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not for all my little words

Growing up in Florida, I think I always took the existence of palm trees for granted.

If you've never seen one, if you've only ever grown up with maple and pine and birch trees, a palm tree could be difficult to imagine, because it probably challenges all your notions of what a tree should be. There are no real branches, and its leaves only appear at the top of the tree. Its bark often grows in layers, like a series of stacked funnels, and it usually lists a little to the side, as though it's responding to a wind that isn't there. 

But even if you've never seen one, believing that they exist isn't that hard. There are photographs. You have my testimony, but even if you don't trust me, there is probably someone in your life whom you do trust who has seen one and can vouch for the plant's existence. In all likelihood, you have eaten a coconut. (At the very least, coconut is available at your grocery store.)

If you've never seen one, you can, of course, insist that they're not real, because no one can stop you. I can say that I am actually a dragon if I want to. But just because I say it doesn't make it true. I know that palm trees exist, and even if I hadn't seen them myself, there's enough evidence out there for me to believe in them.

This is how I feel about privilege, and racism, and inequality in America. Telling me they don't exist is like telling me that palm trees aren't real. You can say whatever you want, but it doesn't change the facts.


When I was six or seven years old, my father and I went to the customer service kiosk in DeSoto Square Mall to get a gift certificate for my friend's birthday present. While we were there, the people working the desk tried to give us a toddler. 

She had gotten lost, or been abandoned, or something, and aside from the color of her skin, she looked nothing like us. Also, she was speaking Spanish. This did not change the mall staff's conviction that the baby was ours. 

"That's not my kid," my father said. "I came to buy a gift certificate."

"Sir," they said, "we found your baby. You can't just leave your child."

"But it's not my baby," he said. "That baby is Mexican. I don't even speak Spanish. I'm Asian."

Believe it or not, this went on for quite a bit longer, despite the complete illogic of the situation: why would a baby abandoner return to the scene of the crime? Why would a baby loser not just take their baby back? What didn't they understand about the words "I came to buy a gift certificate"? 

And what I think has stuck with me, even more than the weird mix-up, is the mall staff's complete refusal to believe my father, despite all the evidence to the contrary. He fit their mental model of the child's father (man with brown skin), so it didn't matter to them what he said. It was like he hadn't said anything. That was how much weight they gave it. 

This refusal to validate or take seriously a person's opinion is something I keep thinking about as I read about Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner. Because I can sit here and tell you about my experience with white/non-black privilege all day long, as though it would do anything - not stories from the "liberal media," but my own stories, which are rough and challenging and don't always make me look good. I can tell you about the years I've spent working in economically depressed African-American neighborhoods and compare and contrast it with the poor white kids I've known in Appalachia or the poor Asian kids I've dealt with in other parts of DC. I can tell you about the casual racism in my high school, or all the petty crimes I've seen my white peers get away with, or the fact that no one has ever had to sit my little brother down and warn him how to deal with being harassed by the cops. I can tell you about the areas of Anacostia I've seen that are basically cut off from the rest of the city, devoid of any public transportation in or out, or talk about the old Georgetown leases that explicitly forbade renting houses to black people. I can introduce you to one of my very best friends, someone I will be friends with until I die, who is a brilliant psychologist who happens to be black, and who has put up with more racist bullshit in her life than the day is long. If it's testimony you want, I've got it in spades.

But I don't think it matters if I tell you or not, because proof is not the issue.

Sure, yes, you shouldn't need to hear this from me, because BLACK PEOPLE HAVE BEEN SAYING THIS FOR CENTURIES. Me being white, or Vietnamese, or having a master's degree, or being someone you know personally does not make me more credible. But let's say that for whatever reason, none of these accounts satisfy you, because their authors don't have whatever credential you're looking for. What else do you want? Are you looking for a direct comparison, like, for instance, if a white man and his black friend are arrested at the same time? Here you go. Would you prefer that your witness be both wealthy and an Ivy League alum? Try this. Really only trust the opinions of white women? Yup. Do you need to hear it from Republicans? Got you covered. What if there was, I don't know, video documentation of completely unnecessary police brutality? Unlike Eric Garner, today is your lucky day. (You probably know this, but that video is very difficult to watch. Just a warning.)

This is your evidence that palm trees exist, even though you have never personally seen one.  

I am usually a believer in nuance. I'm opinionated, but there are very few subjects on which I take a completely hard line. This is not one of them. You cannot tell me that it's possible that the palm tree I see could just be an oak with a growth disorder. The proof is there. It's been there. It doesn't matter if you've experienced it firsthand or not. You either have the moral imagination to accept the evidence in front of you, or you don't. And if you don't - if you still somehow believe that we live in a post-racial world, that everyone in America has an equal shot at the top - it doesn't matter who's talking anymore, or what they say. Because you've already made up your mind.


