Good Luck

Applying to jobs in the industry of academia sort of feels like running a marathon, except you’re not really running, you’re just sort of limping along, because you’ve already been jogging for the past six to eight years, so you were already exhausted before you began.

Applying to jobs in the industry of academia is itself a part-time job that students and post-docs take on in addition to their full-time job. It’s a dull, paperwork-heavy kind of labor that makes your eyes glaze over after you’ve adapted your cover letter for the twentieth thirtieth fiftieth time. It’s the kind of work that makes you want to quit and enroll in a boot camp for user design, because while user-friendly application websites are all alike, every poorly designed application website is poorly designed in its own way.

Applying to jobs in the industry of academia is a lot like Squid Game.

Applying to jobs in the industry of academia makes me wonder, often, how seriously I take the Millennial exhortation to “invest in myself”. It makes me wonder how much I value money, prestige, personal autonomy, and stability. The jobs that I’m applying to would provide me with wildly different amounts of each of those “values”, but I haven’t yet taken the time to think carefully or critically about which combination or permutation thereof would be the best choice for me.

This is partly because I’m not certain I’ll even have a choice! I’d be lucky to even be offered one job out of the two dozen or so I’m going to apply for, let alone to have two offers that I could decide between.

I was chatting with my grandmother the other day. She is in her nineties and she only speaks Taiwanese. My Taiwanese is pretty basic, but I’m lucky to be able to describe my life circumstances with enough clarity to get the point across. “I’m looking for a job, Grandma.” “Oh, will you come back to California for your job?” “That’s hard to say; I can only send in an application to a school if they happen to be looking for someone like me to hire. There’s actually not a lot of schools around here.” “What schools, then?” “Well, here’s a list of some of the ones I’m considering…” “Hm… Ohio… State… University? What is that? Is that where you kids always fly off to for vacation?” “Huh? Oh, no, that’s Oahu. That’s in Hawai’i. Ohio is in the middle of the country.” “What? How have I lived here for so long and I’ve never even heard of Ohio!”

My grandmother has lived in California for almost forty years. Her career, when she had one, was being a pastor’s wife. They lived in poverty and loved their church. My grandmother taught piano on the side, but it was less for the money than it was for her to contribute to the general education of the children in the community. She told me that back in the 50s in Taiwan, it wasn’t proper for a pastor’s wife to make money. Instead, she played accompaniment for the church choir (pastor grandpa was also the conductor), and she dutifully raised three children who all prioritized their education; as adults, they all left the island for America and never returned.

Once upon a time, she, too, had the opportunity to make that trans-Pacific journey. She was under consideration for a music scholarship to study at a conservatory in Canada. Her teacher, a mysterious figure she calls “Miss Stella”, urged her to go and pursue piano performance. Instead, she turned it down so that she could marry my grandfather. Thirty-some years later, the both of them left Taiwan, too, to help raise the grandchildren in California.

“I’m so lucky,” she says about her life. “My children were all obedient and successful, my grandchildren are all obedient and successful, and I have so many great-grandchildren…” (She has fourteen great-grandchildren, and a fifteenth on the way.) Actually, she didn’t say that she was lucky. She said “God surely loves me.” She attributes to grace what the non-religious might contribute to luck, good fortune, or maybe privilege.

The other day, I had a dream. In the dream, I was meditating in a yoga class. A mantra came to me while I was dream-meditating: “Luck isn’t an object. It’s not a state, either, or a feeling. Luck is a narrative.”

In my dream, I blinked my eyes open, and the meditation session was over. (But I was still asleep, and I continued to dream that my friends and I went to a Björk concert complete with laser beams and giant holographic paintballs that exploded above our heads like electric fireworks.)

People keep wishing me good luck on the job market this season, and I always reply, “Thanks, I’m going to need it.” Now I wonder, though, if luck is something I need, or if luck is just something I’ll weave into my story once it’s finished. And then, what about grace?

A view of Graffiti Hill (near Pacific, CA), and the sea horizon beyond.

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Word of the Day: offing is a nautical term that refers to a distant view of the sea, when viewed from land. This word is obsolete, but survives idiomatically as part of the phrase in the offing, which means “in the near future”. Strangely, the idiom used to mean “in the far future”, but, yeah, language changes.

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Flagpoling

September 6, 2021: I fly from San Francisco to Vancouver (via Calgary) and am given my Canadian work permit at the airport, valid for one year. I spend my first few days in Canada fumbling with opening a bank account and getting a driver’s license (oops, I mean licence).

July 7, 2022: I fly to Ottawa to attend an academic conference. As soon as I arrive at the conference hotel, I realize that I’ve lost my wallet, and with it, my driver’s license (and credit card, debit card, and transit card).

August 8, 2022: After waiting in vain for a few weeks for the airline to find my lost items, I go to the local ICBC office (like the DMV, but for British Columbia) to file for a replacement driver’s license. The worker who looks at my file says, “Did you know that your work permit is about to expire? I can’t process a new license for you until you renew your permit. You need to have at least six months left on it.” I am issued a temporary license that I can use while I travel to California.

August 9, 2022: I submit an online application to renew my work permit. I realize as I am filling out the paperwork that I have no idea what I’m doing, and I wonder why nobody from my workplace (i.e., my department or school) has contacted me to remind me about the upcoming expiration of my work permit or help me in any way with this. The application costs $155CAD.

August 25, 2022: I go on a backpacking trip for two days. While I’m gone, the person whose job it is to help shepherd me through the renewal process returns from a two-week vacation. (Ah, that explains it.) They send my boss and me several forms to sign and submit.

August 29, 2022: My laptop crashes. Mondays, am I right?

