Bless You

Tyler suspects that it is on account of my getting older that I am getting sick more often these days. This hypothesis may hold some water, especially given that other possible explanations, such as me being more stressed out lately or living in a less salubrious environment, do not. (School is going just fine, thank you.)

Age, maturity, and immunity do not always walk hand in hand, but I have noticed that old sick people have a tendency to care less about their illness and, in particular, what it touches. What I mean is this: young children can run rampant with snotty noses and grubby faces, and most people will let this pass. Then, between the ages of about ten and sixty, we’re socialized to keep our hands to ourselves; going out in public with communicable disease is (rightly) frowned upon. Once you become grandmother-aged, however, folks start to give you a little more leeway once again. Just look at my grandmother, who sneezes on everything and doesn’t give a damn.

I once asked her, “A-ma, how do you say, ‘Bless you!’ in Taiwanese?'”

“What’s ‘bless you’?” she asked.

“Oh, it’s um… if someone sneezes, you have to say ‘bless you’ to, uh, make sure they’re okay.”

“We don’t say that in Taiwanese,” was her answer.

Maybe this comes partly from the expectation that human beings on both ends of the life spectrum will fall ill more often, so we grant them clemency for merely being as flawed as nature intended. Maybe we feel less social responsibility for those outside our age group: old and young are some other family’s problem, but if you’re an adult and you work in my office, don’t you dare touch the break room fridge with your bacterial fingers.

Or maybe after a certain point, be that in age or in stages of disease, we may simply cease to care about what others may think of us, and this attitude goes both ways. Two days ago, when I was stumbling around my house bleary-eyed and enveloped in the miasma of the common cold, I made the barest of attempts to stay out of the way of my roommates, but mostly just hoped that they’d forgive me for leaving colonies of viruses in my wake. “I’ll disinfect everything when I feel better,” I thought, “but for now please leave me be.” And they did, bless their hearts.

When it comes to sickness and convalescence, there’s a fine line between selfishness and self-care. I remember when I was nineteen and invincible, I told my friend that my life was so busy that I didn’t have time to be sick. Katie, who was two years older and infinitely wiser, exclaimed, “You always have time to be sick!” She meant, you must make time, when you’re sick, to get better. If you don’t, then your sickness will become worse, and then you’ll find you have no time for anything else.

So, I think that older people, or those with more life experience, are less averse to the ‘selfish’ side of recovery. Cancel everything I had on my agenda; I just want to feel better as soon as possible, damn it! And out the window go all social graces; if you don’t like the sound of me hocking a loogy, take it up with my respiratory system, not me. But this is not exactly the vice of selfishness. It’s prioritizing self care; and in fact, I’d rather call it selflessness. Which is a virtue.

And here’s where I get biblical. The context of chapter 12 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is that he’s telling the early church that its diversity is good; that each of its members has different gifts that can be used for everyone’s benefit. Each member, in fact, is like a part of the human body: one person is like an eye, another is like a hand. Both are legitimate parts and have their vital functions. Here is an excerpt:

“As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Cor. 12:20-26, )

Again, it is not selfish to take care of your body. What is selfish is to have a cold, think, “Dang, my runny nose is really underperforming today. I think I’ll cut it off and throw it away,” and neglect to care for it just as you would care for any other part of your body. Because we’re all connected, you see. The person in your community who seems to be a dead weight? Your appendix. Your neighbor whom you haven’t seen in a while and wonder if they’re still there? Your abs. The guy who punched your pastor in the face that one time? Allergies. “Well, I could do without allergies,” you say. Still — better to have an overactive immune system than none at all, am I right?

Christians must take care of one another because we are members of the same body; “if one member suffers, all suffer together.” And, importantly, this metaphor must extend outside the walls of our churches. All human beings are one creation, one big body created in the image of Christ, and Paul wants us to treat the least of these — our tonsils and gut microbes, so to speak — with honor and dignity. If our fellow human beings in other countries are under attack, we must care for them (be a blessing to them), as we would family. The selfish thing to do in this case would be to ignore their plight. To let them drown. To let them be beaten by corrupt authorities. To let them be stopped at the border and sent back to their war-torn Muslim countries of origin. Is it clear yet?

As I get older, yes, I care more about fighting my own sickness with less attention to the socially acceptable ways to do so. Sorry not sorry for blowing my nose so loudly. It is fitting, I think, that I am also now learning how to fight the sickness of modern American society — the social ills of tribalism, xenophobia, and institutionalized hatred, among others — with disregard for how it might make some folks uncomfortable. Lives are at stake. Let us be selfless for the sake of the survival of goodness.

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Word of the Day: photoptarmosis, also called the photic sneeze reflex, is a condition in which a person who looks into a bright light (or steps out of a dark room into sunlight) involuntarily sneezes.

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On Slaves, Selma, and Sermons

Yesterday, I watched The Birth of a Nation (2016). Apart from being a beautiful, tragic, and inspirational must-see, it has gotten me thinking about Nat Turner, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the religious traditions that have both upheld and denounced slavery in this country.

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A scene from The Birth of a Nation (2016). (rogerebert.com)

I learned about Turner’s Rebellion of 1831 briefly in a high school history class; all I could’ve told you about it before yesterday was that a bunch of slaves in Virginia murdered a lot of White people before all being killed themselves. One of the many things I failed to remember was that Nat Turner was an extremely devout Christian and was said to have experienced religious visions. The movie highlighted his role as a black preacher who encouraged slaves with messages from the Bible, but who was also used by White plantation owners to spread a message of acceptance and obedience to slaves to prevent insubordination. However, after traveling to other plantations and witnessing the abject conditions of many slaves (especially in comparison to his own situation), he had a revelation and began to preach instead about deliverance, divine justice, and the imminent wrath of God, to be unleashed on those who would enslave their fellow humans.

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a black preacher whose life was intimately connected to the movement for Black lives (in particular, their civil rights). Part of his work is masterfully commemorated in the film Selma (2014), which I also recommend.

I think that the general tendency for Americans these days is to remember MLK as an inspirational figure who advocated for peaceful protest to secure equal rights for African Americans and desegregation in schools, pleasant things like that. They think of him as our American Gandhi or Mother Teresa. Actually, though, MLK gave several speeches and sermons that make manifest some more radical notions of what is really at stake and what it might actually take to achieve full equality: much more than the nearly cliched refrain of non-violence.

A quote from his 1967 speech entitled “The Three Evils of Society” illustrates this (emphasis mine): “The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad.” And in “Where Do We go From Here”, he says, “White Americans must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change of the status quo. [… ] There is no separate white path to power and fulfillment, short of social disaster, that does not share power with black aspirations for freedom and human dignity.”

Dr. King also made the case for reparations using arguments that I recognized in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writings, such as Between the World and Me (2015). He foresaw that inequality could not be rid of with the passing of a few laws or even a few generations. Race relations have only grown more tangled and strained in the past few decades, and the similarities between what Coates and King call for shows how the problem has persisted.

