09/25/19

This American Life

I wrote this in 2015, a year after returning to the U.S. I think it’s about time to let it air.

This American Life

1.
After eleven years of living abroad, the early days of repatriation are mostly spent in panic and sometimes rage as we try to put our lives back together in this place I think I know, yet discover I don’t. I mix up streets, get the timing and grammar of driving wrong, become infuriated with customer service which, by Korean standards, is sloppy, slow, and rude. The customs agent upon arrival at SFO yells at me for “wasting his time” because I stop to wait for my eldest child, who has become separated from us by another group of travelers. Bank accounts, school registrations, vaccination records must all be translated, approved, stamped, filed, lost, found, re-approved, re-filed. By the time I get to T-mobile on a sunny summer day a few months into our American Life Reboot, I’m already in a foul mood from spending two hours at Bank of America trying to open a safe deposit box. The representatives at BofA are sweet but what Koreans would call “FM” or “field manual”: people who can only execute tasks step-by-step, with seemingly no sense of the big picture, or what they can do to speed the process.

T-Mobile is just on the other side of El Camino Real, the flat main artery lined with strip malls that connects this series of towns. I’m no longer used to driving and I’m nervous, weaving through a parking lot, making a U-turn, finding another parking spot. The sidewalks are bare. No one even loiters to smoke anymore.

The woman working at T-Mobile is a member of the second American Customer Service Type: the kind that, like the SFO Customs agent, thinks she’s above this work and acts aggravated to be called upon to do her job. She sighs with her whole body as I enter, and busies herself with the computer, the message “I am so over this” practically tattooed on her forehead. She’s an older woman, with a lined face, heavyset, skin neither white nor black; she looks out of place among the neon pink decor of the store and the large flat screen TV flashing images of young people, either very white or very black, living their hipster, T-Mobile-enhanced lives to a soundtrack of upbeat pop music and laughter. No one in this store looks like that.

As I approach she barely looks at me, as if I can be ignored into going away. I tell my issue and say that I’ve already been in here twice to deal with the same problem. She asks me who I talked to.

“Melissa, I think.”

“Oh, the Asian girl?” she says, her voice hard, definitive, commanding.

“I don’t know, maybe she’s half-Asian?”

“No, she looks completely Asian,” she informs me, and turns to the computer.

I hate that she’s so certain. Despite having two Chinese parents, I look physically ambiguous; even my own relatives make jokes about the milk man. I have double eyelids, dark brown hair, a rather Roman nose. Complete strangers tell me that I must be mistaken about my genetic heritage. You must have some white blood in you, they say. Or they make wild guesses about where I’m from: the South of France, India, South America.

The store feels very quiet to me. Her unhappy, dismissive movements feel personal and threatening.

“Do I look Asian?” I ask.

“No, you don’t look Asian at all.”

“But I am Asian. Completely Asian.”

At that she seems to understand that I am angry. Her movements become slow and tentative. She fixes my billing issues, yelling at someone over the phone on my behalf.

By the time I leave we have apologized to each other. Me, for “being touchy about race” and her, saying, “I’m a minority too, I should be more careful.” But I am shaking as I leave, and for the rest of the day I tread carefully.

2.
I must have been seven or eight years old, wandering away from my parents and drooling brothers on the subway platform. I overheard others make ching chong jokes about them, not realizing that I was part of the same family. This is what I remember about childhood: always attending to how my family looked from the outside and being aware of their points of vulnerability. And all the ways I felt ashamed of them. And all the ways I felt protective of them.

3.
3 pm. Peet’s Coffee, across from Palo Alto High. A young African-American boy walks in, wearing blindingly white, neatly knotted Converse high tops with puffy camouflage pants and a flowery baseball cap. The whole outfit says, I’m down with my people but I’m not a gangsta. I feel for this kid and also admire him: with this outfit he acknowledges, I know what you all are thinking when you see a black man in this town, but you don’t know shit about me.
This is my favorite part about being back in America: being able to read the subtle nuances of gesture, language, and fashion choice. I know what this boy means by his outfit (or I think I know), the way I know what the young blonde woman with the ponytail means when she wears her tight gray skirt-suit and large brown horn-rimmed glasses. It’s a sexy secretary look, one which says, don’t think I’m dumb because I’m blonde, but did you notice how beautiful I am? This is a local dialect of story-character-culture associations that you can only understand if you’ve lived in a place for a long time and are familiar with the rich tapestry of identities, references, jokes, languages.

Hilton Als’s book White Girls captures the complexity, the multiple dialects, the push and pull of race in America. It’s a sprawling, heterogeneous collection that resists categorization, moving between fiction, non-fiction, biography, auto-biography, and references to popular culture, even in the same sentence. It is a book about categories, a book which embraces categories of race and gender and sexuality while simultaneously disrupting them. If I had to pick one central tension in the book, it would be this: a man of color in America is always marked, always visible, always available to be read with the logic of certain cultural narratives. For instance, “Upon moving in, our neighbors phoned the police. It must have looked strange: two colored gentlemen moving furniture into a house.” Like Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric, White Girls records the way “a colored body is subject to all these narratives” and “caught between a state of invisibility and hyper-visibility.”

Als has said that chose the title White Girls partially as a response to Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; the books are marked by race from the beginning. Als also has said that he chose the title because black models in fashion shows were always called “the black girls” while the white models were just models. White Girls names and foregrounds the ubiquitous and invisible. It also acknowledges the centrality of that figure in the public imagination, as the star of a film and the object of the consuming gaze: “…why is it that when he tells a movie story, or any kind of story at all, he tells it from the point of view of the eye and heart that is following the white girl in the tale?” White Girls (and other categories) are mirrors. Als records himself feeling envious of white girls in one moment, and hating the way they make him feel about himself, with his “not-Liz Taylor skin and crinkly pubes,” in the next, an example which brilliantly demonstrates the complex topography of categories of race, gender, and sexuality.