August 30, 2022: I use a borrowed computer to check my email. Human Resources has looped in the school’s immigration consultant, who informs me that the application I submitted weeks earlier is going to be rejected, since I didn’t have the proper paperwork. They tell me that I need to submit a second online application today or tomorrow, since the expiration date is August 31st. (Yes, thanks, I’m very aware of that deadline, I reply in my head.) I notice a line on a webpage that informs me that if I submit an online application, I will not be able to leave Canada until the application is accepted, a process which could take months. I have to travel to more conferences in the States in the coming months. The immigration consultant tells me about an option called “flagpoling“. I can drive forty-five minutes south of Vancouver to the land border between the US and Canada at Peace Arch Provincial Park, a very interesting international plot of land that I first heard about in an episode of 99% Invisible. There, I can apply for a work permit renewal in person, just like I did at the airport in Calgary a year prior.

I frantically text all of my friends and ask if anybody is free that day to drive me to the border, as I do not have a car. Warren agrees, but he’s only free at around 8:30pm. It is completely dark by the time we hit the road. It is my first time going to the Peace Arch, but the park is closed by the time we get there. We are unsure where to park; Warren accidentally goes down a road that will lead him into the US — we don’t want to actually cross the border in his car — and parks by the side of the road. I walk to the Canadian border office. There are agents there 24/7, and none of them seem surprised to see me emerge out of the darkness. I am instructed to walk half a kilometer, on the sidewalk, until I reach the US border office. I realize that the term “flagpoling” comes from the flag on top of the arch in the middle of the park, a little closer to the American side. I walk past the flagpole, past a dozen cars lined up at the gate to enter the US, and confusedly enter the US border office. An officer scans my passport, takes a photo, and then cheerfully tells me to walk back to Canada, exactly the way I came. I reach the Canadian border, and am finally able to have my paperwork processed inside a nearly-empty office. My application is approved, but I have to pay another application fee ($155 CAD). The entire process takes one hour.

On the way home, I thank Warren profusely for taking almost three hours out of his evening to drive me on this weird little road trip. I joke about how this is my third time crossing the US-Canada border in three weeks. My joking turns to complaining about how weird and silly this entire procedure is, and I wonder, once again, why it took until the day before my permit expired for me to even learn about my options for renewal. I am fully aware that I have so many privileges — as an English-speaker, a person with (ancillary) access to a car, a person who can afford to front all this money, and especially as an American — that make it easier for me than for other people to clear bureaucratic hurdles. But I am still drawing the short straw in so many ways! According to my boss, the school I work for has dedicated staff who keep tabs on faculty to help them with administrivia like this, but postdocs like myself are not on their radar, so we fall through the cracks all the time. I can’t believe I learned about my expiring permit from an ICBC worker, not anybody at my actual workplace, and then only because I’d gone there to replace a lost license! I don’t even want to imagine what kind of bureaucratic nightmare I could have been stuck in if nobody noticed my situation until it was too late.

August 31, 2022: I am told that it will cost $200, on top of the $260 I already paid for diagnosis and repair, to replace my dead laptop’s hard drive and recover my lost data. I realize, once again, that it takes an extraordinary amount of financial privilege to maintain a career in academia, especially in vulnerable early stages, and it’s no wonder that so many brilliant and hardworking people leave the field simply because the cost-benefit analysis makes it clear that almost any other career is a financially safer and saner option. I briefly consider quitting, then simply decide that I am done working for the day and go watch a movie with my friends.

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Word of the Day: gravamen (from the Latin gravare, to weigh down) in legal terms, is the most serious part of a complaint or accusation, or the essential component of a lawsuit.

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Two-year post-diss career goals check-in

Wow, the title of this blog post is one heck of a noun phrase.

Today marks two years, to the day, since I received my PhD. At least, I think it is. That summer was such a blur, and I can’t even locate the original email that the graduate division sent me to notify me that I had successfully filed my dissertation. But, hm… oh, yes: There’s a framed piece of paper in my parents’ house that claims that I was granted my degree on August 14th, 2020.

I personally don’t think two years is that much time to build up a career after this kind of milestone, and certainly the global context of the past two years hasn’t made it easy to, well, accomplish much of anything. But it’s worth taking stock, as both as a way to remind myself of what I’ve done as well as what I have left to do.

I was looking over my research notes the other day and found a list that I’d nearly forgotten about: ten things I wanted to accomplish after I filed my dissertation. The list is titled “Post-diss goals”. As far as “SMART” goals are concerned, these are fairly specific, measurable, achievable, and relevant. They are not time-bound, however. I never wrote down when, specifically, I wanted to complete each task. I guess I had been thinking, “as soon as possible in 2020”. Well, it’s 2022 now… as good a time as any to check in!

Post-diss goals:

  1. CLS proceedings paper
  2. Publish chp. 4 on Korean American back vowels as journal article
  3. Publish chp. 5 on Korean American metalinguistic commentary
  4. Publish paper on YouTubers
  5. Publish co-authored paper with SC
  6. Project w/ JL on Korean Americans
  7. Write annual report paper on KA VOT
  8. PowerProject R&R?
  9. Apply for NIH and NSF and PPFP again & other post-doc grants
  10. AsAms and raciolinguistics

The first five items are papers that I wanted to publish in conference proceedings or in journals. The first was for a conference that was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, but the organizing committee still accepted the papers from the conference to be published with minimal peer review. So I checked that one off the list fairly quickly. Then, I had two chapters of my dissertation (4 and 5) that I wanted to turn into peer-reviewed journal articles: one was published in Journal of Phonetics, and the other was published in Amerasia. I worked as hard as I could on these two articles, and I’m happy with both of them. I don’t think I have anything left from my dissertation data that could be put into another original research article, so I also had goals related to other projects. One was a paper on YouTubers’ regional accents that I had been working on for years (finally published in American Speech), and the other was my first post-dissertation collaboration, which my co-author and I published in Languages in late 2021.