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The famous Selma to Montgomery March of 1965. (nbc.com)

Back to the films, though. One aspect of the performances of Nate Parker (who played Turner in the film1) and David Oyewolo (who played King) that I really enjoyed was how much power they put into their orations when their characters gave sermons or speeches. Whether the speech was in front of a group of a dozen slaves in a barn or a crowd of thousands in Montgomery, there was in their voices a palpable conviction of the sort I honestly associate with spiritual influence. It was so clear, from these performances, that Turner and King were men of God who fervently believed that the messages they spoke were of divine provenance. (“Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”)

I have heard many good speeches in my short life, and it’s not always the ones that are the most dramatic that have affected me the most. But it’s certainly true from my perspective that the most immediately captivating are indeed those that use all the flairs of a practiced American oration: modulations of pitch and volume, a resonant voice and the expert employment of cadence and rhythm in just the right places. Listen to MLK’s most famous speeches to get what I’m talking about. Both Birth of a Nation and Selma have stellar scenes stolen by their main characters as they monologue. President Barack Obama does this from time to time, too. But I have also heard this type of “speech speech” from the pulpit in church. Some pastors are methodical and lecture like college professors; others get into the performance and walk around the stage and wave their hands and preach like their tongues are on fire!

And it makes me wonder about the influence such speech has when it falls on the ears of congregants who accept it as the word of God. There’s a lot of power in the pulpit. And what comes from it is very important. (This is true regardless of how you feel about religion in general, though the remainder of this post is primarily addressed to believers.)

In Nat Turner’s time, preachers in all twenty-four states would use the Bible to justify slavery (“obey your masters,” says 1 Peter 2:18) and believed Black folks to be inferior on account of the racial politics of the Old Testament. In Dr. King’s time, he would quote the Bible to advocate for racial reconciliation while his opponents would quote the Bible to argue the opposite. And today, it’s still happening. Christians today are still divided over racial issues. We definitely no longer think the Bible justifies slavery or that White is inherently better than Black, but what has emerged in its place is a debate over how Christians should address ongoing racial inequality, protests, police violence against people of color, and continued segregation. Often the more direct ways of addressing a problem that Black people attempt (like shutting down highways, kneeling at the national anthem, making satirical art, or re-tailoring awards show acceptance speeches) are shunned by non-Black Christians who believe, perhaps, that the battle is better left to God. Or that the kingdom of God has no racial barriers, so we shouldn’t see color, either. (Look, Americans today simply cannot be “color-blind” because we are still blind to how color still affects every one of us.) Or that it was our good Christian values that brought prosperity to the country and any movement that challenges this narrative is an ungodly affront.

These are dangerous beliefs because they parallel the beliefs that uphold White supremacy — not the overt kind that burns Black churches, but the insidious kind that knows how every system and federal institution was created by White people and keeps them at an advantage, and wants to keep this status quo. The idea that God is so good that He must have blessed the current state of affairs, so why challenge it or rock the boat? … is an idea that necessarily promotes the continuing welfare of the White majority and inhibits the progress of everyone else.

And the crux of the matter is that if these ideas are disseminated in a church and permeate American Christian thought, then American Christian culture will end up worshiping the God of the White Christians, rather than the God of, well, just God.

What is your pastor saying on Sundays? Don’t think about the style of their speech, but the content. Have they ever shared about how much God cares about the poor and the marginalized, which in our present-day context means Black and Hispanic people, the homeless, the elderly, the disabled, the LGBTQ community, undocumented immigrants, and Muslims? Or does your pastor use the Bible to justify keeping them away? Or does your pastor just never talk about this?

Is your church aware of injustice? Does your congregation discuss its own race and class makeup and seek to reach out of its ‘natural’ boundaries? Do your elders listen to the needs of the people in the pews as well as the people who sleep on the curb outside? And what are we ourselves telling each other about race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and all the things that make us human in addition to our faith?

However much Christians may be losing their cultural capital in a postmodern America, there are still millions of us and we still listen politely to sermons made week after week after week — a thousand Sundays in a lifetime — and I think it is worth asking where all this listening is leading us. To revolution? Or to resignation? My hope and prayer is that the American church, especially the White churches and Asian American churches that I have known, will reject the sermons that are prepared to keep us asleep and ignorant of the unjust and the unholy. Instead, can we listen to the word of God as it was intended? It is a double-edged sword that can cut through smoke and mirrors with a message for everyone: the kingdom of God isn’t going to come unless you do your part to bring justice to where you are. And since racial injustice is America’s great sin, the call to repentance should ask of everyone at the altar: what are you going to do to drive out the darkness and hate?

One last MLK quote2: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

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Word of the Day: plaudit, usually used in the plural, comes from the Latin plaudite (essentially, “Clap for me!”) and refers to the literal act of applause from an audience or general acclaim and praise. I enjoy hearing the plaudits received by Dr. King in the recordings of his speeches, the real-time roar of approval that accompanies the mental round of earnest applause I’m giving in my mind.

– – –

1 I want to acknowledge the controversy around Parker and his past scandals without commenting on it because I am not really informed about it, but I will say that great actors and directors do not necessarily have great morals and the question of whether or not to support their art in light of bad behavior is a very tricky one.

2 Just kidding, here’s one more quote. I can’t not share this: “In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.” – Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963

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Diecisiete

Hola from SFO — thank Everything for free airport WiFi — where I have about two hours before my flight departs. In a truly random move, my parents decided just a few weeks ago that they needed a long vacation and told me that I was to accompany them. (No, seriously, I mentioned casually that I wanted to take a solo trip to Southeast Asia and my mom said no, if you’re going to go anywhere at all then you’re going to go with us.) Since I have an unholy pile-up of work in the office and also there is supposedly an historic rainstorm set to pummel Northern California this coming week, I am more or less grateful that I took them up on their offer! Starting off the new year right by escaping the blustery Bay for balmy Panama…

I’ve noticed that I haven’t written much here last October, and also that while this blog purports to be about graduate school, in reality I haven’t talked about that in quite some time. I also let New Year’s Eve and Day pass without stopping to take stock of 2016 or making plans for 2017 (which happens more and more as I get older… eh, time is a social construct anyway).

Thus, I present to you a real-life update! Let’s see. My father has been happily planning vacations for this summer that just so happen to mirror exactly where I will be going to present at various conferences. Not to count chickens before they hatch, but I think it bears relating that my research was accepted to two linguistics conferences taking place this summer in two different countries in Europe! As a graduate student, I have some experience with conferences, including organizing the Berkeley Linguistics Society, but this is the first time I will get to share my own project, something that I’ve been working on independently for two years. It almost feels as if I’m finally coming into my own as an academic. (I even have my own website, yay!)