(ETA: I want to clarify that I am not saying that police are bad, or that white people are bad, or anything like that. I am acknowledging that palm trees exist. I am not saying that all trees are palm trees.)

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to venture into the New World, alone

To follow that last post:  I may not be able to express how I feel about the Tsarnaev brothers, but Andrew Lam can do it for me. I cannot recommend highly enough that you read this essay.

As part of it, here is the most resonant description of inherited trauma that I have ever read. This is a topic I want to explore in my own writing, but honestly, Lam kind of has it covered. (I mean, did he know my grandmother personally?)

Here is what I know: it is inevitable that children born into war inherit trauma, even if they didn’t experience that war first hand. The inheritance is deep rooted, and it seeps in below the surface: the way the adults talk of the past, the way fragments of their history replay on TV, the way sadness hangs in the refugee home like heavy air, like smoke; a lost home, a shattered people, the humiliation, the overwhelming nostalgia; it seeps into dreams. And when they are vulnerable, when their lives in America unravel and their access to America’s grandeur is blocked and denied, the old memories and unshaped desires have a way of reaching out to take hold.

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the best that we can do

I have roughly fifteen half-finished posts in my draft folder about the Boston Marathon bombing, starting with one the day after it happened and ending with a paragraph or two I wrote a few months ago. I keep trying to figure out how to talk about it, trying to clarify what it is I feel and what I want to say to myself and to the world. I don't know how. I still don't know.

And I will tell you now that this is not that piece. But, like those aborted posts, it is still an open-ended expression of failure. 

Today I had the following conversation with one of my friends:

me:  goddammit

one of my [summer program] kids is going to jail

Friend:  ugh

i'm sorry

me:  it's okay

he's the friend of the Boston bomber

I don't know if I'm sadder he's going to jail or that he apparently got high like eight times that day

Friend: ohhhhhhh

lead, buried

me:  I mean I guess?

but for me the story happens in that order

 

So. This is how it is. I remember Robel - he wasn't my student, but we all knew everyone. He was small then. This is not a thing I could have imagined, then.

For context: this program where I taught, during the summer of 2006 - I'm not going to name it here, because I don't want anyone to use this against them - was, and is, designed to keep kids on the path to college by making learning an enjoyable part of life. We lived and breathed it. My roommate then and I used to sit in our sweltering apartment, listening to Sufjan Stevens' The Avalanche, and talk about head versus heart - whether or not our performance should be judged on how much blood and tears we put into our work. And the kids lived and breathed it, too; we used to see them on the weekends, to call them at home. I still talk to a few of them sometimes. Which is probably why this hurts me, whether or not I deserve to feel it.

I'm afraid to even talk about this situation, because I want so badly to establish that I know that:

  • it's not about me
  • one program or person cannot be expected to alter another person's fate
  • this bombing was a horrible, horrible tragedy and no one should have aided or abetted it in any way

I know. I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW. It's not even my business to be sad, not when so many people related to this event experienced real tragedy. But I'm writing this now, this howl of frustration, because I want it acknowledged that we tried to build this beloved community, and I want us to try harder. I don't know how. I don't know what went wrong, and I don't know where he - or we - went wrong. But something could be better. And I think saying this out loud, how far we are from that community of our dreams, is probably the first step. Even if it takes the form of an incomprehensible half-apologia like this one.

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fashionably sensitive, but too cool to care

(Back, momentarily, from hiatus. How many half-finished draft posts lurk in my archives? YOU'LL NEVER KNOW.)

I just want to say how much I love this take on Lena Dunham and her book Not That Kind of Girl (which, full disclosure, I have not read, for reasons you will understand in a moment). 

Two aspects in particular that resonated with me:

1) The recognition, or lack thereof, of the need to hustle. Yes, if you know who Lena Dunham is, you also probably know that she comes from both wealth and education. But what Saraiya also points out is that the casual way her accomplishments are treated totally belie the actual truth, which is that no one could get this much done without both an insane work ethic and extra-strength ambition. (As Soraiya says: "Whatever the reason, the result is a portrait of a woman who doesn’t seem to try very hard to be successful—when in fact, based on everything we know about the television and film industries, the opposite must be true.")

For me, this is an issue of privilege (I mean, what isn't), but it's also an issue of gender, part of the same dysfunctional mindset that lets assertive women be called abrasive and idealizes the "cool girl." When a woman's primary purpose is to be "nice" and "fun," striving doesn't really play into the equation. Because striving requires seriousness (boring), dedication (selfish), and - in particular - a willingness to acknowledge one's own desires, and therefore also a willingness to be vulnerable. And vulnerability, because it asks for support from others, is the least cool thing of all.