The sixth item came out of some productive networking I did while I was at my first postdoctoral position (not my current institution): I got connected to several scholars in Southern California who worked on various topics related to Korean and Korean American language and culture. I wasn’t sure when I added this item to the list what the goal actually was; it’s just this vague “project with person” idea. But it turned into an active research group that has held two speaker series (all online) and the beginnings of a possible special issue of an academic journal! This has been both an easy goal (in terms of finding people with similar research interests) and a difficult one (figuring out what, exactly, we want to achieve, and maintaining momentum after I left California), but it’s been so worth the while.

The seventh and eighth items are goals that I have not yet accomplished, and I feel more and more that I should cut the cord soon. These projects depend too heavily on the work of students who have also since graduated, and when your collaborators move on to different things, it’s very hard to keep going solo. So while I still hold out hope that we might finish… one day… it’s more realistic to accept that sometimes, you just have to cut your losses and move on.

The ninth goal was a bittersweet one: sweet because I eventually did receive a national grant to fund my research, but bitter because it wasn’t from any of the agencies named in the original goal. I tried SO MANY TIMES in 2020 and 2021 to get funded, and I was rejected so many times… I’d basically given up hope on any grant institutions ever showing interest in my work, when finally I got a modest grant from the Canadian government! Thanks, Canada! And thanks to my current PI, who helped me out so much with the successful application, as well as all my past advisers, bosses, and mentors, because every rejection was, I suppose, actually another experience useful for honing my grantsmanship skills.

Finally, the tenth goal was the one I was and am most excited about. It’s also kind of vague, but it was an idea to turn a growing collaboration with a network of young Asian and Asian American/Canadian scholars into a couple of tangible outputs. We turned our brainstorming Zoom sessions into two successful workshops at a national conference, two other conference presentations, a paper under review in a book (!), and a paper under review in a prestigious academic journal. Eh, it might still be rejected, but what’s important is that I–or, rather, we–have more than accomplished the original goal of turning our seeds of ideas into something, something bigger than ourselves. Something that I hope will actually shape the trajectory of the next stage of my career.

So, all in all… not bad for two years’ work, I suppose! I can finally take these things off of my “to-do” list. It was nice to reflect on these goals, and this is a good way to set the stage for the next round of goal-setting, number one of which is to get a tenure-track job somewhere during this year’s upcoming job market season! Wish me luck…!

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Word of the Day: tempestite, in geology, is a type of rock formation that gives geologists clues about the nature of ancient storms. Don’t ask me how exactly they figure out the details… geology is a fascinating and extremely complex (and new!) science. The longer I live in the Pacific Northwest (and the more I hang out with my geology-obsessed older brother, who lives in Seattle), the more of an interest in geology I develop. On a recent trip to across British Columbia to the Canadian Rockies, I spent so much time just gazing at limestone, dolomite, and the awe-inspiring remnants of the Laramide orogeny and the Pinedale glaciation.

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Phishing with weak ties

Last night while I was sleeping, I had a cool dream that involved a lecture on Black feminism, Taylor Swift, and a classroom full of friends singing. Then, when I woke up, I had a very un-cool quasi-nightmare that involved my Instagram account getting hacked.

As soon as I saw tons of text messages on my phone, including one from my brother asking, “did you get hacked,” I knew exactly what had happened.

The hacker had already gained access to the account of a friend of a friend, someone I don’t know very well. They (probably ‘he’ though, if we’re being honest) asked for permission to send me a link that I could click on to vote for their submission to an “influencer contest”. I knew in the back of my mind that I had no intention of clicking any link that was sent to me. Sure enough, I got a link in my text messages and ignored it. But what I didn’t realize was that that link could only have been sent to me if someone requested to change my Instagram password — it’s the same link that you’d use to reset your password legitimately.

The hacker asked me to screenshot the link and send it back to them “so they could show their supervisor”. That didn’t make any sense to me, but I didn’t think it would do any harm, as long as I didn’t click on it. The problem was that once I sent the screenshot, the hacker could just manually type in the link that they saw in the image, and then gain access to reset my password. They did this overnight. In the morning, I realized that I was locked out of my own account, and the hacker also enabled Two-Factor Authentication so that I couldn’t easily get back in.

I spent one fruitless hour this morning trying various methods of getting access back, including taking a video selfie and entering my email and phone number into various forms more times than I thought was safe. Each time, the hacker would turn 2FA back on and sign me out remotely. I even got targeted by yet another phishing attempt, this time via an email, claiming to be from Facebook, asking me to provide even more personal information in order to gain access again. It was only until a friend of mine who works at Meta reached out and offered to send my case through their internal management system that I finally got back into my account. I immediately turned on 2FA and linked it to my phone number so that nobody could log in again without also having access to my phone.

In the meantime, the hacker had promoted some stupid crypto Ponzi scheme on my Instagram story, pretended to be me when my friends sent concerned messages, and also (inexplicably) deleted about 70 of my past posts from my own feed. I am still locked out of my alternative account, the one I started to keep track of Asian Americans who won state and federal elections in 2020, and I’m angry that the hacker is probably using it to try to spread their “virus”. I also feel very foolish for falling for the scheme, although I know that it could happen to anybody (one friend mentioned that he was tricked by the exact same scheme just a few months ago).

A few lessons learned:

First, never screenshot a link and send it to anyone. This can be just as dangerous as clicking on suspicious-looking links.