It’s about time I started putting my work out there. I spent two years of graduate school slogging through coursework and doing small projects that never amounted to anything, but now some of that toil can finally bear some fruit. On one recent morning, I looked up every conference I might possibly want to attend in the coming year, noting the deadlines for abstract submission and meeting dates, and somewhat giddily concluded that if I had the good fortune to be accepted to all of them, I could travel to four countries and five states and spent most of May and June flying all over the world.

Well, the rain currently falling outside could surely dampen that parade: there’s no way I would be so lucky, and there’s not enough money for me to travel that much, and besides, who wants to give the same presentation nine times anyway? As soon as I get good critical feedback from my current project, I’ll have to expand it or find a new topic to explore.

But this year, I can’t just focus on running the conference circuit, even though it’s an important milestone, because there is a far bigger one just ahead: this upcoming semester I am set to take my qualifying exams. And if I pass my quals, then I get to begin my dissertation prospectus. That basically means that by the end of the year, I’ll need to know what my dissertation will be about and have a chapter of it completed.

That sounds so far-fetched to me right now! But doesn’t it for everybody? We never think we’re truly capable of grand accomplishments like… graduating from college, celebrating a one-year anniversary, hitting that hundredth consecutive day of exercise. Somewhere in the middle of the journey we might forget how impossible it seemed, because the doing itself takes up so much mental space. And then, suddenly, voilà: the finish line! Well. I won’t celebrate too soon. God-willing, by this time next year I will be chugging along smoothly with my dissertation and continuing to present my work at conferences, building up the network and learning more about linguistics all the while.

Claris remarked to me, when I gave her the coffee-date version of this update, that I seemed much happier and more at ease with my situation now than the last time we’d talked, which must have been about six months ago. I had no recollection of how angsty she claimed I sounded as I vented about my insuperable Impostor Syndrome and all-around lack of confidence. It just goes to show, right? Fast-forward to today and I’m blithely enjoying how everything has unfolded.

But maybe it’s just because I’ve already been on vacation for three weeks.

Haha, maybe it’s just because #HellaStorm ’17 hasn’t hit yet.

If that’s the case, I should just stay prepared, keep doing what I’m doing and not slack off. My encouragement to other graduate students who are feeling time just drag on and on without much to show for their labor is to keep pressing on. Keep your work environment healthy, with good advising and peer collaboration to keep your ideas fresh and productivity high. Then, practice patience. You may find yourself out of your rut before you’ve even realized it! This probably could be applied to disenchanted folks in other wearisome circumstances, but I don’t want to generalize too much; change is, in fact, always an option! I mean, that’s what I’m doing right now: taking time to get out of the country so that I can come back recharged and ready to go.

I think I’ll leave it there for now, even though there’s so much more on my mind that goes way beyond my career and the vagaries of life as an academic-in-training. I am, for example, gearing up for life as a minority citizen of a nation ruled by a wannabe despot, and I expect much more of my mental and maybe even physical energies to be diverted toward fighting racism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia, White nationalism, police brutality, extreme polarization, and religious zealotry in my community and in the country. How I might go about doing that, I’m not totally sure, but you can expect me to write about it as I figure things out.

So now it’s off to Central America, to a country and region of the world I’ve never set foot upon, to see a big canal and play in the rainforest and practice Spanish! Hasta la vista, mis amors.

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Word of the Day: foursquare, from the English “four” + “square” (haha duh), is not just the name of an awesome schoolyard game or an app that I don’t know who uses, but it also literally means “having four right angles” and figuratively means “steady, unswerving” and “forthright, blunt”. My low-key goals for 2017, actually, are to be foursquare (i.e., firm) in my beliefs and foursquare (i.e., frank) in supporting them, especially when that means calling out instances of ignorance and educating those in my circles.

P.S. I would also like to note, with measured amounts of glee, that the American Dialect Society, which meets each year concurrently with the Linguistic Society of America, has just voted “dumpster fire” to be the Word of the Year for 2016. I love America.

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Seven Scenes from the Shelter

  1. It is 6:30am, and the dishwasher is broken. Someone from a previous shift left a note on the door of the machine that said, “The bottom rack is missing its wheels, so we used knives to prop it up as a temporary solution.” This appears not to have worked, because the rack has collapsed onto the rotating spray arms of the machine, preventing them from moving. The dishwasher is full of dirty dishes, and there are no clean cups for breakfast.
  2. I start up coffee and light the stove to make scrambled eggs, cracking a full dozen into a huge skillet, per usual. I look for the pancake mix I usually use but can’t find it. Turns out the family-size bags are out, but there is a huge twenty-pound box of mix stored on a high shelf. I consider the time, the dirty dishes, and my lack of a volunteering partner this morning because she is on vacation. Today will be just eggs, unfortunately! I’m glad that there is plenty of bread, instant oatmeal, cereal, and fruit to offer, as well, remembering past weeks when one or more of these staples were simply not available.
  3. James* comes in, blanket wrapped around him, one eye focused on me and the other somewhere else. “Good morning, James! Eggs today?” I feel a twinge of regret for not making pancakes, because James, who works at a restaurant, is the one who taught me the secret to making pancakes perfectly golden and fluffy and not too dry. He did this because he protested the way I made them when I first started volunteering here two years ago. “Where’s your other person?” James asks. “You mean Katie? On vacation, I think.” James then asks after my roommate, whose name he remembers even though she hasn’t come in to volunteer for months. “You know the girl who comes on Friday dinners has the same name as your rommate? She’s real cute.” I hand him his eggs, hot off the griddle. “Enjoy!”
  4. I crack more eggs into the skillet and get to work washing the dirty cups. About ten shelter guests have come into breakfast, and it appears to be a slow day, meaning not many more folks will come in to eat. The morning staffer comes in to respond to some guests’ queries. “I’m sorry, we’re all out of socks,” she says with audible regret. She informs me that the shelter was not at full capacity last night (which is about thirty beds), so it’ll be a quieter morning.
  5. A young Black woman approaches the window between the kitchen and the dining area and holds out her hand. “Hi, what’s your name again?” I smile and respond. “It’s nice to meet you,” she says, “I’m Shayna. Yeah I just been calling you the Eggs Guy because… you put your foot in them eggs!” I smile, unsure if this is a compliment. “Uh, what does that mean?” Shayna laughs and looks at her friend who is pouring himself some cereal. “He doesn’t even know what it means!” she cries. Her tall friend leans over the window and tells me, “It means you put a lot of effort into them.” Shayna continues, “Other people don’t try with the eggs, but you put your damn foot in ’em! Heart and soul.” I’m thinking, well, it’s just eggs and cheese… and oil… but I say, “You’re very welcome! Let me know if you want seconds.” The tall friend asks, “Can I have seconds before I have my firsts?”
  6. It is nearly 8:00am and the staff worker comes in. “The Berg Room is closing in five minutes! Ronnie says get all your shit out of there or else he’s taking it!” Everyone in the room laughs, and some leave to pack up their things before the shelter closes for the morning. They’re able to leave most of their belongings in lockers at the shelter but won’t be able to access them until the doors open tonight at 8:00pm.
  7. Fanny leaves her blanket and a bowl of cereal at the table to gather her things. Not knowing she intends to come back, I clear the table and begin to wash a small mountain of dishes. It’s past closing time and I want to finish up quickly. Unfortunately, Fanny returns and bemoans the loss of her breakfast. When Fanny gets upset, her behavior becomes somewhat childlike. The staff worker quickly rushes to her aid and makes a to-go breakfast: cereal and milk in a Ziploc bag. But Fanny opens the bag and sniffs it: “You didn’t put almond milk in this, did you?!” The staff worker apologizes, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you didn’t drink regular milk!” I hear this whole exchange from the kitchen and cringe: I knew that Fanny is vegan (or has a dairy allergy), since she asks every week where the soy or almond milk is, and although it’s always in the same place, it seems like every other week we have run out. Eventually, Fanny collects her breakfast and her blanket and leaves with the staff worker. I continue washing the dishes until 8:45am.