Let me be clear here: I have NO problem with the idea of being nice, or fun. In fact, I try to be both of those things - but on my own terms. The problem is that they are often presented as excluding all the stuff I just talked about, as opposed to being a behavioral option that can and should coexist with ambition.

2) Soraiya's discussion of the relationship the reader has with the text. Or, as she puts it:

"It is impossible to navigate Lena Dunham’s work without being forced to contend with her complicated, contradictory, difficult-to-reconcile self, and doing so forces readers to contend with themselves. Where does her ego stop and her work begin? Where does my ego stop and my critique begin? It’s hard to see Not That Kind Of Girl for just what it is, because it isn’t just anything—it’s a process of moving through my sense of self and her own, to reach an uneasy understanding."

So this is why I have not read her book. I watched some of Girls, and I liked it, but - predictably - I was also annoyed. Partly because I am not Lena Dunham, but would like to be that accomplished; partly because of my own experiences in communities devoid of privilege, which make me highly skeptical of its claims towards reality. (I love Friends, but maybe that's because no one ever described it as cinéma vérité.) 

Would I feel this way if there were more voices out there - more young women, with clear perspectives, being highlighted? I don't know. Maybe not. If we offered more pathways for this sort of thing, I might not feel like Lena has the only seat at the table, while the rest of us watch from the kitchen.

Which brings us to the crux of the problem: most of this is not really Lena Dunham's fault. Honestly, if we met, I would probably like her. But so much of how I feel about her is related to the societal constructs we've built for women that I can't acknowledge her on her own terms. I mean, look at the title. Not That Kind of Girl? This is the question I'm left with: what kind of girl? When, I wonder, will we each get to be our own girl, imperfect but perfect exactly as we are?

 

 

ETA: I can't believe I had that lyric wrong. So embarrassed. 

 

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Sunday night links

More articles I'd like to devote a whole post to - but can't due to time constraints. It appears that the theme this week is "Hillary's childhood."

THINGS I RECOMMEND, AUGUST 24th EDITION

  • I endorse any and all coverage of Kenan Thompson. In fact, I'm just glad he's on SNL, which is probably the best possible career outcome for any child comic actor. Is Rembert Browne harsh? Maybe a little. But his summation of the Jean K. Jean skit is spot-on, and I could not stop laughing even though it's clearly not even that funny. (Full disclosure: RB is a friend of a friend, but we've never met.)
  • Actually, all of Grantland's SNL coverage is worth a look. And if you, like me, spent a lot of your high school weekends watching SNL reruns on Comedy Central with your best friend, you might also like Splitsider's series "Saturday Night's Children."
  • Related: Browne links to an early-'90s Bernie Mac routine in that article. Here is a Bernie Mac outfit from that era. 
You're welcome.

You're welcome.

  • "Kids deserve the right to think that they can change the world": an interview with the astonishing Lois Lowry.

  • Speaking of authors who changed my life, I recently came across the New Yorker's tribute to E.L. Konigsburg, who died last year. I LOVE their description of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler:

    Konigsburg granted Claudia a perfect answer to the great childhood what-if—what if I leave behind my family, which is all that I know? The answer is that Claudia will learn to tell her own story.


May we all learn to do the same.

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the culture of encounter

(In which I give in and write more about SketchFactor.)

How supremely perfect it is that the SketchFactor app debuted at the same time as the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. On the SketchFactor scale of 1-5, where 1 is "kind of quirky" and 5 is "could be dangerous," Ferguson probably ranks at about a 30 right now, what with the rioting and the wooden bullets and all. According to these metrics, at least, it's a place to be avoided.

But is it, really? Because avoidance, at least of the mental kind, might be how we got here in the first place.

My man Pope Francis has been on a tear lately talking about the "culture of encounter," the idea that we learn and grow when we interact with people different from ourselves. In one letter of which I'm particularly fond, he talks about the role that communications and technology can play in fostering greater human dignity:

In a world like this, media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which can in turn inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all.  Good communication helps us to grow closer, to know one another better, and ultimately, to grow in unity.  The walls which divide us can be broken down only if we are prepared to listen and learn from one another. 

The essential problem with apps like SketchFactor is that they don't break down these walls. They build them by specifying where we shouldn't walk, literally dividing us and our environs into safe and unsafe, worthy and unworthy. In its own way, this discourse is violent and destructive - not just to those it victimizes, but to our connections to each other as well.