Second, enable 2FA on all your accounts now, before somebody else can do it and use it against you. I’m always mildly annoyed when I have to grab my phone to log in to my email or whatever every single day, but it’s better to deal with that minor annoyance than to have 2FA be the obstacle preventing you from accessing your own compromised account.

Third — and this isn’t really a lesson so much as it is a nerdy way to bring this whole mess back to linguistics — is that I really got to thinking about why I got hooked by the phishing attempt, and I think that it has to do with weak ties. Weak ties, in sociolinguistics, are social connections marked by infrequent, shallow contact. They’re your friends of friends, or the people you know by name at work and school but don’t know well. When it comes to the theorization of how certain linguistic changes spread (e.g., when did everyone start saying “I wish I would have gone” instead of “I wish I had gone”???), the prevailing idea, at least from the 80s and 90s, is that while anybody might be the innovator of a new linguistic change, it was specifically people who had weak ties to many different social networks who were the most efficient at spreading them.

I fell for the scam because I had only weak ties to the person whose account had been compromised before mine. The hacker, posing as my “friend”, asked me to support their entry into a contest, and I thought, well, why not? I didn’t know them well enough to realize that it was a very unusual request, and I didn’t even follow them on other social media accounts (such as Facebook), so I couldn’t have known if they’d posted an alert of any kind. I also remember thinking that I could reach out to them through another channel to verify the screenshot request, but then deciding against it, since it might be awkward and face-threatening. (Now I know better!)

On the other hand, as soon as the hacker tried to pose as me, many of my close friends reacted with suspicion. They didn’t click on any links, and some reported my account to Instagram immediately. I’m so glad that nobody fell for it, as far as I can tell, but this was all contingent on the fact that they had strong enough ties to me (and/or a basic sense of Internet safety) to realize quickly what was up.

In the age of Internet-dominant communication, the old theories of sociolinguistic change need to be retested and revamped, but I think there’s pretty solid evidence that certain objects such as scams and memes travel extremely quickly through weak ties. Meme accounts on Facebook and Instagram are particularly good at spreading content virally. On the other hand, another type of scam that’s dominant today is the MMO, which apparently spreads more efficiently through strong ties (though not as quickly as phishing scams and memes). Since I’m not a sociologist, I’ll leave the study of these kinds of phenomena to someone else.

Anyway, keep these lessons handy and hopefully you will never encounter what I did today!

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Word of the Day: bagasse (from the French bagage and Spanish bagazo, meaning ‘trash’) is the name for sugarcane pulp, leftover from sugar processing, which is often recycled and used to create biofuel or paper products. Garbage people who prey on others using social media are garbage. May they be ground into sugarcane pulp.

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In support of explicit validation

(Ha. With my training in data science I can see how this post’s title might indicate a much drier topic than is actually being addressed. But anyway…)

I’m the kind of person who never thinks he really needs to be listened to, not more than others, at least. I mean, I get plenty of attention. I have privilege (particularly male privilege) and I recognize what that means for how society in general treats me.

Be that as it may, I was taught yesterday, once again, the importance of taking the time to listen to others when they are vulnerable with you. The importance of saying, “Your feelings are valid, and I see you.” I was taught this because it was demonstrated to me quite explicitly at a conference.

This was a training conference for early-career scientists such as myself. Many recent PhDs logged on to Zoom for three straight days of seminars, panel discussions, and mentoring workshops. I was surrounded by big names in my field and peers whom I knew to be up-and-coming stars. I felt inadequate to begin with, but after three days of weird, intense emotional whiplash, in which I felt inspired to achieve greatness in one moment but overwhelmed and ready to give up in the next… I was exhausted, and it was more than just the eye strain and Zoom fatigue.

So then the last session on the last day was dedicated to open Q&A and small group discussions on topics of the mentees’ choice. One mentee asked to create a small group for “visible Other” researchers, a label which could have been interpreted in several different ways, but effectively became the Zoom room for people of color. Picture it: a dozen young scholars (Black, Asian, Latinx) in little squares populate the screen, waiting for someone to speak up. Then: “Okay, I’ll start…” And we share story after story of microaggressions, of second guesses, of misinterpretations, of insecurities.

I go with the insecurities. I voice my concern over being pigeonholed as a certain type of researcher because of the combined factors of my race and of the race of the kind of people I tend to study. Although I want to be thought of as an expert in “Asian American sociolinguistics”, I don’t want to be written off as only an expert in that and nothing else. Does that make sense? I’m unsure about what kind of question I’m even asking.

Two of the faculty mentors present take a stab at responding. The first, in a nutshell: “Hey, I wouldn’t worry about it. If you do good science, you won’t have any problems.”

The second faculty mentor gently, but immediately, pushes back against the first: “You know what, that insecurity you feel is valid. It’s okay. It’s real. We do have a representation problem in science, and we all need to work on that.”

I couldn’t quite put a finger on why, but I almost felt like I could start crying at that moment. Could have been due to the fatigue. But here’s the thing: it wasn’t just about my concerns about my research portfolio. There was a tacit understanding that sometimes people who have marginalized (or multiply marginalized) identities have a question about one thing that is really a question about everything, because of how everything is connected: my background, my identity, my research, my aspirations, my influences, my struggles, the way I am perceived, the opportunities I’m given, the way I am spoken to. For me and an entire Zoom room full of young scholars of color to hear the first mentor’s sympathetic yet dismissive response, followed by the second mentor’s validation… that was very important. Maybe more important than the actual tangible advice that was given later on. And like I said before, I’m even surprised that it was such a meaningful moment for me, since I wouldn’t normally care so much.