Als tries to carve out a place in the language for his own “I,” by finding himself a twin in SL, (“Sir or Lady”). Their private dialect references art, ideas, culture: “Ooogga booga. Wittgenstein. Mumbo jumbo oogga booga, too, Freud, Djuna Barnes, a hatchi! Mumbo lachiniki jumbo Ishmael Reed and Audrey Hepburn.” And isn’t this what the language of that boy in Peet’s outfit was? A reference to the uniform of the Homeboy, with a twist. This how we all talk: with cultural referents as points of navigation. Real Housewives, Starbucks, soccer moms, bleeding heart liberals, generation x-ers, etc.

As a black man, Als inherits one set of stories and expectations; as a gay man, another, some of which are mutually exclusive. Some might say, for instance, that a black man who is artistic, flamboyant, who watches old movies, who follows fashion, isn’t a black man at all. His multiple identities exist in opposition, rendering him an enigma, or worse, invisible.

The precariousness of Al’s own relationship to blackness allows him to recognize the way in which the desire to belong, to perform a particular identity, can become a cage. When Als writes about Richard Pryor, he describes a man whose portrait of blackness became a subject position. In “You and Whose Army?” the unnamed narrator (“Richard Pryor’s sister”) criticizes Pryor for always “performing some version of ‘blackness’” and “helping to formulate the audience’s expectations whenever they see a black face onscreen, or on a book jacket.”

Als’s work tells me that there is a power in being conflicted, there’s a power in teetering on that ragged edge between insider and outsider, in never being completely comfortable on either side of the line. Als reminds us that, white or black or other, identities are situational and complicated and always, always part of some restless, human sense of yearning for intimacy, for love, for understanding. “Standing above me and around me I see how we are all the same, that none of us are white women or black men; rather, we’re a series of mouths, and that every mouth needs filling: with something wet or dry, like love, or unfamiliar and savory, like love.” We are the same, yes, always looking for something to fill us, to feed us, to make us whole, and that process, like hunger, is constant, ongoing. And like appetites, it is always changing.

4.
My friend reads this essay and says, “This isn’t about race. This is about your own insecurity.” I am so hurt by this I want to punch him. Of course it’s about race. I never got to have an identity without the consciousness of race.

My friend says, “Every time I open my mouth in America, it’s assumed that I fuck my sister and have toothless, illiterate relatives.”

I hear: I’m not allowed to talk about my silences, my shame, my wounds, my repudiations. But race is about all of us. We are all implicated by that story-telling gaze, that story-telling impulse, the compulsion to look at one another and say, I want to be like that person, and definitely not like that other person. Race is an inescapable part of the way we see, the way we feel, the way we read, the way we interpret. To deny that is to deny that we are all hurt by it. To deny that is to stop the conversation before it starts.

5.
I was quite young when I began understanding the ching chong jokes. When I knew why people stared at us as we refueled in rural towns in South Carolina, on our way to Florida for vacation. I was quite young when I understood that a compliment on my “big eyes” was also a comment about the speaker’s own single-eyelids. As a child I thought of myself as a fake American, yet I was not Chinese either. No one would let me be Chinese even if I wanted to embrace that part of my identity. Not my parents, not my relatives, nor any random bystander, except the random icky white men who made remarks about the girl from Indochine. (I’ve seen the movie, and I look nothing like her.) In college, I went to one of the Asian-American group meetings and people looked me up and down and suggested I join the HAPAs. I was not even Asian enough to be Asian-American. I may not always be visibly Chinese, but that Chineseness is at stake for me even when it’s not at stake for anyone else.

As a child, Cantonese was a language of secrets. It was the language my parents spoke to each other when they were fighting or when they wanted to discuss my misdeeds.

My parents raised me in English, even though theirs was imperfect and limited. My mother came to this country when she was eleven, my dad at eighteen. There were always words they mispronounced. I learned much of my vocabulary through reading, which means that I also mispronounced sometimes, which I found humiliating.

My parents turned their gazes away from Asia and didn’t look back. I could not speak to my paternal grandmother, who spoke a dialect that even my mother didn’t understand. I knew little about China except that, in my mother’s words, it was dirty, corrupt, and dangerous. She used to describe waking up to the sound of cockroaches scurrying in Hong Kong. She was born on top of boxes of ammunition as her mother escaped on a train from the Japanese in 1944. She talked about China like she was trying to sell me America. But because she couldn’t speak for America she spoke for China instead, and the picture she painted was uniformly bad.

Although my parents were successful professionally, their silent dismissal of their own mother tongue and their pasts in China led me to associate that language and that place with dirt, corruption, and a sense of inferiority. I watched those around me and imitated the best I could. Small mistakes were devastating because I felt they exposed some essential unworthiness, some fundamental inferiority that I had inherited and could never pull myself out of or overcome; I could only hope to cover it up.

In college, Judith Butler’s theory of performance, Donna Haraway’s image of the cyborg, and a wider postmodern embrace of hyphenated identities, enabled me to embrace my life as neither-this-nor-that. Everybody, I began to see, was full of partial selves, performing one identity or another. Being able to recognize how we are all chameleons was empowering. I told myself that masculine or feminine, Chinese or American, heterosexual or homosexual, techie or fuzzy — these were just guideposts in identity play, that none of us needed to navigate in any fixed relationship to them.

The problem was that I unthinkingly steered away from those points associated with Chinese-ness, because of my fear of those silences in my life, and because of the shame I could not quite confront or eradicate.

6.
I married into Asia. I didn’t choose my husband because he is Asian, but I’m sure part of what attracted me to him (besides his nice ass) was the fact that he’s such a confident FOB. He came to America when he was eighteen, the kind of person for whom everything comes effortlessly (top of the class, good athlete) and who doesn’t seem to worry about how others might see him. He doesn’t have that chip on his shoulder that so many Asian-Americans have. And because he is Korean, not Chinese, it was easy to give myself permission to learn his language and culture and not be constantly looking over my mental shoulder. Getting to know my husband’s culture and language was safer; not being Korean I felt free to stumble and fail and claim impunity. I needed to take the step of learning Korea and Korean before feeling confident enough to take on China and Chinese.

