χρυσός (chrysós, ‘gold’) and ελεφάντινος (elephántinos, ‘elephant/ivory’) is a word that describes a type of statue or sculpture made from gold and ivory. If you do a Google Images search for the term, you’ll see lots of beautiful modern pieces in white and gold, and a few ancient ones that are black and gold. Ivory is not black; my friend who studies classics and archaeology hypothesizes that black chryselephantine sculptures were probably burned at some point.

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Small grief

Maybe it’s unusual for me to use Facebook this blog [this was originally posted on Facebook] alternatingly as a professional networking tool and a very public outlet for my personal dramas, but, like, whatever.

For the past few weeks, my church’s virtual services have focused on the topic of grief and how we can embrace grief, see God in it, learn from it, and heal with it. I’ve been very pre-occupied with one small grief, and I continue to practice letting it work its way out naturally so that I can eventually let it go. I say “small” grief because it’s not even close to “big” griefs like sickness, death, or betrayal, but it’s been tough to handle nonetheless.

The short version of the story is that last November, I ended a relationship that I had really put a lot of work into, and with the loss of a partner also came the unexpected loss of a community. After an initial quick period of mourning the breakup, I thought I could pick myself up right away and resume life as normal. Instead, I looked around and realized that I had no one to keep me company, and that “life as normal” no longer existed.

The fact that this happened just as the pandemic started to enter its horrible winter surge in Los Angeles, making it worse than it might have been otherwise, doesn’t escape me. I know in my head that I have a big support network, and I was really grateful for weekly calls with my church group and check-ins from many friends from around the country. But all of that didn’t prevent me from spending entire days physically alone in my apartment; it didn’t keep me from going three weeks without seeing a single other human being in person (except at the grocery store); it didn’t save me from the most crushing loneliness I’ve ever felt in my life.

It was a long and miserable winter.

Finally, after stupidly waiting for people I thought I could rely on to reach out to me, I just sent out my own SOS. And so I’ve started the journey out of this rut. I’ve been doing a lot of hiking, which has allowed me to connect with a handful of new faces, or reconnect with friends I didn’t know were here in LA. But I’ve also realized that I’m not going to be able to thrive here, not in these times, so the more reasonable solution is to leave. It was foolish of me to have even tried, but at least I can say that I learned from my mistake.

So to answer the reflection questions from today’s sermon… Do I understand that God grieves with me? Yes, but honestly it hasn’t helped as much as understanding that my friends grieve with me, too.

What is my grief? Not so much the loss of the relationship, because I can see now, with distance, how it was doomed from the start, but rather the steep and sudden loss of human connection at a time when everyone needed it the most.

Where am I on my journey? I’m definitely in a better place now than I was at the beginning of this year. Grief processing is non-linear, so I won’t guarantee that things can only go up from here, but the general trend is upwards, and that’s a start.

How can I mark and honor my grief? I’m doing that right now by writing very publicly about it.

What is my grief teaching me? That I need people, and more importantly, that the people I need are not always the people I think I need. I’ve also learned how to examine my own behavior when I enter the bargaining stage of grief, which is interesting and useful. And on a somewhat twisted note, my grief has taught me that I’m certainly capable of continuing to function extremely well (e.g., take care of myself and do my job) even when my insides are being put through the wringer. This isn’t really a good thing, but, again: interesting and useful to know for the future.

What other emotions surround my grief? Loneliness, a hint of insecurity or self-doubt (e.g., am I actually incapable of sustaining a committed relationship with another person; how come nobody here wants me in their quarantine bubble; AITA, etc.), and, obviously, pandemic-induced existential dread.

How can others support me? Well, thanks for reading, that’s really about it. I’ve already made a few decisions that I think will really help me, including getting the hell out of here, and beyond that, I just hope we can all continue to take care of each other.

ω

Word of the Day: graupel, from German meaning “little pearl barley”, is a type of winter precipitation that is also described as “soft hail”. It looks like hail, but it’s soft and won’t hurt you, and forms more often during wintry mix precipitation rather than thunderstorms. Apparently we got some graupel in the LA area last week, but I didn’t get a chance to see it.