But all this is to emphasize, once again, that it never hurts to listen with an open heart and to respond to others’ vulnerability with an acknowledgment of their humanity — regardless of what kind of advice you proceed to give! I’m guilty of being dismissive of the value of others’ feelings in the past, so I’m going to make a conscious effort to do that more often when opportunities arise in the future.

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Word of the Day: nepenthe (Ancient Greek: νηπενθές, nēpenthés) is the name of a potion, cited in Greek mythology, that makes its drinker forget their sorrows. The word is also referenced in the genus Nepenthes, known commonly as pitcher plants, which are filled with digestive juices.

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Scattered Thoughts: Everything Everywhere All at Once

I can’t decide if I want to write about this movie now, about a week after I’ve seen it, or wait until I’ve seen it twice, because I definitely want to watch it again in theaters, even though that’s something I almost never do, but I’ve had this draft in an open tab for days now and it’s probably best to just get my thoughts out of the way so I can move on to other things… Well. Anyway.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is, hands down, one of the best movies I’ve seen in a very long time. I don’t rate the movies I watch since I’m aware that time and context heavily shape one’s opinions. And when I watched Everything Everywhere, I had already harbored high expectations from my friends’ rave reviews. But even so, I was mesmerized by the movie from start to finish. It was funny, poignant, thrilling, and absolutely bizarre. I couldn’t stop talking about it for hours with my friends, and couldn’t stop thinking about it for days afterward. I don’t think I’ve had the same reaction to a movie since 2019’s Parasite, and maybe also Knives Out. I think it’s because all of these movies, in addition to being wildly entertaining, beautifully shot, and brilliantly acted and directed, also have a thoughtfulness behind them that leaves audiences thinking long after the credits have finished rolling. Knives Out was an incisive fable about white privilege, and Parasite had its brutal takedown of class inequality. So what was Everything Everywhere “about”?

(Spoilers follow!)

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

It’s not just about multiverses, of course. I think the clearest theme by far was that the movie offered an alternative to the kind of nihilism that pervades society today, that desperation and hopelessness that young people feel when they realize how vast the world is, how unsolvable its problems are, and how impossible or futile it is to try to change things. Nihilism is the belief in meaninglessness, and the character of Joy embodies it so well. Her Alpha-Joy variant, also known as Jobu Tupaki, memorably enters one dramatic scene like a god, bending reality and merging chaos and comedy with a dread-inducing eyes-glazed-over stare. No matter how powerful she is as a verse-jumper, she doesn’t think life is worth living and is trying to escape it all.

On the other hand, our protagonist Evelyn, once she becomes an accomplished verse-jumper herself, teeters on the event horizon of the black hole of nihilism, represented by the everything bagel, but she doesn’t succumb. Instead, she is able to maintain a grip on reality, or at least one reality, and thus can anchor herself to one single truth, which she tells her daughter: Even if the multiverse is meaningless, there is still value in the small moments of connection I had/have with you, and that’s worth living for.

I felt that the movie’s climactic scene, where Evelyn lets her daughter go, but then calls after her and offers her the choice of coming back, could have been incredibly cheesy, but instead, it was heartfelt and cathartic. It’s a good reminder that even though there are many different philosophical arguments against nihilism, none of them have the emotional impact of an argument that involves people and relationships.

My brother’s take on it was that the reason Evelyn could resist the pull of the black hole of nihilism was that she had decades more life experience than her daughter. I think that makes sense, too. Teenagers are probably very susceptible to despair if they are overloaded all at once with all the misery in the world and not enough of a frame of reference for it. But after years of living, even if one’s life has simply been one failure after another (Alpha-Waymond’s takedown of Evelyn was frankly hilarious), at least one has enough perspective to potentially buffer the weight of the world’s meaningless reality. So there’s an argument here toward living, toward surviving, if not for the possibility of success, then at the very least simply because surviving each successive trauma is likely to help you make sense of it all later.

On a somewhat related note, I also appreciated that the movie highlighted the importance of healthy relationships for dealing with mental illness. I’m not saying that mental illness can only be solved by improving external circumstances (because often medical treatment is necessary), but at least to me, it was clear that Joy was suffering from depression and that her mother’s homophobic intolerance was a driving factor. LGBTQ+ teenagers whose parents accept (and celebrate!) their identity are much less likely to suffer from mental illness, the research is clear on this, so I’m glad that by the end of the movie, Evelyn’s character grows and learns to love better as a mother.

As for Evelyn herself… the directors have stated that at least in an early draft, the character was imagined to have ADHD. I don’t think it was ever explicitly stated, but in the busy and almost claustrophobic first act, it’s pretty obvious: she has dozens of hobbies (nifty bit of foreshadowing there) but barely a career to speak of and can never pay attention to any one problem or person for more than a few seconds. Then, in the very last scene, Evelyn, back in her own universe, is momentarily distracted by dozens of voices she can hear in her head from the alternate universes she has permanent access to, but she is able to tune them out and focus on her present reality. I wonder if there’s a little nod here to schizophrenia? In the end, it just makes me think that general awareness of our Asian elders’ mental health is far too low; there are probably tens of thousands of Evelyns in the real world, going about their lives with undiagnosed ADHD, depression, and other illnesses that need to be treated! This movie gets a gold star for portraying an older Asian woman as the hero, but also for portraying her as someone with realistic needs and flaws, just like many of the people who will see her on screen.

What else? There was gorgeous cinematography, fiercely imaginative fight choreography (The fanny pack! The universe-hopping quick cuts!), and an overall good balance between the frenetic pacing and small moments to breathe. I’m sure I’m not the only who thought that a wordless and almost completely soundless scene featuring two rocks and plain text was an understated standout. Parts of that scene made my theater audience laugh out loud, which further underscored the power of its utter silence. The movie gets another gold star for being a supremely enjoyable live experience with a large audience, by the way; there were so many great moments that made me gasp, groan, and bust out laughing along with a hundred strangers, and that in itself was a delight.