Walls like these are what allow those of us who are not regularly harassed for our race or class to turn a blind eye to the killing, by police, of young, unarmed persons of color; they block out the protests, the riots, the sound of sirens. They let us believe it doesn't happen that often. Walls like these give us an excuse to make assumptions, because we've never learned that a "gang sign" is actually a symbol of peace. Walls like these prevent the large-scale catalyzing of public opinion against procedures that are fundamentally unjust. And walls like these allow us to avoid imagining ourselves, as individuals, in the same situation.

Elsewhere in that letter, the Pope invokes the parable of the Good Samaritan and its call for us to view ourselves as "neighbors" to all of humanity:

Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbours.  The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him.  ...(I)t is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other.  Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God... 

Whenever communication is primarily aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others, we are dealing with a form of violent aggression like that suffered by the man in the parable, who was beaten by robbers and left abandoned on the road.  The Levite and the priest do not regard him as a neighbour, but as a stranger to be kept at a distance.  

It's hard to be someone's neighbor, though, if you won't even go near their neighborhood. Is this the world we want? Full of strangers, kept at a distance? 

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wrong on the Internet, wrong for America

Lately, I am trying to make more of an effort to avoid reading things that make me want to punch my computer screen. It's not because I want to avoid conflict or The Big Issues; to the contrary, actually. It's just that sometimes these things are better dealt with offline, particularly if I'm just saying/thinking the same thing that a bunch of other people have already said.

And so we have SketchFactor, the app that allows young people convinced of their own innocence to avoid "sketchy" areas. It's already received pushback on the Internet for all the reasons you think it has, and, if you're a regular reader, you can probably name all of my objections without me even having to write a post about it. (Here's your word bank: "privilege," "'universal' values," "empathy," "total lack of self-awareness," "cultural exchange," "headdesk.")

Why am I writing about it, then? Mostly because I want to highlight this comment:

(mic drop)

 

PS: I do actually have thoughts about the idea that everybody's neighborhood is somebody's neighborhood, etc., and it's possible that I'll revisit this app later through that lens. Right now, though, I think it would probably give me an ulcer.

PPS: Please do not come back at me with some retort about how its crowdsourcing makes it non-discriminatory. Who do you think owns those iPhones?

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who'll sing this song?

For me to wholly claim Appalachia would be theft. I've lived there intermittently for the last ten years - I went to college in Kentucky, but on its periphery, and my family lives in east Tennessee, where I have also lived and worked, off and on. So I know more about the region than probably 90% of people in DC, but I can't say it's mine really, not like my friends who grew up in Laurel County or Ashland or Hazard. I only know it as an adult.

But if you spend any real amount of time there, the region gets under your skin, makes you want to rise to its defense even if you haven't earned the privilege. It's hard to explain to an outsider the sweet burn of peach moonshine, or the joyful feeling of stomping to a banjo's rhythm, or the way an abandoned trailer, surrounded by rusting barbed wire, looks in the fog. It's poor, yes, and different from other places, but it's complicated and beautiful too. And if I, an Appalachian Johnny-come-lately, feel this many conflicting emotions, imagine how much love and frustration must be felt by a person who carries the region in their blood - especially when they see how outsiders view them.

The rest of America has always enjoyed a strained relationship with this pocket of the country, with its poverty and luminous strangeness. (For an introduction to this issue, I always recommend Elizabeth Barret's documentary Stranger with a Camerawhich chronicles the death of photographer Hugh O'Connor in Letcher County, Kentucky.) A friend recently sent me a review of a new Brooklyn restaurant that looks like a parody of Appalachia, like some sort of weird poverty theme park where you can pretend to be poor and have a corn dog with a Budweiser. To the reviewer's credit, he castigates the owner for cashing in on a place he doesn't even understand. (Sample quote: "I doubt if he is aware or even curious to inquire how that barn he bought became fallow.")

However, he falls into another trap, which is the pity of the well-meaning outsider. In his review, he says that "(t)he miserable condition of Appalachia, a region that runs from New York to Mississippi, is as raw a wound and as deep a shame as a decapitated strip-mined peak. Poor, poor and damned poor are the mountain people who still live there, though as Ronald Eller notes in his bleak study Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, there’s not that many of them." It echoes Annie Lowrey's recent piece in the New York Times, "What's The Matter With Eastern Kentucky?", which notes "the desperation of coal country."

Well, yes, but.

There's no arguing with the fact that much of Appalachia is poor - very poor, poor in ways that might surprise you if you've never been. And yes, it is derided and/or ignored by much of America, because these issues, and our political complicity in them, are hard and painful to deal with. But there's also no arguing with the richness I've experienced there, even as an outsider, and the cultural and artistic offerings the region provides. My parents live outside the Storytelling Capital of the World - that's not my opinion, that's an official title. The Amish fried donuts at the Johnson City Farmers' Market are better than you can believe. And we're always coming up with new ways to make meth. (Joke. Joke.) 