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Ethical research and teaching in linguistics

This post is really just going to be a lot of links and reminders to myself about how to think about ethical linguistics research and how to incorporate these ideas into the syllabi for the classes I teach. The first big thing I’ve done in 2021 is attend the Linguistic Society of America Annual Meeting (LSA 2021). Over the past weekend, in addition to giving two presentations and moderating a symposium (whew), I also attended a very important organized session on ethics in linguistics this morning. Lots to think about and take away from it, but I don’t have the energy to process it all right now; hence, putting my notes here. And I’m making it public rather than just an Evernote document, because I think these might be useful to other linguists or anyone interested in the ongoing conversations about ethics in this field and in academia more broadly.

The organized session highlighted issues of ethics in language documentation research and traditional laboratory data collection, but most pertinent to me was the topic of Internet research, or the collection of linguistic data from public sources. I asked the panelists this question:

How do we feel about “found” panel or corpus data? E.g., using language data from news, archives, reality tv, Twitter, and YouTube, when speaker info can be anonymized, but the researcher is unlikely to be able to get consent? Does it make a difference if it’s corpus analysis versus case studies or in-depth qualitative analysis?

The panelists offered varying insights. Among them included: 1) Lots of data on the internet is considered public domain, so from a legal standpoint there isn’t a conflict. But legal is not the same as ethical. 2) Some internet data cannot be anonymized, especially if you include verbatim quotations, such as Tweets, in your research analysis: it is relatively easy to search for the source of a Tweet, even if you remove its attribution, and thus anonymization is rendered impossible. 3) It’s important to check in with your institution’s IRB (Institutional Review Board), because not only should different Internet data sources be treated differently, the way your project uses it will also differ from another project, and so everything should be taken into a specific context. Of course, this also depends on how competent your local IRB is.

Audience members also pointed out that the institutionally-defined ethics of research may not always match what is “right” for a specific person, community, or social context. (In other words, there’s a difference between ethics and morals, and between both of these and legality.)

Amidst a very productive and engaging chatroom dialogue (one of the interesting consequences of a virtual conference is the simultaneous speaking and typing communication), many people shared links to webpages and articles that deal specifically with the use of Internet data in linguistics research, and I thought I’d keep a record of some of them here. (I have downloaded all of the articles, and if you are interested, contact me and I can send you a copy. Or check out item #6.)

1. The Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) put out “Internet Research: Ethical Guidelines 3.0” in 2019, and have a quick reference chart for Internet data types and ethical considerations from 2016.

2. Shilton, Katie and Sayles, Sheridan. (2016) “We Aren’t All Going to Be on the Same Page About Ethics:” Ethical Practices and Challenges in Research on Digital and Social Media.

“Ethical norms among both researchers and participants are still in flux, making the
construction of concrete specifications nearly impossible. There are no catch-all solutions for digital and social media research ethics.”

3. Vitak, Jessica, Shilton, Katie, and Ashktorab, Zahra. (2016). “Beyond the Belmont Principles: Ethical Challenges, Practices, and Beliefs in the Online Data Research Community.”

“Informed consent challenges are one of the most frequently discussed topics in online research ethics. Online research subjects are sometimes unaware of monitoring, and often unable to choose the kind of data collected. Online data subjects also have uneven opportunities to protect their data. While individuals increasingly use privacy settings
provided by social network sites, researchers allied with host platforms may still have access to the data. Transparency is another challenge for social computing researchers. While social media’s affordances simplify the process of collecting data, researchers must decide whether and how to inform subjects of their presence, methods, and
analysis.”

4. Narayanan, Arvind, and Shmatikov, Vitaly. (2010). “Myths and fallacies of ‘Personally Identifiable Information.'”

“The versatility and power of re-identification algorithms imply that terms such as “personally identifiable” and “quasi-identifier” simply have no technical meaning. While some attributes may be uniquely identifying on their own, any attribute can be identifying in combination with others.”