I volunteer weekly at a homeless shelter called YEAH (Youth Engagement, Advocacy, and Housing). We are always looking for volunteers to help cook and serve breakfasts and dinners or monitor the sleeping quarters and rec areas of the shelter, which is located at the Luthern Church of the Cross on University Avenue in Berkeley. We are also collecting donations of items that our shelter guests need as it gets colder: sleeping bags, blankets, clean underclothes, travel-sized toiletries, and the like. I am personally trying to amass donations from my friends and church to deliver to the shelter just before Christmas this year. Please get in touch with me if you would like to help.

* All names have been changed

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Word of the Day: shelterless is the English translation of the Greek word ἀστέγους (astégous), which is used in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew word מָרוּד (marud) in Isaiah 58:6-7. The full passage is: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” The Hebrew word marud refers to outcasts and society’s marginalized individuals. The Greek word combines the negative prefix a- with the root stege, which refers to a roof or a shelter. It’s the same root used to name the extinct roof-tile lizard Stegosaurus. But the Greek verb stego doesn’t just mean to cover or be protected, it can also mean to bear with or endure. This is the same endurance Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 13:7 when he writes about sacrificial love: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

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Career Daze

A few weeks ago, I took a Friday morning off and drove to San Lorenzo to visit the high school where a friend of mine teaches. He had organized a miniature Career Day for his Seniors, because the school had no such program to offer. You know, the kind of event where the gym is set up with a hundred booths from different organizations, businesses, and colleges, and recruiters make well-rehearsed pitches to a bunch of seventeen-year-olds who have no idea what they want to do in the future. I vaguely remember a career fair of this sort at my own high school, as well as several meetings with a college counselor who helped me figure out where I wanted to apply.

As for my friend’s students, they don’t really have access to resources like these, which I had taken for granted. They are mostly Black, Hispanic, and Southeast Asian, and not from wealthy families: the kinds of kids that society tends to worry the most about yet offers the least amount of help to. So my friend single-handedly organized this career event so that they could have an opportunity learn a little bit about what could be in store for them beyond high school.

I joined the other “young professionals” my friend had invited: managers at Yelp and Google, an entrepreneur, a start-up recruiter, a military recruiter, a barista, a UX designer, a data analyst, and a couple of other graduate students. (It was pretty representative of the kinds of professions you’d find in the Bay Area, I think, minus the doctors, lawyers, and teachers. And entertainers.) Most of us were people of color, too, which I thought was great. I could have counted every White person I saw that day on one hand.

Anyway, it was fun to share a little bit about what I do with the students, even though I doubt that more than half of them were thinking about going to a four-year college, let alone graduate school. But I tailored my pitch so that it was less about linguistics or PhDs and more about the joys of discovering in college fields of knowledge that you never knew existed, and about not knowing where they could lead you unless you took that risk to try something different. Honestly, if you had told the seventeen-year-old me that in ten years he would be doing research in speech science after having spent four years on the East Coast and two years abroad, he would have thought you were out of your mind. But unexpected things have happened, and I am all the better for it.

Of course, I also spent a good deal of the passing period in between each class checking my own educational and economic privilege, with respect to the teenagers I was talking to. I have had amazing opportunities to travel and whatnot mostly because of my parents’ support. Certainly, as a queer person of color, I have cards stacked against me in odd ways, but I had to remember that for the most part my life has been very blessed, and I can’t make the same assumption about others, even if they look like me demographically. Lessons re-learned: not every neighborhood in the East Bay has high ratios of affluent immigrants; model minority stereotypes harm all Asians; systemic colorism affects all brown-skinned people no matter what kind of brown; etc.

My friend also saved one panel question per class period for a sort of moral philosophizing: e.g., from the point of view of a person who is young, but already finished with high school and college, what does it mean to live a good life? What should one look for in a career, besides the salary, the perks, and the stock options? Is the American Dream real; and if so, is it worthwhile?

I sort of want to turn the lens back on me now, because the Career Day actually got me thinking about my own “career”. People ask me all the time what I plan to do with a PhD in Linguistics. When I tell them I want to become a professor, the responses are usually tempered excitement, sort of like, “Oh, well that’s cool but so predictable…” or prodding curiosity, as in, “Well, sure, teaching is great but what else can linguists contribute to society?” And that’s when I run through my laundry list of “ling jobs1” : consultant, analyst, interpreter, speech pathologist, editor, writer, blah blah blah. Linguists can do a lot. But linguists can also stick to doing linguistics!

I don’t care if I’ve picked the “boring” career — or even the less stable one — by choosing to stay in academia2. But I know that I love teaching and that I specifically want to teach college-level linguistics. I wish that this didn’t require any more explanation, but explanations are all you do when you choose my field…

In my professionalization seminar last week, we had an assignment that was literally to go to the popular jobs listing website for linguists (Linguist List) and search for open applications for positions that we would be eyeing if we were on the job market3. I actually had a lot of fun with the assignment, tinged with only a hint of anxiety. There aren’t a ton of jobs out there, to be sure, but I did find half a dozen that looked good (e.g., not just adjunct positions at the University of the Middle of Nowhere), including one or two that I really wish I could apply to right now, because they fit my interests perfectly! And now I’m worried that they will have been filled by the time I’m ready…

In class, I shared that I was particularly excited about a tenure-track position at a large state university in the area. (“Tenure-track” means better pay and more stable employment, compared to visiting or adjunct professorships.) The job listing said they were looking for a sociolinguist who could teach undergraduate and graduate level courses, advise students, and, importantly, address the needs of a very diverse student body.