I went to Asia for so many reasons, but the driving one was to confront those great silences in my life, the ones that had to do with the Asian part of my identity, which I never felt I could own. Early in our marriage, my husband and I would go for dim sum in Ann Arbor and see little girls tell their aunties, “You’re so stupid. You can’t even talk.” I didn’t want my kids to grow up this way, never knowing their grandparents as fully fleshed out, social beings, who have a fuller wisdom that comes from being a participating member of society, from being in a place long enough that they know, with a sense of intimacy, the lay of the land and the people in it. I wanted my kids to have a limb in each culture, to be culturally nimble. I didn’t want my kids to grow up with an unspecific fear of all things Asian. I wanted to fill silences with stories.

So we went to Korea. To my husband’s national and cultural home. Not China.

In the first few years of my first residence in Seoul (2003-2008), I walked around acutely aware of my difference, feeling marked and watched and judged at every turn. My Foreign identity was at stake in everything I did. THEY were all watching me, using my actions to judge and understand Americans. It was irking to me and yet also blissfully clear: in Korea, my difference was precise and namable. I was trying to fit in, and probably making a lot of mistakes, but this was only a version of what I had already done in America. I could be open about it in Seoul, and people would compliment me on my effort and my ability.

The way I dressed shifted first. In those early years there was more of a uniform, very black and white, red lipstick, and more formal: suits and trousers. I stopped wearing jeans and tee-shirts; I began ironing things, having trousers taken in to the right length, putting on makeup. People began to take me for Korean from behind, but once they’d see my face they would laugh with embarrassment.

As my language ability improved, the attention shifted to the nuances of gesture and facial expression. I reined in my wild hands and my facial contortions.

Meanwhile, Korea changed. More and more people, especially in my neighborhood, were spending time abroad or sending their kids to live there. More and more people were getting plastic surgery, widening the range of “normal” looks. Fashion trends diversified; no longer did all the women seem to wear the same uniform. Korea as a whole became more nationalistic, more interested in itself, and less (though still) self-conscious about trying to catch up, culturally and economically, with other countries like the U.S. or Japan.

Over time I found myself dressing in a way that was difficult to locate — not like an American, exactly (you can spot the Americans a mile away) but neither like a typical Korean. I dress more formally than I do in the U.S. but with more of an androgynous style, not the feminine, romantic style that’s fashionable in Seoul right now. I am casual, but not American-sloppy-shlumpy. I keep my face neutral but I retain my fast walk. I became fluent enough that my speech didn’t mark me as a foreigner. I found that once I better understood the ways Koreans looked at one other, I could anticipate some of what they might see in me, and play with those expectations. I tuning the dials, being purposefully difficult to pinpoint. I look Asian enough that people were no longer sure if I was Korean or not, especially after hearing me talk.

But I also lived in a neighborhood, and Seoul is particularly neighborhoody. I felt comfortable because I had lived there for so long and people knew me. My comfort there bled into my life even in the rest of the city.

In Seoul, I can do what that boy in Peets did: that is, acknowledge the expectation of foreignness while deconstructing it. I can play with that sense of being visible and invisible, of being simultaneously insider and outsider.

After five years in Seoul, I spent two and a half years in Shanghai. By the time I got to China, I no longer felt such a sense of anxiety about my ancestral home. It was just another place, another opportunity to learn. My identity of tentative Chinese-American had been replaced by that of guerrilla anthropologist. For the first time in my life I felt a sense of control over the way I was seen and the way I presented myself and I found it enormously powerful. And I began to identify, not as Chinese-American nor as a Foreigner, but as a chameleon, a traveler, an adventurer. I had learned to delight in the sense of being between worlds. With teetering on the ragged edge between insider and outsider.

After China we went spent another three years in Seoul. One day while waiting for the subway, I saw a young American man studying the line map with confusion. I walked over and asked him if he needed any help. He turned and looked at me with surprise. “Your English is perfect!” I laughed and congratulated myself for becoming a chameleon.

It hadn’t occurred to me then how much his interpretation of me had to do with larger context, with his panic at being surrounded by strangers, or the fact that the default in that subway station was Yellow. It wasn’t just because I am an excellent mimic.

Nor did it occur to me, that day in T-Mobile, how much that woman’s whitening of me had to do with the fact that she was behind the counter and I was the customer, the Money. Our interpretation of race is woven into other assessments: of context, emotion, status, power.

7.
7 pm. Back to School Night at the local Palo Alto middle school. I know the usual fashion tropes for these things: capri pants and sandals, perhaps a button-down shirt from Ann Taylor or Chico’s, that kind of middle-America casual style. A floral skirt and beaded bag for the hippie-inclined. Artistic types will wear funky glasses, short hair, and prominent, geometric jewelry. For the dads, there’s the Dad Casual look: khakis and a polo shirt. Or the look that says, “I’m a Guy”: shorts and a tee shirt. Some will come in suits. Some will come in engineer-wear: jeans and a tee shirt with a dot-com logo and light North Face jacket. Some of the large groups of Indian and Chinese parents will dress this way, and some will come more formally attired, in dresses and ironed slacks. I try to pick an outfit that hits none of these notes. Slacks, classic in navy blue, with visible, shiny side-zippers which make them subtly fashion-forward. A white button down shirt with tuxedo paneling in the front, another update on a classic. Everything I’m wearing I bought abroad, a way of marking myself among the Gap and Chicco set. I am not a member of the Professorville group, nor the aging Bay Area hippies, nor the tech nerd crowd, nor a recent immigrant, nor old White Palo Alto, nor a member of the more working class, mostly Hispanic families.