5. Hou, Lynn, Lepic, Ryan, and Wilkinson, Erin. (2020). “Working with ASL Internet Data”.

“However, there is no “one-size-fits-all” set of regulations for conducting ethical research with internet data, and many Institutional Review Boards have not yet updated their procedures to anticipate the types of harm that might arise in working with internet data. It seems that the biggest risk of harm to others when working with internet data is the risk of violating an individual’s perception of the privacy of the forum in which they are communicating. Related to this are the potential harms that derive from researchers making information available about individuals that the individuals themselves did not share publicly. Researchers therefore must be aware of the perceptions that individual internet users could reasonably be expected to have about the privacy/availability of the content that they have shared online.”

6. The syllabus for Emily Bender’s course on Ethics in Natural Language Processing at the University of Washington, which is extremely comprehensive and is the source of many of the aforementioned articles.

7. Various statements on ethics from the Linguistic Society of America.

That’s all! I’m tired. Conference over. Work tomorrow. Good night!

ω

Word of the Day: ochlocracy is mob rule. See: current events in the United States. (I typed that as “Untied States” at first, but…)

Posted in conference, what even is linguistics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

2020 Culture Roundup

This year was garbage, no surprise there. For just about everyone, full of sorrow and anger and anxiety and helplessness, and all of it warranted. About one year ago, before COVID even existed, and during a particularly low spot in my dissertation writing, I posted on this blog a list of fifty things I was thankful for. I re-read it today, and a part of me felt relief, but another part of me felt a different kind of sadness. It occurred to me that even though I still have many of those blessings, they don’t seem to be enough to counter the woes of the ones that were taken away from me this year. And very little about the past nine months has made up the difference.

So I don’t really feel like doing a solemn year-end reflection. On the other hand, I think it would be nice to sum up the year in a more light-hearted way, so I’m doing a “culture roundup” for 2020! I’m generally not very good at keeping records of the books, movies, and other forms of entertainment that I consume, but I think one of my resolutions for the coming year will be to do a better job of it. Not that I attribute any kind of importance to records like these, but, again: this is for the sake of a light-hearted diversion. Here we go!

Literature

I do actually keep track of the books I’ve read here. I used to write short synopses and reviews of each book I finish, but… haven’t done that in a while. Now it’s just a list, with some entries highlighted as recommendations. Here’s 2020:

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford
Saint Young Men, Vol. 1, by Hikaru Nakamura
The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Minor Feelings, by Cathy Hong Park
Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari
The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie
The Astonishing Color of After, by Emily X. R. Pan
Changing Our Mind, by David P. Gushee

The Umbrella Academy: Hotel Oblivion, by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá
Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng
Exhalation: Stories, by Ted Chiang
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong
The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui

Of these, the standout was Exhalation, Ted Chiang’s short story collection. Absolutely phenomenal.

Film

I began using letterboxd this year to keep track of movies; if you use letterboxd, add me here! These are movies that I watched for the first time in 2020. I did not include movies I re-watched, of which there were quite a few (thanks to quarantine). Again, recommended movies are highlighted.

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020, dir. Patty Jenkins)
The Witches (2020, dir. Robert Zemeckis)
Run (2020, dir. Aneesh Chaganty)
Another Round (2020, dir. Thomas Vinterberg)
The Half of It (2020, dir. Alice Wu)
Tigertail (2020, dir. Alan Yang)
Palm Springs (2020, dir. Max Barbakow)