It reminded me of how the young professionals at my friend’s Career Day were mostly people of color, talking with a class full of students of color, and made me consider how different it might have been if we had all been, say, wealthy straight White men. I realized right then that I would be perfectly happy taking a job at a university with no particular reputation in the field, if it meant that I could use my unique positionality to mentor and encourage students of color or LGBTQ students who are negatively biased in many ways against pursuing higher education and/or the sciences. And let’s be honest here: linguistics, like all the other sciences and social sciences, has a very White, Eurocentric, and colonialist past. And all the affirmative action in the world can’t magically undo the consequences of this history.

Being who I am, where I am, and with the passion that I have for helping others like me to succeed… well, I think all of it makes more sense now. I can imagine myself at this state university; I already know how it would help me grow and mature as a person to join an academic community where on some dimensions (such as race) I can fit right in, while on others (such as economic class) I will have to learn to harness my privilege for justice rather than judgment.

Especially encouraging was a brief comment that my professor made in class. He said, and I quote: “I think that you would be an excellent candidate for this job.” Cue butterflies!

All I need to do now is apply.

ω

Word of the Day: an avocation, from the Latin avocare meaning “to call away”, is a hobby, or a distraction from one’s regular work. It is essentially the opposite of vocation, signaled by the “negative” prefix a-. Unfortunately for grammarians, sometimes avocation is used to mean the same thing as vocation, in effect producing two words that appear to be antonyms but are in fact used (sometimes) as synonyms, like the ever-confusable flammable and inflammable, or regardless and irregardless (*shudder*). I know that one word that can have two opposing meanings is called a contronym… but does anyone know what to call two words that shouldn’t be synonymous but stubbornly are?

– – –

1 That link goes to a great series of posts and interviews at the All Things Linguistic blog on the myriad jobs that linguistics majors have taken.

2 It is not a requirement or an expectation that graduates of my program stay in academia by getting a teaching position at a university or a research position at an affiliated laboratory, but we often tend to try for the academia route before looking at jobs in “the industry”, or doing something related to linguistics for the government, a corporation, a non-profit, etc.

3 When I begin writing my dissertation next fall, I will be “on the job market”, although it’s obviously much better to have finished your diss first, so I’m looking at probably two years before I feel confident and experienced enough to apply for Assistant Professorships, maybe more if I do a post-doc year or two to expand my research experience.

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

Lines in the Sand

This post has nothing whatsoever to do with linguistics or graduate school, but it’s late and it’s been a long week so I’m oversharing on the Internet again.
sandgarden

When I entered college eight years ago, I was skinny, nerdy, shy, deeply religious, and deeply in the closet. Four years later, when I walked across the stage at commencement to receive my diploma, I was still mostly the same. All that had changed along those planes was that I was an out and proud gay Christian man, no longer ashamed of my sexual orientation or of the unique intersection of identities I now claimed.

Would it surprise you to know that the people who helped me come out safely when I was a sophomore were my fellow members of InterVarsity? Yes, IV, the same international Evangelical para-church organization that recently made headlines when it announced that it was going to ask all of its staff members, who work on hundreds of college campuses across the US, to reflect on their personal beliefs about Christianity and human sexuality and then voluntarily quit if they do not agree with its official position on the matter. The position, by the way, is a blanket ban on any sexual relationship outside of a heterosexual one-man one-woman marriage. LGBTQI individuals, they claim, are wonderfully and beautifully created by God, but for them to act on their non-normative desires would be unquestionably sinful. Also: pre-marital sex is a sin, masturbation is a sin, and divorce is a sin. Are we clear?

One has to wonder if the InterVarsity chapter that I served for four years belonged to the same organization. How could I have been chapter president my Senior year when I was, by that time, very openly gay?

There’s a lot to be unpacked here. First, I went to a small LAC in Pennsylvania. I chose this school partly because it was literally thousands of miles from home: a great way to start anew, away from a conservative upbringing and church community that I loved but feared at the same time. By harboring no more than 1600 students total, my college almost forced me into communities that did not at all resemble my neighborhoods growing up. Our student body was diverse racially, ethnically, economically, politically, and geographically, and though interpersonal relationships between students of historically conflicting backgrounds were never perfect, for me at least, my experiences there taught me so much about the value that is inherent in our differences.

This applied to the campus’ religious groups. There were not many options for us Christians, already a minority in a liberal environment: one group for the Catholics, one group that called themselves “Progressive Christians”, and InterVarsity. IV was unabashedly evangelical, with a little “E” (i.e., really concerned with reaching out to the unsaved with the Gospel), and also with a big “E” (affiliated with the strain of conservative Protestantism that is arguably the fastest-growing in the world). It was well-organized, had a clear purpose, and was full of smart, charismatic, loving people whom I trusted immediately. Also, because IV had the most support (in the form of financial backing, conferences and retreats, and staff members not employed by the school), it was considered the de facto “Christian club” and was the largest of the three, with perhaps sixty regular attendees at various weekly events, Bible studies, and dinners.

I threw myself into this community, expecting no great difference from my home church and its functions. But I soon found that this was not the case. Our little Christian club necessarily had to include people who believed radically different things from one another. The idea of “being a born-again Christian” is simple and straightforward enough, but beyond that, there are many different types of Christianities, even many different types of Evangelicals.

The church I grew up in was mostly Asian American and typical of middle class northern California suburbs. I know for sure that if I had stayed in my state to attend a large university, the college church I would have joined would have looked exactly the same. In high school, I had very few Catholic friends (and secretly thought their mariology to be heretical), had never met any Black Evangelicals, had never even heard of the term “Mennonite”. What it took for me to finally meet many amazing Christians who, crucially, did not look, act, or think exactly like me, was for all of us to be gathered together in a small classroom with the common goal of bringing spiritual light to a dark campus. Our IV chapter was not large enough for there to be separate satellite fellowships for Asians, Blacks, and athletes, as is the case in some universities. We were all in this together.

One recurring problem that arose as a consequence was difficulty in making everyone feel welcome at all events, because we tended to only encourage one type of worship (singing modern songs accompanied by a guy on the guitar), one type of prayer (sitting in a circle to share problems and then parroting them back to each other), and a limited set of ways to express our spiritual gifts. Members who came from more charismatic churches felt silenced; folks who grew up in more orthodox traditions felt out of their element. It was always a challenge to accommodate, incorporate, and change for the benefit of everyone who wanted to be a part of the community, but when we did things right, it was good.