The way we view Appalachia echoes the way we view most of the "developing" countries of the world - as places in dire need of our noblesse oblige, rather than as whole, complex entities with things to offer as well as needs. You can be desperate and still be beautiful, in ways that have nothing to do with your desperation. You can be financially rich, but still blind to what the country around you provides.

Poverty like Appalachia's cannot be ignored, but it's also not the sole defining characteristic of its towns or its people. And maybe we should care about it because its existence impedes us from accessing what lies within. When all we can think about is how much a place lacks, it's easy to miss how much it has to offer. 

And I'm going to be honest with you here: I've rewritten this post five or six times, because, as I noted at the beginning, I'm only beginning to understand the region - I can only speak for myself and my own experiences. (For a more nuanced defense from a true native, I strongly encourage you to read Silas House's recent editorial in the Louisville Courier-Journal.) So, given the amount that's already been taken from Appalachia by outsiders over the course of the last century, I hesitate to write any more than what I already know. But what I want to convey is that it's worth knowing, all of it. The whole picture.

 

 

 

 

 

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dust off the bones

I've been busy with a few projects, and I have a massive backlog of posts for both this blog and H+M. In the meantime, here is some poetry.

 

So Much Light We Could See to the Other Side

Tina Chang

All fuel and fire, spine left like a bent arrow, dark matter, 
the teeth as relic, all of our words bitter fruit. Who could 
have believed we were made like this. The cosmonaut,

the soothsayer, and the blind archeologist knew merely 
by feeling with the ends of their fingers which reached out 
to nothing. We were a warring lot, hammered by days,

and greedy too. Our plates were dented with heavy spoons, 
words spoken in secret in front of a fire, documents burned 
before anything of substance was revealed. We made that fire,

fed the flames with newspapers, kings, martyrs, and love. 
We were wanton, selfish, predisposed to constant dreaming. 
We fed, fought and then fought some more until night arrived

with its hellish glow. All around us, mothers taught their children 
words for the first time. They fashioned the universe into something 
knowable, sayable. Say this, said the mother and the infant repeated

the words, clumsily, devoted. The child's devotion was the world 
fabricating a truth. Repairs on the other side of the hemisphere. 
The archeologist found our bones and said we were a strong

and healthy race, grew more ingenious than any generation before us, 
before we fell away from wit, invention, our own empty embrace.
We ran to our end like leaping into a volcano. Unstoppable fury.

We should have disappeared entirely after the bomb, the floods, 
our own desertion. Someone's mouth blows dust off the bones. 
The soothsayer predicts that we will come back, the cosmonaut

is willing to bet when the world ended there were more 
stars filling the sky than ever before. There once was shadow, 
before a last light came, not to darken the plain but to define it.

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here comes the sun

In retrospect, it seems like the stormfront of bad luck that has charged through the past year made its entrance pretty soon after my birthday. In a way, it's hard to articulate how difficult the last twelve months have been, although I guess "I got laid off shortly after my mother was diagnosed with an unusual cancer" lays it out pretty neatly. But it's tough to convey the sheer exhaustion of so many days, the isolation that comes when you avoid your friends because it feels like literally nothing has changed, or will ever change, in your life. What it's like to drive back to the hospital day after day after day. On the road to Bethesda, I used to listen to a song from my senior year of college, "Dress Me Like A Clown" by Margot and the Nuclear So & Sos, on repeat: I am alive, I am alive, and that is the best that I can do...

But I AM alive. And, because today is my birthday, it seems useful to commemorate that occasion. For my survival, I can credit my parents: my father, the ultimate hustler, the immigrant who has pretty much single-handedly created every opportunity he's ever had, and my mother, who - by word and by example - has always reminded me that hustling doesn't mean you get to run everyone else over. I can credit my siblings, who understood better than anyone the weird (and, frankly, somewhat put-upon) place our family occupies in the universe. And I can credit my friends, who have offered innumerable couch cushions to hug, picked up more tabs than I care to count, and never quit asking how things were going.

The thing about being catapulted out into the universe without a net is that you have to get comfortable with yourself pretty quickly, because there's no longer a job or a company to define you. I hesitate to say that it was worth it, because it's very easy to look back and say that, and I'm not exactly clamoring for a repeat. But I feel stronger now. More myself - although, paradoxically, it's through the support of everyone else that I've gotten here. So here's to another year of being alive. And, hopefully, more than that.

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