Little Women (2019, dir. Greta Gerwig)
Knives Out (2019, dir. Rian Johnson)
Just Mercy (2019, dir. Destin Daniel Cretton)
Uncut Gems (2019, dir. Josh & Benny Safdie)
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019, dir. Quentin Tarantino)
I Lost My Body (2019, dir. Jérémy Clapin)
Shazam (2019, dir. David F. Sandberg)
Booksmart (2019, Olivia Wilde)
Mary Poppins Returns (2018, dir. Rob Marshall)
Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018, dir. Phil Johnston & Rich Moore)
They Shall Not Grow Old (2018, dir. Peter Jackson)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018, dir. Peyton Reed)
Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife (2018, dir. Jay Karas)
American Animals (2018, dir. Bart Layton)
Talking Black in America (2017, dir. Neal Hutcheson & Danica Cullinan)
Bad Genius (2017, dir. Nattawut Poonpiriya)
The Little Hours (2017, dir. Jeff Baena)
Train to Busan (2016, dir. Yeon Sang-ho)
Deadpool (2016, dir. Tim Miller)
The Little Prince (2015, dir. Mark Osborne)
Mustang (2015, dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
Megamind (2010, dir. Tom McGrath)
Boy (2010, dir. Taika Waititi)
Children of Men (2006, dir. Alfonso Cuarón)
The Fountain (2006, dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Shaun of the Dead (2004, dir. Edgar Wright)
The Station Agent (2003, dir. Tom McCarthy)
Hero (2002, dir. Zhang Yimou)
Election (1999, dir. Alexander Payne)
Chungking Express (1994, dir. Wong Kar-wai)
Groundhog Day (1993, dir. Harold Ramis)
Unforgiven (1992, dir. Clint Eastwood)
Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987, dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
Little Shop of Horrors (1986, dir. Frank Oz)
The Housemaid (1960, dir. Kim Ki-young)
Singin’ in the Rain (1952, dir. Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen)
Citizen Kane (1941, dir. Orson Welles)

The standouts from this list are Train to Busan, Booksmart, and Palm Springs. I guess I’d have to say my favorite movie of 2020 that I watched was Palm Springs, but that said, I know there are a lot of amazing movies from this year that I just didn’t get to watch. I’d especially like to thank my friend Blake and our informal Sunday Movie Club for exposing me to many of these films, and for giving me a wonderful weekly tradition that has tided me through most of the pandemic quarantine.

Television

For sure, 2020 was the year of watching television for me. I recommend pretty much all of the shows on this list — it looks short, but multiply each show by a few seasons, and you’ve got yourself enough material for several months of lockdown.

Fleabag
Steven Universe Future
Avatar: The Last Airbender
The Legend of Korra
Community (S1-3)
The Umbrella Academy (S2)
Westworld (S1)
Infinity Train (S1)
Schitt’s Creek (S5-6)
Parks and Recreation (Pandemic Special Episode)

The winner here is probably Legend of Korra; it builds on the incredible world of Avatar and tells such memorable, complex stories under constraints (e.g., 20-minute episodes aimed at children). Fleabag is a close second; I binged its two short seasons during a trans-Pacific flight and have never encountered any comedy quite like it. Of course, Steven Universe and Parks and Rec were favorites because I have had a deep fondness for those shows for years. I was also happy to finally be able to finish Schitt’s Creek this year, even though I broke up with my ex literally right after we watched the series finale, which centers a super heartwarming gay wedding. Eyeroll. Okay, thank you, next!

Podcasts

I’m just not a podcast person… but this year I listened to my friend Wes Willison’s “The Cultivators”, and I highly, highly recommend it. Other than that… on long drives down I-5 (aka NorCal to SoCal), I tended to queue up old episodes of 99% Invisible, Low Definition (Incomparable Game Show), This American Life, and Everything Is Alive.

Music

According to my Spotify Wrapped, I listened to a ton of Tim Be Told and Maggie Rogers. I don’t really use Spotify that much, so I couldn’t tell you how accurate that is. I do really love both of those artists, though, so check ’em out!

Travel

Haha. Travel. Well, I managed to get a few trips in there, even squeezed in an international flight. My last flight was to Oregon, only one week before California went into lockdown back in March. Then, I did quite a bit of driving back and forth between NorCal and SoCal before permanently moving to the Los Angeles area. From there, I took a couple of road trips with my ex and/or with friends.

Lake Tahoe (ski trip)
Singapore (job interview)
Portland (job interview)
Valley of Fire State Park (road trip)
Bryce Canyon National Park (road trip)
Zion National Park (road trip)

Pinnacles State Park (camping trip)
San Diego (twice!)
Joshua Tree National Park (road trip)

Places in bold are places I’d want to visit again in the near future!