In addition, our branch of InterVarsity was sometimes seen as the odd one out in the Mid-Atlantic region. Students at my school generally skew leftist and liberal, and our IV staffer had no problem with that. She was a petite Black woman who had some sort of fire in her spirit. She was radical, she loved every human being, and she knew that everyone had a seat at the table. And her motley group of IV student leaders ranged from those whose faith informed their strictly conservative perspective to those who firmly believed that Jesus would willingly perform an abortion if he were an itinerant healer in America today. I remember that she reached out to one of my classmates, an openly gay student who came from a more progressive Christian background, to find out what he was seeking and to see how he could be included in the community. This struck me because my naivete at that time was such that I couldn’t imagine that kind of intentional outreach without a caveat: you can sit with us, but you need to stop wearing pink on Wednesdays, that sort of thing. I also initially took offense at having to study the Bible with people who would joke that the early Christians were socialists… and years later, when I noticed that my own political views had shifted mightily leftward, I couldn’t help laughing at how I was now the lefty liberal leading manuscript study for fresh-off-the-train red-state freshmen who were shocked by some of my takes on the Bible. (“You mean you really think it’s okay not to believe that the Earth is six thousand years old?”)

The point is, our IV chapter had its fair share of radicals in it, but they (we?) happily served alongside die-hard Republicans and the like, and the net result was, I believe, that we sharpened each others’ beliefs and did a better job of reaching out to a diverse campus, because nearly everyone could be met where they were, rather than be coerced into becoming more like us before joining our ranks. The other consequence was that we appeared to be quite unruly when compared to the more mainstream chapters at other schools in our region. It was often remarked that although we were officially a branch of InterVarsity, we operated mostly independently, downplayed branding, and often flaunted the norms established at other schools. These norms included, I imagine, an official position on sexuality.

– – –

During my freshman year, I hid my gayness well, even as I invested lots of my time into my Christian family. I knew that even among my fellow IV members there were many who would not have a problem with me being gay, but I still didn’t really want to admit the reality to myself. Some friends and family back home were in the know; we were generally in agreement that I had been given a very unique burden to carry as a Christian, but I often felt like I was carrying it alone. For years already I had been praying regularly for God to take away the “thorn in my side”, for me to miraculously turn straight. I also really wanted to serve as a student leader with IV and give back to the community that had welcomed me, but I didn’t think I would be able to if I admitted my sinful nature. At this time, I considered the orientation itself to be innate, albeit a manifestation of humankind’s fallen state — “born this way yet born again”. But the constant lustful desire and its subsequent actions — for me, this meant watching a lot of pornography — were the grave iniquity for which I had to do penance.

Unsurprisingly, I was asked to be a co-leader for the freshman Bible study for the following school year. I remember the internal turmoil very well. I really loved God and wanted to serve, but I knew I couldn’t honestly do it without being open about my struggle with my sexuality. At our year-end retreat, the stress had built up so much that I needed to tell someone. I asked my friend Wes to take a walk with me, and we sat by the lake as I worked up the courage to finally spit it out: “I want to be a Bible study leader but I’m afraid that I won’t do a good job because I struggle with same-sex attraction and I don’t know how to tell anyone. Except now I’ve told you…”

I’ll never forget how Wes responded. He told me that although he didn’t have the answers or know what God ultimately had planned for human sexuality, at the end of it all, he trusted me. “I know for a fact that you will be an excellent leader,” he said, “and I’ll walk with you as we figure this thing out.”

Coming Out Day in October of sophomore year was when I decided to open up to my Bible study co-leader Cecelia, who was like a sister to me. I cried when I told her, guilty that I had already been serving with her for months but hadn’t had the guts to share something so personal and important. Cecelia cried when I told her, too, guilty that even though we had gotten so close in the past year, it hadn’t been enough for me to feel safe telling her or the other upperclassmen about my struggle.

Both Wes and Cecelia were my only confidantes for that entire semester. In December of 2009, I attended Urbana, InterVarsity’s huge missions conference held every three years in St. Louis. It was at Urbana that I learned that there was a larger conversation regarding faith and sexuality happening all around me. I was reading books and blog posts by Christians who identified as gay and straight, writers who supported “radical” ideas at the time like legalized same-sex marriage, pastors who were figuring out how to open their church doors to gays and lesbians while staying true to their core beliefs. The general theme was one of attempting to reconcile the LGBTQ community to a church that had clearly spurned it. I was trying to understand everything on my own, and it was difficult, but little by little, I was coming to accept myself. The seminars I attended at Urbana gave me some perspective; looking back, it’s actually amazing to me that some of the views expressed there were even allowed. But InterVarsity Press, a publishing company that has produced titles such as Love is an Orientation and Redeeming Sex (but also A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality), has made room for views that dissent from the traditional one.

There were well over fifteen thousand attendees at Urbana that year, and I was moved by the message reiterated so many times that week: we are so different, but we are here together because of God and God alone. Whatever it is that people may say divides us, we can actually celebrate, because we are all beloved children of God and we are otherwise united in Him. As the clock neared midnight on the last day of the year, I made two important decisions: 1) I would commit my life to the goal of repairing the broken relationship between the Church and the LGBTQ community, and to do so, 2) I would have to come out of the closet for good.

– – –

Fast-forward to the next spring: I announced at an IV meeting that I was gay — but still committed to the cause of Christ. Folks were largely surprised by my coming out, but nobody rejected me. Some friends came forward to apologize for past homophobic behavior or for simply not being very aware or sympathetic. Otherwise, life proceeded as normal, or at least according to what I expected. I took cautious steps into my school’s LGBTQ community, somewhat awkward because I still proudly identified as a Christian, and that understandably ruffled feathers. But there were other students who came from faith backgrounds that clashed with the gender and sexual identities they were exploring. I started a small Bible study group for LGBTQ or questioning students, and I really enjoyed that semester. It began lots of wonderful conversations on campus about the possibility of reconciling a Christian faith with a queer identity. We took the idea of “living in the tension” seriously, frankly acknowledging that we did not necessarily know what was right or wrong by God’s standards, but more importantly, striving to be in community with one another nevertheless.

At the same time, there were a few rounds of staff rotation. I felt a little bit of friction with our new staffers, especially as my personal and political views continued to change and become more liberal. Once upon a time, I had supported Prop 8 in California. But now, I didn’t see any problem with same-sex marriage on the national level (it’s a personal choice, and Christians certainly cannot dictate the legal policies of a secular nation), although I didn’t yet think I would ever pursue a relationship of my own. I was aware that the official position of InterVarsity was less tolerant, but I chose not to dwell on it. After all, my passion was for reaching out to my gay and lesbian friends with the Good News, and no verse that I knew of in the Gospels said that you had to be straight to believe in Jesus’ love and sacrifice. A few great courses in our school’s Religion department gave me fuller frameworks for understanding how the Bible is and has been interpreted, and how official church doctrines are established (and go out of fashion). By the time I was asked to be chapter president, just before Senior year, I still believed fully in the fundamental message of Christianity — believe in Christ for salvation — but I had to have a talk with our newest staffer so that he could make sure that I wasn’t “practicing homosexuality”. I accepted the position.