I’m at the elementary school all the time, meeting parents and teachers and kids face to face, helping my second child assimilate, making him play dates. But parents don’t have the same visibility at middle school, they are not able to perform the same greasing of the social wheels, so as I take my seat at Back to School Night I am hoping to make some connections with the other parents. But their eyes slide right over me. They seem to hone in on others similarly dressed, as if in some “my values are your values!” subconscious matching process. There are high-fives, there is loud laughter, reminiscing about soccer leagues and country clubs, and I sit silently, remembering what middle school is like. Middle school is like this. Years of invisibility, during a time of life when visibility is everything.

If there’s anything I learned from living abroad, it’s that when you get to a new place you have to put yourself out there. Find a community. So I tiger-mom my oldest son into doing football (a sport he’s never even seen) and volunteer to be Team Mom. I figure I can meet other parents and also spy on my son, who claims he doesn’t know how to talk to white people and won’t tell the names of any of the people with whom he eats lunch. (“I dunno. I just call them all ‘dude.’”)

At the games the parents gather in small groups. The African-American nanny by herself. One set of parents, whose hats, exposed butt cracks, and clothes suggest a different social class, sit separately. The WASP-y business-casual dads stand in a cluster of khaki pants. The moms with Lulumon pants and firm asses stand together. As Team Mom I feel I have permission to speak to them all, and they are all perfectly nice, and, I think, eager to speak with one another. But something holds them back — is it fear? lack of a common social language? or the lack of a common social habit?

I’ve been back in the U.S. for six months and I still can’t stop looking at the sky. So Hollywood blue, usually cloudless, surreal. I have almost forgotten the sound of rain. People walk around in their yoga pants, love handles on display, hair uncombed, tee shirts stained and ripped. Take me as I am, they seem to say, looking at one another in the street, in the cafe. You gotta problem with the way I look? With my weight, with my color, with my job? This is America, man, it’s a free country. You don’t get to judge me.

There is something self-congratulatory in the air, something boastfully modest, as people meet in cafes in their business casual attire, talking in loud voices about the next killer app or this or that VC funding. This is Silicon Valley, this is Stanford, this is the best country in the world, the best state in the country, and we live here. We believe in individuality, in equality, and that anyone can be anything. So why do we talk so loud? Why is there so much fear in our eyes? Why do we look around, to see who is watching? Behind cocky laughter we are looking out of the corners of our eyes, aware more than any other generation, maybe, that everything we wear and eat and enjoy is made from the blood and sweat of the global underclass, that with every step on the gas pedal we abuse the Earth. We are the Lucky People, and it’s all downhill from here.

I am lost. I spent eleven years in Asia to confront all those silences and that unspoken shame in my life. I thought I was done. Whole. Healed. Why is it so difficult to be back?

My son asks, “How can I be Asian and not look at all Asian?” I tell him, jokingly, “Welcome to my world.” His friends keep asking him, he insists. I tell him what I usually say, about how not all Asians look the same, that we are diverse and that the demographics of movement in Asia is complicated and therefore, so are the genetics.

He looks at me blankly. I tell him to say he’s been bitten by a radioactive spider.

I used to spend hours watching people in the streets and buses and subways in Seoul and Shanghai. Here, I go to cafes. The man sitting next to me at Starbucks is old and white, with thinning, gray, greasy hair. His canvas shoes are frayed, torn, and faded, as are his pants and button-down shirt. He looks eroded, like a stone left on the beach, and I think he must be homeless. But he carries a tall drink and a black laptop, which he uses to read the news and type emails. I find this happening in cafes and sidewalks all over town: I can’t tell whether someone is destitute or just a sloppy dresser. After living in places where the battles for status-recognition are so open, such an accepted part of life, it is strange to be Stateside, surrounded by shlumpily-dressed folks who might be dot com millionaires or homeless people. The more successful you are here, the more you struggle to disguise it.

Korea and China are full of restless hunger, in the throes of development, not just economically or socially but also psychologically. It is ok, in Asia, to be focused on money, to push your kids to have a better life, to thirst for a better house and better car — more so than it is in America – the competition for status, and the status-comparing, is done out in the open. I’m back in Seoul for a visit, and my mother-in-law scolds my father-in-law for trying to go to his doctor’s appointment in casual pants. “You’re meeting the doctor,” she says. “You need to dress for that!” He wears suit pants, a polo shirt, a sports jacket, and a beret. Aspiring to upward mobility requires putting all your cards on the table, acting the part.

Seoul’s signs declare, “The cultured citizen obeys the rules for taking a train,” “The road that one person cleaned is the road that ten people enjoy,” “The one light bulb I save fattens our country.” It’s a landscape of signage that expresses a restless hunger and a belief in progress. It’s impossible, dodging scooters in the sidewalk, bumping people in the subway, listening to the bells of trash collectors, watching security guards engineer sixty cars into a parking lot built when almost no one owned a car, to ignore that every day, things are changing. For many, it’s a feeling of being in the midst of incredible improvement. My husband’s childhood fantasy was to eat more than one banana. But for many people, these messages cultivate desperation and despair. You can’t opt out of the arms race in education, in money, in clothes. You cannot stand still in a place like Seoul. You can’t retreat. The signs place its audience within a narrative of progress and a sense of monolithic collectivity, for better or for worse.

I drive up and down El Camino Real, making trips to Costco, dropping kids at various athletic fields. A new Hilton is being constructed; what was here before? Patio World used to mark the turnoff to our old apartment; now it’s Barbecues Galore. Changes are slow, a replacement of one brand for another.

When I talk to the grocery store clerk, or the school janitor, or the woman selling tickets to some tourist attraction, like the woman from T-Mobile, they have that haughty, defensive, annoyed air. As if to say, I can disdain this dead end job even more than you can, or even before you get the chance. And to make up for the indignity of asking this person to do work in a job that garners little respect, I find myself doing what so many people around me do: speak to them with overly bright, effusive, compensatory gratitude. “Thank you soooo much! I really appreciate it.”

We believe in individuality. We believe that each person is special, that we each must be true to our selves. That makes it hard to assume the role of a customer service agent, or janitor, or house cleaner; the lines between identity and role are unclear. We believe in equality but not everyone has the same job or the same amount of money or the same lot in life. And we, as a nation, seem to be profoundly uncomfortable with that.

I stop at Safeway to use the bathroom. Someone in the stall pants, the weight of her body palpable from the sound of her pained movement. We avoid each other’s eyes as she exits, but I feel a cloud of anger around her. I think that she’s daring me to look. To judge. To condescend. 
 So many bodies in pain. So many fraught moments in this American Life. Were they always this way? Was I just better at pretending they didn’t exist?

I grew up with “Mississippi Burning,” and “Pretty in Pink.” “Mississippi Burning” gave me a taste for burning, righteous anger. Teenagers are black and white like that; teenagers have that desire to burn, to move the world. America, I thought, is the place where we fight the good fight. But where did I fit in, me neither black nor white, nor even really Asian?

“Pretty in Pink” (and its John Hughes-shaped cousins) were written along an insider/outsider dynamic: the upward movement of loser to popular kid, from ghetto to success, from small town to financial power. That dream of upward movement was a dream of individual escape from group dynamics, about overcoming origins. In America, we believe that anybody can become anything. But in that process of becoming, you have to leave your group identities behind and become something unique. Something uncategorizeable. You have to transcend.

“This essay is not about race,” my friend says again. “Appalachians and Italians,” he jokes. “The only people in America you can make fun of television and get away with it.” I hear this kind of declaration a lot from people who feel discarded or marginalized but don’t have the historical luxury to complain about it — conservatives, religious fundamentalists, rural Americans.

I walk through the streets, watch people in cafes, attend school meetings, and people’s smiles seem fragile. They look like I feel: lost, expecting to be put down, put in a box, dismissed. In the absence of psychic violence, I am unsure of my own edges in this place I once called home, but now feels less than comforting. It is easier to be angry. Anger is clean, anger clarifies. I cleave to the anger, to the sense of righteous indignation when it comes. But most of the time, it does not. Most of the time, I’m just waiting. I’m no longer sure what I want to be: a chameleon, a guerrilla anthropologist, a spy? Because I also want to be: Special with a Capital S. Unique. Me. As Rankine says, “In interactions with others you’re constantly waiting to see that they recognize that you’re a human being. That they can feel your heartbeat and you can feel theirs. And that together you will live—you will live together. The truce is that. You forgive all of these moments because you’re constantly waiting for the moment when you will be seen.”

America, you make me profoundly uncomfortable, and exhausted. America of reality TV and booty is the new black, Americans with their endless cries for attention, for recognition. As I move through the shopping malls and cafes and restaurants and school meetings I hear: I am me, I am special, look at me; and yet there is a fear behind that, the fear of being vain, of being haughty, of being uppity. We want it bestowed on us, the world to recognize it, while we bow our heads in modest affectation. (Except for Kanye West, maybe.) That is the battle of America: a battle for mediocrity. The promise of equality means that you cannot overstep your bounds. Do not sit here, do not presume. And yet we presume all the time, we wait in shadows for someone to overstep, so we can have that thrill of being able to say, you were wrong, I was right. This is a passive aggressive country, a place where you gain status points by waiting for someone else to make a mistake. Where we delight in the overthrow of the monarchies of popularity, and root for the underdog: that is democracy. That is the pleasure of this place, and its curse: you have to work for your labels, all the time. Nothing is irrevocable. Nothing is permanent.

Maybe you’re right, it’s not about race, I want to say to my friend. It’s about pain. It’s about the pain which blankets this place, under the blue sky, under the business casual. It’s about the discomfort I feel here, my Differences no longer so clear, now thrown back into the teenager self I was once, longing to have that clean sense of righteous anger, unable to express why I am so upset in this moment or the next, walking through a landscape in which relationships are full of smiles and tentative glances, where we are all afraid to offend and glad to be offended because it offers a temporary name and outlet for all those wounds.

It isn’t just about race. You cannot unname the race part of This American Life; you can’t erase those wounds. But they aren’t the only ones that exist, and it’s not only those who are clearly marked who have those wounds.

08/22/18

About Petitions

If somebody you know, are friendly with, or consider a close ally is accused of e.g. sexual harassment, plagiarism, or other scurrilous crimes, here are some things not to do if you’re invited to sign a petition in his/her defense.

— Don’t announce to the world that you know all the facts and evidence. You probably don’t, unless you are the accused or the plaintiff (and even then…).

— Don’t couch your petition in the mode “X is so brilliant and distinguished that s/he deserves special treatment unlike that meted out to ordinary mortals.” That won’t play well when the letter’s leaked.

— Even if you would probably say, on the street or in a bar, “I can’t believe X would do a thing like that!” do not write a letter in which you claim publicly that “The brilliant and distinguished X, whom I know extremely well, is incapable of such actions and therefore the accusations must be dismissed.”

— It would also be to your and the accused’s advantage not to try the tribalism move, i.e., “An attack on X is an attack on all who belong to our set (or: intellectual distinction in our age, all that is good and holy, etc.).” What if X turns out to be guilty? Then you’ve handed your entire tribe over to the hostiles (who may have no stake in the present accusation but will surely be glad for a chance to dunk their rivals in hot water).

— Above all, don’t attempt to blame the (professed) victim for causing the mess. It looks bad and may make you a co-conspirator in retaliation, should things come to that.

You may, I think, say how much you admire the person’s work, how vital his or her teaching is to an academic program, how deep your trust in him or her runs, how many times he or she has helped you with a problem– in other words, you can step up as a character witness. Not as a witness of fact unless you’ve observed facts. And don’t confuse character (ethos) with acts (praxis) unless you have a really ambitious theory of how the two intertwine. It’s easy to be taken the wrong way. A rule of thumb: if you would be outraged to read a letter if only it had been written in defense of a Republican, don’t sign it.