And last, but not least (probably most, tbh)

The other things that sustained me this year include:

Helen Plotkin’s summer Hebrew course for Swarthmore alums
In-person game nights playing Scythe, Wingspan, and Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 with my friends (pre-pandemic)
Virtual game nights playing Among Us, Dominion, Evolution, Nertz, and Jackbox Games (post-pandemic)
Pokémon Go
New York Times Daily Crossword
Oak Life Church’s weekly virtual services and my life group community
Grad Fit and Body Attack, my wonderful outlets for group exercise

Thanks, everyone, for all the memories! May 2021 be a better year.

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Word of the Day (Word of the Year?!): farkakte, meaning lousy, ridiculous, screwed up, etc. It comes from Yiddish: פֿאַרקאַקטע, meaning “from shit” or “shat upon”. Also spelled verkakte. A wonderful word for 2020.

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Lip syncing is actually really hard

… as I discovered last week when I helped with my church’s Christmas Eve service. Like most churches (hopefully), we had a part pre-recorded, part live service that was streamed online to congregants who watched from home. My contribution was to provide music for a few songs. I’ve gotten quite used to doing this on Sunday mornings; it’s as easy as turning on my webcam and pointing it at my keyboard; broadcasting through our livestreaming website is a cinch, although it unsurprisingly doesn’t provide high-quality audio or video.

Because the Christmas service is special, I thought I’d try a nicer setup. Instead of my laptop’s webcam, I managed to set up my old dSLR camera as a high-definition webcam (thanks to this video). For audio recording, I used my professional-grade recorder, the one I used for my dissertation research. I had a little trouble with getting it to record simultaneously with my webcam, though, so I decided to record my keyboard track and my vocal track separately and send those along to our producer to mix with the other band members’ contributions.

That left just the video to shoot, which I realized I would have to do while playing back my own track and not just lip-syncing along, but also keyboard-syncing in a realistic way! (The audio from the video would be scrapped, and the video alone lined up with my tracks and everyone else’s.)

I had to do a lot of takes. I also had to be content with inconsistency. Are there moments in the final video when I’m singing but my mouth is closed? Yes. Are there moments when my fingers are clearly not where they are supposed to be? Most of the video is like that, in fact. Doesn’t help that I play keys half-improvised instead of reading from sheet music!

But I’m thrilled with the final product; our editor/mixer/producer/sound designer Jake did a wonderful job. You can check it out on my church’s Instagram page.

What I learned from the whole thing is: 1) the people whose job it is to set up cameras, microphones, and lighting for a shoot, and the people who convert raw footage into beautiful videos, are very special people indeed. It’s hard to do it on your own with no training. And 2) it’s hard to lip-sync! I pay a little bit closer attention to every single music video I watch now.

Here’s a funny thing I noticed the other day. I was re-watching music videos from Glee (ridiculous television show about a high school show choir; I loved it, though), and in Darren Criss’ performance of “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”, an editing goof reveals that even imperfect takes can make it into final cuts. If you watch the video from the 3:18 mark, you can see Lea Michele singing along with the backing vocals. It cuts to a close-up of Amber Riley singing, and then back to the previous shot, with Darren Criss (and his beautiful eyes) in front of the choir. Except this time, Lea Michele is laughing and definitely not singing along, even though all the other actors are. It’s just a split second, but it makes it obvious that there were many takes, and a botched one just happened to sneak in.

(This makes me appreciate music videos with longer cuts and better-rehearsed choreography — especially single-take videos like those of OK Go — all the more!)

But honestly, I mean, most people watching wouldn’t notice tiny things like this. I’m just a huge nerd with a particular attention to detail at this point in time, I guess!

Anyway, there is no broader message to this post, I just wanted an excuse to share fun music videos.

Well, there’s also the bit about accepting imperfection, but I’ll spare you all the excruciating deep analysis.

A screenshot of one of the music videos for Oak Life Church’s Christmas Eve service (streamed online). I positioned my camera so that my Christmas tree would be in the background, but that meant moving my keyboard to a spot in my room where I couldn’t plug it in. It’s not turned on!