This is one of those movies that will make you reflect on all the things you love about cinema, including the very act of watching films and understanding the connections between works of art. For example, the scenes that evoked Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love were a great tribute, and the use of “Absolutely (Story of a Girl)” was ridiculous and hilarious. I also loved noticing all the nods to seminal sci-fi movies like The Matrix and 2001: A Space Odyssey (and there were some that I didn’t catch, like references to Paprika!), and I swear there were parallels between the zanier action scenes and ideas or plot devices from movies like Free Guy or Ready Player One — perhaps all sci-fi that involves fantastical fight scenes necessarily evoke video game elements, but I’m not complaining!

And finally, as a linguist, I have to praise the screenwriters’ use of authentic code-blending in the dialogue. When I realized that Evelyn did not only code-switch between Mandarin and English (as an immigrant who learned English as an adult), but also between Cantonese and the other two languages, often multiple times in the same sentence, I grinned so wide and couldn’t stop! Michelle Yeoh’s linguistic savvy is on full display, and much more than being a neat character trait, it also legitimizes the kind of communication skills or adaptations of millions of people around the world, including my own family. I could relate both to Evelyn as well as her English-dominant daughter. Well, I did complain right after watching the movie, saying “the least believable thing was that Joy didn’t know how to say ‘girlfriend’ in Mandarin; it’s such a basic word” — but if that was the only critique I had of the linguistics in the film, well, that’s how you know how good it really was.

So go watch Everything Everywhere All at Once… at once! I’m probably going to see it again in theaters this week. Let’s talk about it after!

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Word of the Day: a wunderpus is a type of octopus known for its striking patterning and coloration. It’s the word of the day for no other reason that I think it would feel right at home in post dedicated to a wonderful, colorful movie.

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2021 Culture Roundup

Last year, in lieu of a “solemn year-end reflection”, I posted a brief list of every book I had read, movie I had watched, place I had visited, and more in a simple blog post that I had hoped would make me feel better about the miserable year that was 2020. Thankfully, 2021 has been much better for me, emotionally speaking. (Still a garbage year as far as general global outlook goes, though.) As I write this year-end reflection, I probably won’t be too solemn about it either, but I think that I can spare more words to describe how I feel about the huge transitions in my life that brought me to where I am today. I’ll start with the culture roundup, though!

Literature

I didn’t read as much in 2021 as I had hoped to (only 17 books), and it’s partly because I spent so much time watching movies. I now live just a block away from a wonderful independent bookstore, so I think I’ll pick up the reading a bit more in 2022. Anyway, my top 5 books from 2021 were:

  1. The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu: I loved his blend of sci-fi and fantasy, and I model the stories I write after his and Ted Chiang’s styles
  2. The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin: totally engrossed by the world-building in this one, but the second and third of the trilogy were a little less inspiring
  3. The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson: picked up this trilogy after a long hiatus, and was absolutely thrilled by this and the last one in the series
  4. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson: felt like reading a warm mug of tea, and also made me think a lot about my faith, which is unusual for a non-theological book
  5. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, by Tony Kushner: had this on my to-read list for literally years, and I’m glad I finally crossed it off the list

Film

In 2021, one of my few resolutions was to keep better track of the movies I watch, and I successfully did that by creating a new page on this blog specifically for this purpose. If you want to know which 79 (!!!) feature films, short films, and televised plays I watched this past year, you can head on over to that page or add me on letterboxd; in this post, I’ll just write about the top 10.

Top films that I watched for the first time in 2021:

  1. Minari (2020, dir. Lee Isaac Chung): for its achingly beautiful portrayal of immigrant joy and struggle
  2. The Father (2020, dir. Florian Zeller): for its stellar leading performances and a haunting directorial style
  3. In the Heights (2021, dir. Jon M. Chu): for the exuberance, and the music, and the dancing
  4. West Side Story (2021, dir. Steven Spielberg): same as above, but also add phenomenal cinematography and smart directorial choices to bring an old story some freshness
  5. Sound of Metal (2019, dir. Darius Marder): a film so striking that I wrote about it for a linguistics magazine

Top films that I watched in 2021 that were released in 2021 (aside from #3 and #4 above):

  1. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (dir. Destin Daniel Cretton): it had some of the best fight scenes I’ve seen in any Marvel movie, and it also had Tony Leung
  2. tick, tick…BOOM! (dir. Lin-Manuel Miranda): I’d been waiting for this movie basically since I was in high school and memorized the entire soundtrack… it was wonderful and Andrew Garfield is wonderful
  3. Spider-Man: No Way Home (dir. Jon Watts): just a hell of a lot of fun!
  4. Raya and the Last Dragon (dir. Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada): same as above, but also for some reason, of all the movies on this list, only Raya and Minari made me cry
  5. Judas and the Black Messiah (dir. Shaka King): important history made vibrantly human

Honorable Mentions: Ship of Theseus (2012); Son of Saul (2015); Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (2018); 37 Seconds (2019); Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (2020); Little Fish (2020); The Tomorrow War (2021); Free Guy (2021); Space Sweepers (2021); Eternals (2021); Boss Level (2021); CODA (2021)

I would highly recommend any of the films mentioned here, though for very different reasons: some are really difficult to watch, but worth the pain; others are almost objectively bad movies, but too much fun to miss! Like last year, I’d like to thank my friend Blake and our weekly Sunday Movie Club for introducing me to so many amazing films that I might not otherwise have heard of, although with the return to theater-going in 2021, a lot of popular blockbusters unsurprisingly made my list!