02/2/17

Même Pas le début d’un débat

Chers amis de Berkeley, si vous êtes d’accord pour dire que le “Muslim ban” fait le lit de Daesh en formalisant une gué-guerre entre les États-Unis et l’islam, pourquoi avez-vous choisi d’exclure de votre campus un petit néo-facho du nom de Milou Ygrec? Cela fait aussi bien le lit de Fox News et du dictateur-en-herbe, qui aiment tant à se poser en victimes et qui auront maintenant le prétexte de vous peindre en ennemis du droit à l’expression, vous le savez?

Vous vous êtes peut-être dit qu’il ne fallait pas donner une plate-forme à ce personnage de la droite raciste. Eh bien, voilà qu’en résiliant l’invitation à son égard, vous l’avez comblé de publicité gratuite. Ces gens-là ne demandaient pas mieux.

Il aurait été plus astucieux de le laisser venir, puis de le descendre (intellectuellement, dis-je, non physiquement) par quelqu’un de sensé. Imposer comme condition préalable qu’il soit confronté à une opinion contraire, l’obliger à répondre aux questions du public. (Et lui faire payer les dépenses de la sécurité, car une bonne et grande manifestation pour protester aurait été de mise.) Je ne crois pas qu’il s’en serait tiré facilement, car vous êtes des penseurs, n’est-ce pas, vous avez sous la main les faits et les chiffres pour démontrer que l’idéologie de la droite facho repose sur des balivernes, ou je me trompe? L’université est faite pour ça. Si Ygrec pensait faire un meeting de campagne, vous n’aviez qu’à lui montrer que la parole à l’université est toujours soumise à la réponse et à la vérification. Lui interdire la parole, c’est une manière de dire que vous avez peur de lui, et ça, je ne veux pas le croire.

Et pensons stratégie. Taper sur Berkeley est terriblement populaire dans ce pays. C’est ainsi que Reagan a gagné sa réputation nationale en 1968. En promouvant l’auto-victimisation d’un réac à la petite semaine, vous avec peut-être gagné une de ces batailles qui font perdre les guerres– ou qui, au moins, vous enlisent dans une lutte prolongée qui n’était pas nécessaire sur le “politiquement correct,” écran de fumée qui profite exclusivement aux fascistes.

Une lutte sur les faits, d’accord. Une lutte sur l’opportunité de confronter les faits et les mensonges, non. Il est toujours opportun de tenir ce débat.

*

(Bien sûr, il y a une ligne à ne pas laisser franchir. L’incitation à la violence ne doit pas être, à mon sens, permise, car elle s’érige contre le droit de parole des autres. Il faudrait prévenir tout conférencier qu’au moment de proférer des paroles qui ne respectent pas les droits fondamentaux des autres, son micro sera coupé et l’événement sera terminé. Mais prétendre que tel personnage, en considération de ses opinions, incarne un danger aux autres et que sa parole est d’elle-même la violence en acte, cela revient, je crois, à donner trop d’importance, trop de pouvoir, à ces dictateurs de carton, et c’est encore réaliser leurs ambitions. N’alimentons pas les trolls!)

04/1/16

Longer Views

There is (this will be no news to anyone who’s been awake for the last forty years) a debate about whether state-provided social services are too expensive to be continued, whether they’re actually beneficial to their recipients or reduce them to the status of helpless dependents, whether they’re more or less efficient than some hypothetical market mechanism– in sum, whether they should exist at all. At least as presented in the relatively highbrow newspapers and magazines that cross my threshold, the matter of cost is always framed in relation to current expenditures: health and education as a fraction of GDP, or as compared to defense, etc.

That way of framing the math, however, renders invisible many dimensions of benefit and cost that become perceptible only when we look at matters in a longer view (say over a lifetime) and dice more finely the categories of payers and recipients. It turns out that for the overwhelming majority of British rate-payers, and by overwhelming I mean 93%, the amount paid in over a lifetime exceeds the amount received in benefits. So you can forget about the welfare queens, the “culture of dependency,” and all that stuff. Who knew, you may ask, that the public was always stepping up to the plate and giving a little more than necessary to help the less fortunate?

In another way, social services such as education, healthcare, and unemployment insurance act as a collective savings account to get people through the hard times. The number of people who will at one point or another need to call on these collective savings is large. Only a few people never experience need over their lifetimes. The few lucky standouts shouldn’t begrudge the majority whom social investments kept from going broke at one point or another: if the unlucky folks really had to eat garbage or steal on a regular basis in order to survive, surely the lucky ones would be sleeping less well at night. And need is not a lifetime thing; it happens in moments or cycles and, once again, the impact can be cushioned by the whole society’s willingness to think and pay ahead.

Admittedly, these results are from Great Britain, where some 70 years of Labour-inflected policy have created a long enough statistical run to give useful data. But surely in the US, even without a National Health Service and despite our patchwork of state governments, some more provident than others, the numbers exist to show what entitlements really do and don’t do, under a variety of conditions, over a lifetime. I’d be glad to read a factual comparative study. In the meantime, here’s the report on lifetime outcomes from the Nuffield Foundation’s Institute for Fiscal Studies:

 

10/18/14

Rosy-Fingered Barbara

One morning a few years ago, I was riding to the office after dropping off the kids at school. Slightly ahead of me, somebody opened the door of a parked car without looking back. I swerved, so the door didn’t hit me, but the kid trailer tangled with the edge of the door and left a scratch on it. Nobody was hurt. I stopped to size up the situation. It was obviously the driver’s fault– you’re supposed to look in the mirror before you open a door on a public street– but she wanted very much to put the matter on another footing. “You bicyclists!” she started out. “You guys just run all the stop signs and act like you own the streets. You must think having a fancy bicycle gives you the right to break the law! And I’m sick and tired of it! And now here you come along scratching my car! You’re going to pay for the damage!”

I tried to point out the irrelevance of these remarks and to get the discussion back to its main point, as I saw it, which was that we’d been lucky nobody got hurt and I hoped she would look in the mirror next time, and too bad about the scratch but it wasn’t something I was responsible for.

Eventually we exhausted our stock of pleasantries and I got back on the road. But the exchange reminded me quite specifically of something I usually try to avoid, but can’t entirely ignore. Namely, public discussion in the era of the comments page.

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02/15/14

From Folk to Folk

…When and how did ‘oral literature’ become an object of discourse? To that question I have an answer—the curious history I promised you.

Presumably oral literature itself goes back as far as language. Oral literature becomes something that people write about at moments when their written culture bumps up against a non-written culture that for some reason impresses or frustrates it. You wouldn’t find a lot of attention given, in ancient Greek and Roman texts, to the fact that the villagers of Boeotia don’t spend their evenings curled up with a good book. The illiteracy of the peasantry is absolutely taken for granted. The relative literacy of urban dwellers in the ancient world does get some attention—usually when someone has a complaint about it. The following text from Julius Caesar’s narration of the Gallic Wars is exceptional and I will linger over it for a while:

The lore [disciplina] of the Druids is thought to have been transmitted to Gaul from Britain, where it originated. Those who most eagerly wish to acquire it go there for the sake of study…. There, they are said to learn by heart a great number of verses, and not a few of them spend up to twenty years in study. Nor is it considered in keeping with divine law to commit these verses to writing, though [the Gauls] use Greek letters for almost all other kinds of public or private business. It seems to me that this rule was established for two reasons: one, that they did not wish this lore to be acquired by the common people, and two, that they did not wish the learners to rely on letters and therefore apply themselves less strenuously to memorization, as generally happens to those who, through the help of writing, lose their facility of learning and their memory.

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05/13/13

Repurposing “Yujing”

If you pay attention to all the publications of contemporary Chinese cinema and media from the People’s Republic of China in the last ten years or so, or if you have the experience of advising graduate students who studied in mainland China, you may notice a buzzword: yujing (语境; linguistic context). The term yujing is actually composed of two words, yu (语; language) and jing (境; terrain or border). The word jing also carries a quasi-religious connotation of the term jingjie (境界; level of self-cultivation). Hence, when I first heard of the term yujing, I was struck by a certain aura around it, as though it were some state of being that one can achieve only through hours of yoga and daily exercises of Tai chi.

But then, if you were familiar with how the term yujing has been used in media researches, you would find the term incredibly dull and earthly. In all honesty, the term is often employed quite unimaginatively. For example, when some says “Hou xiandai wenhua yujing nei de Zhongguo dianying” (后现代文化语境内的中国电影; Chinese cinema in the postmodern yujing), the term yujing can be roughly understood as the linguistic (cultural, social, political, or literally, linguistic) environment or context within which postmodern Chinese cinema has been produced. The effect of hearing the term yujing is therefore not quite different from our hearing a term such as “discourse.” Very much like the case with discourse, after having read the term yujing in over several hundred book and article titles, you begin to feel indifferent towards what the term can potentially do.

So what is yujing? None of the books that use this term would give me an answer. Likewise, none of my advisees could tell me exactly what they mean by inserting this term conveniently in their sentences––albeit very convincingly. If the term yujing were to be understood interchangeably with the term discourse, it falls short of questioning the dispositif that is crucial in making the term discourse not only a descriptive one, but also a critical one.

Therefore, one day, I decided to ask H. Saussy.

Thanks to him, I now realize that the term “linguistic context” came from the anthropological studies of Bronisław Malinowski of the Kula ring—an institution of trading and gift-exchanges in the French-colonial Trobriand (now the Kiriwina) islands––when he, being a subject of Polish descent, was stranded during the First World War (1914-1918) as an “enemy.” The term “linguistic context” was initially conceived when Malinowski was asked to write his seminal article “Kula; the Circulating Exchange of Valuables in the Archipelagoes of Eastern New Guinea” by the editors of the magazine Man in 1920 (not the gay pornographic magazine under the same name). The question at stake was: How could Malinowski, as a European man, communicate with the “natives” when no linguistic commonality could be found among them? Malinowski’s answer is: via linguistic context. On the surface, the idea of the linguistic context can be interpreted simply as the syntactical context that precedes and succeeds an utterance (often translated into Chinese as shangxia wen). It can also be extended to the use of facial and bodily gestures that help the addressee understand what she or he has failed to comprehend verbally.

In this sense, the term yujing is not as empty-headed as I almost thought it would be. In fact, I believe that we should treat it quite seriously as a different way of thinking about what we mean by a discourse, especially in media studies.

Notice that yujing presupposes a semantic gap or absence that a human or technological medium can help contextualize. In the Chinese context, this could be an interesting form of intervention. The Chinese term of “media” are meti (媒体) or meijie (媒介). The word meiti was most likely borrowed from the Japanese term baitai, which—at least in Chinese—places the emphasis on a ti (tai; body) that conveys something or negotiates the relationship between two beings, objects or events. The word meijie can be traced back to the “Zhang Xingcheng zhuan” (“Biography of Zhang Xingcheng [587-653]”) in the Jiu Tang shu (Old Books of Tang, Liu Xu, 941-945). It literally means “through the intervention of a go-between.” The term puts the emphasis on the act of intervention, which produces a synergy that would otherwise be missing if two persons or objects were to act alone. The term yujing therefore indicates either a go-between body that sutures discrete linguistic modes or understandings by conveying certain meanings or values between two agents of communication, or a synergy that sparkles between two bodies as a go-between intervenes into a conversation.

Not only that, Malinowski considers the process of mediation as a process of gift-exchanges. For Malinowski, in this process of gift-exchanges, what being transacted are neither “utilities” nor “ornaments”; rather, they are “valuables” that carry no “surreptitious” value other than a certain reconfirmation of a bond between members of a community who are of the same social status. It also has the effect of distinguishing the inside and outside of a community by negotiating the boundary between those who can partake of the process of gift-exchanges and those who are excluded from it (99-100).

A very interesting part of the Kula trade is that the vaygu’a (valuables) are indeed traded for the purpose of stimulating “a desire for wealth, for ownership.” Yet, for Malinowski, the “conception of value and the form of ownership … are different from those current among us.” Malinowski observed that many of these vaygu’a are traded not for the purpose of accumulating them as “capital”; rather, they often circulate the trading ring as tokens for expressing the communal needs, sexual desires, friendship and social recognition (103-105). In other words, the term yujing in fact refers to an economy of social exchanges that are conducted for the purpose of maintaining a certain circulation of desire.

When media scholars use the word yujing to talk about a mediascape, what they have in mind is probably a geopolitical or cultural territory that is being mediated by the various mechanical and electronic media. But what the term implies—perhaps subconsciously—is a set of hierarchical limitations or socio-legal prescriptions that intervene our media space. For example, what our social media (e.g. Facebook, Youtube, Tudou and Weibo) do today is not necessarily open up a fully democratized and free-for-all process of mediation. Rather, they reinforce a process of gift-exchanges or information-exchanges that would consolidate our individual and collective social spaces and in-group affiliations. It also maintains certain distances between media communities that are separated physically by means of their verbal languages, cultural values and political conditions—and more importantly, the semantic gap that is often presumed to be unbridgeable or un-mediable in verbal understanding

Hence, in some ways, this idea can be seen both positively and negatively. On the positive side, the term yujing communicates a hope that contemporary media, through both verbal and non-verbal interventions, can somehow circumvent the linguistic differences between various geopolitical communities and achieve a certain form of mutual understanding. On the negative side, it simply indicates that these differences need to be acknowledged––and to some extent, maintained––in order to corroborate our existing international order and hierarchy of political power. In fact, mutual understanding, in this “negative” interpretation, can be understood as a social consensus that is achieved through the intervention of the state or corporate power.

So, next time when we use the term yujing, it would be interesting to explore further what implications such term might have on the way we understand how our private opinions, sensations, affects and emotions are in fact mediated—or in some cases, failed to be mediated. And more important, out of the very semantic gap between the term yujing and discourse, we may be able to come up with a different kind of critical intervention––a new linguistic context or terrain that can open up new potentialities.

For your interests:

Malinowski,Bronisław. “Kula; the Circulating Exchange of Valuables in the Archipelagoes of Eastern New Guinea.” In Man, vol. 20 (1920): 97-105.

03/6/13

Debatable Propositions in a Book I Otherwise Thought Important

If Bildung comprises a reactionary alternative to revolution, it shares this pacific spirit with modern human rights law. The French declaration of rights similarly articulated, after the event, how the revolution could have been avoided, and how future revolutions might be avoided through the reproductive mechanics of popular sovereignty. Although they emerged from the context of revolution, both human rights law and the Bildungsroman are reformist, rather than revolutionary… both human rights law and the Bildungsroman project individualized narratives of self-determination as cultural alternatives to the eruptive political act of mass revolt…

Both human rights and the Bildungsroman are tendentially conservative of prevailing social formations. Plotting novelistic and social evolution as an alternative to civil and political revolution, the idealist Bildungsroman narrates the normative constitution of the modern rights subject…. What emerges from the process is a socially contingent personality imagined to prevent certain antiestablishment collective and collectivizing revolutionary actions.

(Joseph R. Slaughter, Human Rights, Inc., pp. 115, 135, 136)

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02/12/13

When Beautiful Dreams are Bad Dreams


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Working my way through Conor Friedersdorf’s collection of 2012’s best nonfiction, I have come across a piece by Joshua Foer on a man named John Quijada, who has invented a language, Ithkuil, that attempts to fulfill the age-old dream of a perfect language.

At one point Foer describes what happened after Quijada read Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By:

For Quijada, this was a revelation. He imagined that Ithkuil might be able to do what Lakoff and Johnson said natural languages could not: force its speakers to precisely identify what they mean to say. No hemming, no hawing, no hiding true meaning behind jargon and metaphor. By requiring speakers to carefully consider the meaning of their words, he hoped that his analytical language would force many of the subterranean quirks of human cognition to the surface, and free people from the bugs that infect their thinking.

“As time went on, my goal began changing,” he told me. “It was no longer about creating a mishmash of cool linguistic features. I started getting all these ideas to make language work more efficiently. I thought, Why don’t I just create a means of finishing what all natural languages were unable to finish?

The piece is fascinating (though Foer’s prose is only really average, if by “average” you’ll allow me to refer to the general high quality of New Yorker prose). But it does go to show that dreaming big almost always means dreaming crazy. Quijada’s story is wonderful, and Foer includes just enough of the history of invented languages (you can get more, and have more fun, reading Arika Okrent’s book) to give the whole thing context.

Some flavor of both the lovely, bold, joyful craziness of it all and the desperate grasping for control that accompanies it can be gathered from these two paragraphs, which succeed one another immediately and appear three-quarters of the way through the piece:

He opened a closet and pulled out a plastic tub filled with reams of graph paper documenting early versions of the Ithkuil script and twenty-year-old sentence conjugations handwritten in marker on a mishmash of folded notepads. “I worked on this in fits and starts,” he said, looking at the mass of documents. “It was very much dependent on whether I was dating anyone at the time. This isn’t exactly something you discuss on a first or second date.”

Human interactions are governed by a set of implicit codes that can sometimes seem frustratingly opaque, and whose misreading can quickly put you on the outside looking in. Irony, metaphor, ambiguity: these are the ingenious instruments that allow us to mean more than we say. But in Ithkuil ambiguity is quashed in the interest of making all that is implicit explicit. An ironic statement is tagged with the verbal affix ’kçç. Hyperbolic statements are inflected by the letter ’m.