I graduated in 2012 with happy memories from my time with IV. But when my fellow alumni and I think about it today, we will joke that getting out when I did was “just in time”. The next year brought a veritable shitstorm to the steps of Parrish Hall; the student leaders who took up the mantle after us had to deal with, in addition to general social unrest brewing on campus, the souring of the relationship between our chapter and non-Christian students. Things went south especially when InterVarsity as an organization began to show its fundamentalist stripes and made a clear stance against same-sex marriage as well as against “actively” gay students who desired leadership roles. It is still not clear to me whether the change only came from within our chapter, as some students with conservative views took control while more liberal students left, or whether outside pressure from staffers and our intercollegiate network also influenced this. But students complained of discrimination by sexual orientation, and there was a large exodus: many of my friends, underclassmen when I had graduated, did not end up serving the organization as Seniors. They defected to the Progressive Christians group (which, for the record, I have no problem with), or left the church altogether.

I was living abroad while all this was happening and was mostly absent from the controversy. But when the news trickled in, I was deeply saddened. I had thought that the work I had put in while a member of IV would help bring the Christian and LGBTQ communities closer together, but it hadn’t been enough to prevent this enormous rift. Our campus fellowship’s reputation is no longer that of the quirky radical Christians who love and accept everyone, but instead the typical closed-minded Evangelicals who shun outsiders.

– – –

At the very least, this brought our IV chapter in line with the larger organization, which as of last week has officially drawn its line in the sand. The position paper they released is not actually a change in theology, but what they have made into official policy is the fact that any IV staffers who disagree with the position paper are encouraged to think very critically about what they personally believe and whether or not they want to continue partnering with the organization. Their PR stresses that nobody is technically being fired. If I were employed by IV, it would look like this: I’d read the position paper, decide that I did not agree with it, and notify my superior, who would immediately begin something called “involuntary termination”, giving me two weeks to wrap things up and then one month of aid in finding a new job.

I mean, how different is that from being fired, really? For legal purposes there are relevant distinctions — which to be sure will save them trouble when people try to take them to court — but the impact is the same. InterVarsity is saying, “We believe in X, Y, and Z, and if you don’t as well, then you don’t belong here.” The intention, I want to believe, is good. Last week, I had dinner with a Christian friend of mine, one who stands proudly on the conservative end of the spectrum and who actually first broke the news to me about what IV had done. He explained that from his perspective, InterVarsity was doing the right thing by making its positions on marriage and homosexuality public, whereas in the past it had been ambiguous at best about what it believed and how to enforce it. “They’re doing it so that there’s more internal cohesion, so that everyone is on the same page,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to work for an organization if you didn’t really know where they stood on the issue, right?”

And to an extent, I agree. InterVarsity is a religious organization with certain practices and a moral code derived from a canonical set of beliefs. I would not want to join a church or a para-church organization if I wasn’t sure that they shared the same core beliefs, such as the existence of one God. But to me, whether or not gay marriage is against God’s “original design” for marriage is not one of those core values. It’s a social issue that each church may question for itself and its own community. It should not become a theological litmus test for legitimate Christianity.

The pastor of the church I grew up in once preached a sermon that was not about the Bible at all, but about Biblical hermeneutics. He said that while he believed the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God, there were indeed some parts of the text that could be open to interpretation. (Which, in retrospect, is painfully obvious.) He stressed that some issues were trivial, or ideas that we could freely Debate. Should women have to cover their hair in church? Maybe, maybe not: if we disagree, it’s no big deal. Other issues were more important, ones that a church might Divide over. Is water baptism necessary as a part of one’s conversion? Maybe, maybe not: if we disagree, maybe we can join different churches or branch off and form a new one. That’s how denominations are created. But there are some ideas from the Bible that are so truly fundamental that they are worth Dying for. Is there one God? Does he love all people unconditionally and desire for us to know Him personally? Maybe, maybe not: if we disagree, and you have a gun pointed at my head, I will not back down. The “die-for” theological issues are worth every ounce of conviction we possess, should we identify as Christian. The “divide” and “debate” issues are not.

To me, the issue of homosexuality in the church is one to debate over. I currently attend a church in Berkeley where I am sure over 75% of my fellow congregants would disagree sharply with my views. That has not stopped me from going to services regularly for two years and forming close relationships with some of them. Were I to get married, I highly doubt my current pastor would ever agree to perform my wedding. So why do I go to this church? Because I still believe in the Gospel and I see that this church is trying earnestly to reach out to our local community with a message of hope and revival. I share those values, even if I disagree with so much else. The disagreements, in my eyes, are not worth dividing over.

The tragedy with InterVarsity’s new policy is not that they have chosen the conservative view. It’s that they have made it clear that there is no room for disagreement. I am not advocating that they never adopt any stance whatsoever. Actually, I respect the fact that they took a stand for what they believe in (“they” being, I guess, the powers that be within the organization who decided all of this), especially because I know that the organization spent years thinking, studying, and praying about it while (presumably) listening to people from all sides of the issue give their input. There’s integrity in that. But what IV is saying is that it is impossible for you and me to reach our common goal (bring knowledge of Jesus to college campuses) if we do not have the same views on sex. Therefore, you must leave. It’s textbook fundamentalism.

Particularly painful is that the onus is on individual staffers to make their disagreements heard. A staffer I know of who works with IV at a school in the Bay Area owned up to the conflict and has already been terminated. She fought the decision but lost: her livelihood and her mission now gone because she did not keep her silence. I personally support two IV staffers financially, one of whom is openly gay (though celibate). He has no intention of leaving the fruitful ministry he has been nurturing for years, but if he criticizes, say, on social media or even in private conversation, the organization’s policy without officially volunteering his own resignation, what will happen to him? What will happen to the hundreds of students he leads? Students who are perhaps, like me eight years ago, eager to demonstrate love for God, yet anxious about a love for others that doesn’t fit the traditional mold. Some of them will hide and deny their sexualities because they want to stay in the community; others will leave the church because they will not feel welcome — no matter what IV says about LGBTQI inclusion within their theological framework, pro-queer folks are still being excluded and there is no way to deny this.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I struggled with my sexual identity every day for years, but I survived and eventually came to terms with myself and accepted God’s unconditional love. I then went to a school where my Christian community also showed me the same kind of unconditional love. We used that as the starting point and laid our other disagreements aside for the sake of the Gospel. That’s the beauty of the Church, in my opinion. I don’t need you to conform to my views on sex if I want to work with you: Jesus is enough.

Speaking of whom, I can’t help but think about a wonderful story told in John chapter 8, which I will reproduce below in whole (ESV translation):

Early in the morning [Jesus] came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

I’m not bringing this up because I want to draw parallels between homosexuality and adultery. Rather, what intrigues me is Jesus’ behavior in response to a group of legalistic religious experts who wanted him to take a stance. These men were so eager to draw their line in the sand: our shared moral code says we should execute this woman; now I wonder what this pacifist Jesus guy will say to that? Will he be on our side or not?