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Word of the Day: A joik (the “j” is pronounced like a “y”) is a traditional form of song of the Sámi people (the indigenous people of northern Europe). It’s also called a vuelie. Think of the opening song in Frozen. They are a cappella, usually lyricless, and quite beautiful.

P.S. I was just reminded, after publishing this post, that my friend once utter the non-word “lipsank” as a past tense form of “lip-sync”, and I found that delightful. It’s an example of what linguists call reanalysis: “sync” being for him no longer a shortened form of “synchronize” (which would have the past tense “synced”), but an irregular free morpheme homophonous and analogous with “sink”. Yes, as I said before, I’m a huge nerd.

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Title

Call Dr. Jill Biden by the title she has earned and asks people to use. It’s really that simple: give respect where respect is due.

Some people earn doctorates (Ph.D., Ed.D., Psy.D.) and medical degress (M.D.) and ask that others refer to them with the “Dr.” title. Others do not. I believe that, similar to lived names and pronouns, titles are determined by the individual who earns them. (Not that names and pronouns have to be earned.)

On academic Twitter, there appears to be a sharp divide between those who want everyone who has received a doctorate to advocate for greater use of the “Dr.” honorific and those who want less of it — both for valid reasons. In the former camp are people who recognize not the inherent value of an exclusive institution or system, but the reality that even in exclusive circles such as the academy, less respect is given to members with historically marginalized identities, such as women and people of color. So the argument is: call everyone who has a doctorate a “Dr.”, especially when those people are women of color, and remember to afford them their deserved authority in other ways, as well.

(As this debate unfolded on Twitter, the discussion I’m citing pertained specifically to use of “Dr.” before a Twitter user’s name on their profile. I even saw a more extreme position than this: only women and minorities should explicitly use the title on Twitter, and everyone else should remove it. I personally don’t know if that plan would do anything to solve misogyny.)

On the other hand, there are people who disagree with the concept of hierarchy altogether and would prefer few, if any, honorifics that create social distance between groups. (I suspect — without proof, of course — that white men make up a larger proportion of this camp than its opposition.)

I — speaking as a cisgender man with a doctorate — say, once again, it’s simple. If a person earns a title and asks you to use it, then use it and don’t tell them not to use it. Especially do not write garbage op-eds in the Wall Street Journal in order to tell them not to use it.

And if they have a title but disprefer it, don’t force it on them, either. If they only want to use their title ironically, or if they prefer one title in one situation and a different title in another, then who are you to dispute this? It’s not your name; it’s not your life.

And if you’re unsure what to use? Just ask. Respectful curiosity goes a long way these days.

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Word of the Day: buncombe (or, more commonly, bunkum), means “utter nonsense” and could rightfully be used to describe a certain Wall Street Journal op-ed published recently. Interestingly, the history of this word goes back to 1820. Felix Walker, a U.S. Representative from North Carolina, representing Buncombe County, tried to give a speech in Congress to argue in favor of human trafficking (i.e., to admit Missouri into the union as a slave state — this was about forty years after the Revolutionary War and forty years before the Civil War). None of his fellow congressmen wanted to hear his speech because they’d been debating the issue for weeks already, but he insisted that he give it so that he could at least report back to his constituents that he did. He was shouted down and never finished his speech, but it was indeed printed in his local home paper.

This was actually a tactic used by many a Southern Democrat in the years leading up to the Civil War, one in which politicians could shore up support at home while not actually fighting hard for change in D.C.; people began to use “speak for Buncombe” as a metaphor for useless political speechifying. A fascinating Atlantic article describes this early American phenomenon and draws parallels to what Republican “leaders” and conservative media platforms are doing today. The word bunkum is the source of the slang word bunk and its more common verbal cousin, debunk. I’m not sure of the original etymology of buncombe, apart from eponymous Continental Army colonel and human trafficker (“slaveowner”) who lent his name to the county. One possibility is that combe could come from the Old English word that refers to a hollow in the side of a hill.

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