Television

Compared to 2020, in 2021 I watched fewer television shows and series but enjoyed a greater proportion of them. I would actually highly recommend any of the shows that I watched, and there were only eight of them. The top five would have to be:

  1. The Chair: for its thoughtful and hilarious portrait of academia, and for Sandra Oh
  2. WandaVision: for its incredible creativity and pathos
  3. Ted Lasso: for Roy and Keely, honestly, but also for its empathetic dive into mental health and its heartwarming comedy
  4. Schmigadoon!: for the music!!!
  5. Squid Game: for its social commentary (not for its ultra-violence)

Music

My Spotify Wrapped for 2021 tells me I listened to a lot of my self-curated musical theater playlist, topped by “Michael in the Bathroom” from Be More Chill. I also played a lot of my self-curated “Get Over Him” playlist, which included lots of Demi Lovato, Taylor Swift, and Ariana Grande. Just soaking up those self-empowerment and “I give myself permission to be happy!” vibes. I usually use Spotify to put on random top 40 dance pop to work out to. In 2021 I should probably try to find new music… your recommendations are welcome!

Board Games

I didn’t end up playing many board games this year, due to the ongoing pandemic, but in addition to my still-top favorite, Scythe, I got to play a few new ones! I learned Oath and Root, and enjoyed them both. I was also thrilled to get my hands on a copy of my friend Randy’s game, Roll In One, which he designed and I helped back on Kickstarter! Lastly, I learned PARKS, and it made me want to travel again…

Travel

Speaking of which, I traveled a little bit in 2021, and I’m grateful for the few opportunities I had. Most important to me was the privilege I had to be able to easily leave Los Angeles in the early spring and relocate to a better environment. Six months after that, I moved to Canada. In between all that moving around, I managed to sneak in a few long trips, including visits to three national parks:

  • Seattle (three times, astoundingly)
  • Lake Tahoe, with family
  • Atascadero and Pismo Beach, with friends
  • An intense one-day road trip to Yosemite, with Cameron
  • Alaska (Anchorage, Seward, Denali), with Ashley, Katelyn, and Mark
  • Glacier National Park, with my parents
  • A criss-cross-country trip to D.C., New York City, and Denver to visit various friends over the summer

I guess in some ways it’s a lot more travel than I’d expected to do at the start of 2021, but looking back, it’s a lot less than I could have done. I have no way of predicting way 2022 will look like in terms of travel, but since I’m based in Canada now, I do hope to see the rest of this enormous country, one province or park at a time!

Flattop Mountain, Anchorage, Alaska. Photo by Katelyn.

I think this photo of me taken in Alaska probably sums up my 2021, emotionally. I definitely look lost, and probably felt lost, but I wasn’t actually lost. The landscape looks super desolate, but I’m actually at the top of a mountain with a stunning view all around… you just have to keep going for a bit until you see it. So there’s hope. And it was a very difficult hike to get up to the top of this mountain, just like it was very hard this year to move (twice!) and transition to a new job in a new country and basically start a new social life from scratch. But where I am, I don’t have to run. I can just walk around. Breathe in the cold air. Rest a bit, before heading onward.

Happy New Year!

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Word of the Day: ylem (/ˈiːlɛm/) is a recently-coined term in astronomy and cosmology that refers to the hypothesized “primordial soup” of plasma that preceded the Big Bang during the creation of the universe. It is said to have come from a Middle English word that itself was taken from the Greek ὕλη (“matter”).

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John

It has been tough to write this post. I had meant to publish it over two weeks ago, but I didn’t know what to write. John passed away about one month ago. I didn’t know him well; he was the husband of Ginny, my friend and cohortmate from grad school. Ginny and John got married in September of 2018, and I remember their wedding day quite clearly: I was late to the ceremony, which was held at the Oakland Museum of California, and ran past Ginny on my way to the “sanctuary” (really an outdoor garden) just before she and her bridesmaids walked down the aisle! That wedding was a lot of fun, a really lovely garden party where I got to see how amazing and well-liked a man John was. I also have a clear memory of one of his vows during the ceremony, which referenced Ginny’s religious beliefs and his promise to respect them with all his heart, even if he didn’t share them or come from the same background. So, even though I’d only met John once or twice in my life before his untimely death, I had a very positive impression of him.

I had been looking forward to hanging out with Ginny and John ever since I knew I’d be moving to Vancouver. Ginny and I had graduated in the same year — a pandemic-era graduation without a ceremony. In fall of 2020, I started as a postdoc at UC Irvine, while Ginny started as an assistant professor at a school in northern Washington state. One year later, I landed my current position at SFU. As it turns out, Ginny’s city is only an hour and a half away from mine.

In April of 2021, I’d met up with Ginny in Seattle, while I was visiting family, and we caught up and talked about life, academic career woes, and how amazing her new school was, in a perfect city for her and John to settle down. A few months after that, in July, when I’d decided to take the job in Vancouver, I’d excitedly told Ginny that I’d be so close, and that I was looking forward to visiting them and going on beautiful autumn hikes or winter ski trips. I never got to follow up on that promise, and the first time I visited ended up being for John’s memorial service.

John’s death came as a shock to me and most of the people who knew him. It was especially hard to take the news because the announcement of his death was preceded by several days of a missing persons search. John had left his house without his wallet, phone, or keys, and didn’t come back. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when something like that happens and there’s no evidence of foul play, signs usually point to a mental health crisis. So all I knew was that for days, people were flying in from all over the country to help search for John, and I felt helpless because even though I was so close by, I didn’t know if I could cross the national border to lend a hand. And then there was a day or two of silence, and I started to fear the worst… and finally — on a sunny, otherwise lovely Thursday — I got a call from Zach and Emily, friends from grad school, who confirmed to me that John had died. I fell to the ground and was at a loss for words.

From my diary entry that week: “I mean, not knowing John, I still wouldn’t have pegged him as anything other than a positive force of good in the world. So anyway, I’ve been basically reeling for the past few days, and it’s really made this past week a surreal blur. I’ll forget about it every so often, and then suddenly I remember: somebody I know is dead; somebody I love lost somebody she loves. It’s so cruel. But it makes me think and remember that people are dying every day. I mean [in the past year], G–, C–, and I– all lost parents; E– lost her grad school friend; thousands of people have died of Covid. But somehow none of that hit home as much as John’s death did, and I guess it’s because I’ve met him personally, and also because the tragic circumstances around his death (going missing, having a search party, etc.) made it all the more sensational and unbelievable.”

The memorial a few weeks later was a sad and somber affair, of course. There were some moments of love, light, and levity, as people gave eulogies that made it resoundingly clear how wonderful John’s life was and how much good he’d left in the world. But it was also so sad, I couldn’t even believe what was happening when I saw Ginny for the first time. Surreal is the right word for all of this. A large group of linguists from Berkeley had made the trip up that weekend, and although it was an unfortunate excuse for a reunion, it was also nice to catch up with so many of them, friends I haven’t seen in 18 months. Just a weird mix of emotions all weekend, really, so it’s no wonder I’ve been unable to process them for weeks.

Rest In Peace, John. And all my love to you, Ginny.

Here’s a poem that John wrote, which I read for the first time at his memorial service. He struck me as a talented writer, and I wish I’d been able to hear him recite his poetry.

One last thing: it’s become abundantly clear, at least in my eyes, that mental health — especially the current and ongoing national deterioration of mental health — needs more attention than it’s getting. I’ve written four “in memoriam” posts on this blog since I started it, and three of them are in remembrance of beautiful souls who died by suicide. On top of the death toll of the Covid pandemic, it hurts even more to see the side effects of pandemic prevention measures (things like isolation and anxiety, which can trigger depression) taking even more lives. While I have felt totally helpless for weeks, I think that now, I can at least make a personal resolution to prioritize mental health and de-stigmatize discussion of the importance of therapy and other forms of treatment, for the sake of other people in my life who might benefit from it. I don’t think there’s an elegant way to say this, but if you or somebody you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, it is important to talk to another person about it. You can call the National Suicide Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). I also just learned that “988” is soon going to become a toll-free nationwide number for emotional distress, kind of like “911” is for physical emergencies.

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Word of the Day: Jianbing (煎餅, jiānbǐng) is a Chinese street food similar to a savory crepe. Jianbing is delicious, and John learned all about them while studying in Beijing on a Fulbright. He became known as “Jianbing Johnny” while at Berkeley (where he met Ginny) because he’d make jianbing and sell them from his bike (like a very eco-friendly, two-wheeled food truck). In Taiwan, it’s common to see street vendors selling danbing (蛋餅), which is a version of jianbing that features egg and makes for a terrific breakfast.

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A brief reflection on one month in Vancouver

Every year around this time, I get a little melancholy, and it’s mostly attributable to the cooling weather and lessening daylight. This year, I’m experiencing a Pacific Northwest autumn for the first time, and all I want to say is that it got much colder much earlier, compared to the Bay Area, and my mood changed accordingly.

It’s hard to forget, in addition, that around this time last year marked the beginning of a very despondent “pandemic winter” for me personally. This was a period of a few months in which I found myself very isolated in Los Angeles, stressed about COVID and everything else going on, and almost desperately homesick.

The lyrics from Switchfoot’s “Let That Be Enough” came to me yesterday:

And I feel stuck watching history repeating // Oh who am I? Just a kid who knows he’s needy

I am determined not to let history repeat itself this winter.

(I can’t believe Jon Foreman wrote that song when he was twenty-two.)

So, I’m thinking about some of the perks of living in Vancouver, my new home since September. First, it’s absolutely gorgeous here. My office has a fantastic view of the North Shore mountains. Right at this moment, I can see rainclouds heading toward us, but on sunny days, it’s endless snow-capped peaks and untouched evergreen forest. Second, everyone was right about the food: I’ve been eating out a lot more than usual, and I don’t regret it. So much great dining to be had, and the only drawback is that some restaurants that I had been recommended were merely great and not paradigm-shiftingly amazing. Can’t win ’em all!

As for my job, I’m enjoying it a lot. I can work from home most days of the week, but when I do commute to campus, I get to enjoy a podcast or two (catching up on two years of backlogged 99% Invisible episodes these days), and I have spacious and quiet office to work in. Because I don’t have any teaching duties, I can dedicate all of my time to writing up past research and collaborating with many different people on over a dozen projects. I’ve managed to organize my publication timeline in a way that I hope will position me well to apply for tenure-track jobs next year. My boss is a good and empathetic mentor.

To be honest, when people ask me how I’m doing these days, I’ll mostly tell them those three things: beautiful location, great food, good job. As for complaints, there are the obvious ones: it rains far too much, rent is too high, and it’s not easy making new friends. I know it’s okay to name those things, but I would prefer not to dwell on them.

Well, except for the rain. I can’t help but dwell on the rain because it rains almost every single day. Right now it is literally about to rain; the virga I saw about half an hour ago has just about crossed over the closest mountains, and it’ll start pouring here at any moment. I’m going to cut this post short and try to head home before I get caught in it!

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Word of the Day: a toonie is a Canadian two-dollar coin. Its head features Queen Elizabeth, and its tail features a polar bear. (The one-dollar coin features a loon and is called a loonie.)

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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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