Jesus did not take their bait. Instead, he started doodling in the dust. Or writing some secret message, we’ll probably never know. But I love that while the religious leaders wanted their lines to be drawn and their theology neatly proven, Jesus flipped the situation on its head by reminding the entire crowd that there was a human life at stake here, and that human life was the most important thing. Not theology. Not the Law. Not the downward trajectory of morality in a rapidly crumbling society.

So when I think of Jesus and then I compare his actions to InterVarsity’s decision to purge its ranks of those who do not fit a certain mold, I wonder: whence came the discrepancy? To those who hold fast to their us-versus them mentality and a black-and-white framework for gray area issues: does your commitment to dichotomy stem from an outpouring of your love for Christ and an imitation of the grace he showed the world, or from somewhere else? And if he were here today, in the flesh, and given the task of deciding whom to keep in InterVarsity and whom to spit out, well, pardon the cliche, but… what would Jesus do?

ω

Word of the Day: A pericope [pəˈɹɪ.kə.pi] (Greek: περικοπή) is a short excerpt from a (usually sacred) text that is used for teaching purposes. The passage in John 8:1-11 is also called the Pericope Adulterae.

Posted in life, musings | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

What’s in a Name?

“Could I have your last name?”

“Cheng. C-H-E-N-G.”

“C-H-A-N-G?”

“C-H-EEEEE-N-G.”

I’m one of those people who have been conditioned to spell their name every single time it is asked for. And I consider myself lucky that it’s only my last name that gets misspelled, not my first or both.

The confusion stems from the pronunciations of Cheng and Chang in American English. I would transcribe them both as [tʃʰeɪŋ] (or [tʃʰaɪŋ] if you don’t have pre-velar raising like I do) — rhymes with sang.

But the silly thing is that neither name actually sounds like this in its original language. My last name is written in Mandarin as  and pronounced [ʈʂəŋ] with a falling tone contour — rhymes with sung, and actually sounds closest to the jung in jungle, but with the jaw less lowered. The other name, Chang, usually comes from 常 or 張, which in Mandarin are [ʈ͡ʂʰaŋ] and [ʈ͡ʂaŋ], respectively — rhymes with song — and the Korean versions of the same name use the same vowel.

When my parents and thousands of other East Asian immigrants arrived in the United States, they had to decide how to officially write their names using the Latin alphabet instead of characters. My dad told me that he and his friends just looked up their names in the standard Chinese-English dictionary at the time, which used the Wade-Giles romanization system1. According to Mr. Wade, the best English approximation for the voiced unaspirated retroflex affricate was the digraph “ch” — never mind that this is almost always aspirated in English (see: Church’s Chicken) — and the vowel portion, which is almost a perfect schwa, should be written with an “e”.

One hundred years after his dictionary was published, Americans saw the surname Cheng and thought, “But of course, it rhymes with sang.”

To be fair to Wade-Giles, it’s hard to devise a written form of a language using a system that neither evolved with it nor was developed for it. But the consequence of this is that people have been calling my father “Dr. Ch-ay-ng” for his entire career and he doesn’t even care. I don’t think it ever crossed his mind to correct anyone… but was this out of instinctive capitulation or indifference?

“Why wouldn’t you have corrected them?” I protested over lunch yesterday. “It’s not like jung is that much harder for Americans2 to pronounce.”

“So you think I should have written it with a ‘J’?” my dad responded, “or with ‘Zh’?”

“Well, it’s not like English spelling makes any sense anyway.” Even English names mess around with their “ch” clusters, thanks to long histories and convoluted etymologies: Christopher, Charles, Charlotte, Channah. At this point, we may as well tell folks that they just have to remember pronunciations by sight, because the rhyme and reason behind them are a beast to comprehend. And I say this as a former ESL teacher.

I had a proposal. “Dad, I want to change my name. Not the spelling of the name; whatever’s on my birth certificate is fine. But I can tell people how ‘Cheng’ should actually be pronounced and teach them something. So I’ll introduce myself as ‘Andrew Cheng’, but pronounce it jung [ʈʂəŋ]3.” And, I thought, if some smartass asks me why I don’t just spell it with a ‘J’, the way it’s pronounced, I’ll more than likely be able to point to their own name and ask the very same thing.

This is an interesting issue I have been mulling over for a while now. I know lots of Asians and Asian Americans whose names reflect a heritage that is not Western European, and yes, the spellings of these names in English are rarely transparent as to their true pronunciation. But they’ll settle for an “Americanized” version of the name, with American English’s twangy diphthongs and loud aspirated plosives and stress as a substitute for tone.

My new language partner has the charming Korean name Taehyun [tʰɛ.hʲʌn], which I used to greet him when we first met. But he had sent me a text saying, <Hi, this is Ted!> so I asked him which name I should actually call him. He asked, “Oh, well, which one is easier for you?”

“Eh, screw that!” I replied. “Don’t ask me which one is easier for me. What do you want to be called?”

The answer, unsurprisingly, was Taehyun.

Why settle? Why not just teach folks what to say and how to say it right? Then, one’s name becomes an opportunity to practice patience while they learn (win-win!), rather than another facet in which foreignness is forced to conform; rather than another way in which languages with different phonologies from English are devalued.

Assimilationist tendencies in the United States have resulted in a long history of erasing immigrants’ linguistic identities by forcing name changes, whether literally by declaring an Eastern European refugee’s name as too “un-American” to be used or more subliminally by giving constant negative attention to presumed foreignness. Though Anglicizing name changes are no longer the norm, I would still argue that names that are not clearly English or at least Western European attract a certain kind of valence that can serve to diminish the owner’s claim to American identity. And we who hold these names and are aware of this fact are surely not to be blamed for wanting to avoid this.

Yet the onus should be on the outmoded monolingual and monocultural majority to expand its horizons. They should accept that the Kims and the Kwans are every bit as American as the Kardashians (who are of Armenian descent, by the way), and that their names — our names — are worth the effort to pronounce accurately, even if it is difficult. Doing so will improve everyone’s linguistic knowledge and, more importantly, everyone’s self-esteem.

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1 If you’re curious to learn a bit more about the way romanization has jumbled up Chinese last names over the past few centuries, you can watch this cool video.
2 Yes, we do that immigrant family thing where “American” refers to White English-speaking USAmericans, even though we are citizens so we technically share that label.
3 And as long as the consonants and vowels are somewhere-in-the-ballpark correct, I won’t care about tone, or lack thereof!

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Word of the Day: onomastics (from the Greek ὄνομα ‘name’ via French onomastique)  is the study of proper names. The Wikipedia page on onomastics is a bit of a stub but to my great delight had a link to a treasure trove of words that end in -onym.

Posted in life, musings, what even is linguistics | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments