The Last Five Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Qualification

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh.

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

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

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

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A Run for Your Money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Committee Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My professor acknowledged this with a smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

Any takers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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