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.

10/13/14

Philosophy Begins in Wonder

The University of Otago’s Department of Philosophy gives the curious visitor a roisterous picture of the life of the mind in Dunedin.

[The first hire in 1871,] Duncan McGregor, a graduate of the University of Aberdeen… was an electrifying lecturer with a well-developed ‘will to truth’ and pungent opinions on a variety of topics. … When it came to social policy, he thought that the ‘hopelessly lazy, the diseased, and [the] vicious’ should be incarcerated for life as a humane alternative to the process of Darwinian selection which would otherwise have weeded them out. McGregor resigned in 1886… and, fortified by his fifteen years as a philosopher, went on to become the Inspector–General of Lunatic Asylums.

[J. N.] Findlay … devoted a Sabbatical to sitting at the feet of Wittgenstein in Cambridge and acting as his official ‘stooge’. (His job was to feed Wittgenstein tough questions when the painfully long silences became too excruciating.) But before he could take up his position as stooge he had to own up to his philosophical sins. Sitting in a Cambridge milk-bar, Findlay had to confess to the frightful crime of having visited Rudolf Carnap in Chicago. Wittgenstein was magnanimous. ‘[He] said that he did not mind except that he would lose his milk-shake if Carnap [were] mentioned again.’

At a conference in Florence, [Alan] Musgrave read a typically forceful paper ‘Conceptual Idealism and Stove’s Gem’ which concluded with the ringing words: ‘Conceptual Idealism is a ludicrous and anti-scientific view of the world. … We should take science seriously, reject the Gem for the invalid argument that it is, and abandon the idealism to which it leads.’ There was a burst of applause followed by dead silence. The chairman, to get things going, asked if there any conceptual idealists present who would like to comment on Professor Musgrave’s paper. ‘Not any more’, came a voice from the back.

Every academic department should write a history in this mode. For the whole (delightful) thing, go to http://www.otago.ac.nz/philosophy/history.html.

For the philologically minded: the department’s Maori name is Te Tari Whakaaroaro. The dictionary tells me that “whakaaroaro” means “reflection or “meditation” but the elements, “whaka” plus “aroaro,” seem to add up to “making present that which is present.” Anyone with better insight into the history and connotations of the term is invited to straighten us out in the comments box.

09/3/14

“Oh yes. English. Am not concerned with royalty though. Or patriotism in any form. Or soccer.”

In memory of Michael Toussaint Stowers (1963-2014)

Olga Solovieva became friends with Michael Toussaint Stowers on January 17, 2011 (FaceBook)

My friendship with Michael Stowers was fully and totally electronically mediated. I saw him at a conference in Cambridge in June of 2008: a somewhat baggy figure of a guy in dark blue jeans and a dark blue T-shirt with longish hair wandering around the lecture hall. He drew my attention because of his typical look of a lefty, alternative intellectual as I have known them only in Berlin. In the corporate American academic establishments that have been suffocating me for years you won’t meet free spirits, but in England you still can. So he drew my attention, nostalgically, reminding me of my European past and the type of people I loved to hang out with. Continue reading

07/28/14

GAZA: Beyond Conversation

I asked a Jewish-American friend to cover the situation in Gaza. This is what she wrote in response explaining why she can’t do it. I found the text fascinating and responsive to the difficulties of a sensitive, ethical and intelligent person trying to talk about the issue– precisely the type of voice much needed in today’s discourse. I asked to publish an excerpt from her email. Here it is, with permission:

“In answer to your question, I have been considering writing on the Gaza question for weeks. But I don’t think I will. There’s a whole part of my past that I have to process, about being raised in a synagogue that was rabidly pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian. The things that were said there would not pass muster thirty-odd years later, and attributing them to their speakers would probably count as defamatory. That’s really my story: the part I can add that is not the past fortnight’s worth of partisan pontification, which I believe is available in copious supply already.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

05/11/13

Berenice’s Hair: A Serial Essay

In the spirit of experimentation with form and with the possibilities of translation, I’ve begun a serial essay on the hair of Queen Berenice II. I’m aiming to post a new episode weekly until it seems time to end my relationship with Berenice (at which point I’ll declare the project Done). You can find the first episode at the Stanford Center for Medieval and Early Modern Studies here.

 

03/17/13

Thermocline

“A thermocline (sometimes metalimnion) is a thin but distinct layer in a large body of fluid (e.g. water, such as an ocean or lake, or air, such as an atmosphere) in which temperature changes more rapidly with depth than it does in the layers above or below. In the ocean, the thermocline may be thought of as an invisible blanket which separates the upper mixed layer from the calm deep water below.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermocline

I like to think of an octopus at night, reaching out when it gets chilly and arm by arm by arm by arm cuddling his invisible blanket around himself.

12/8/12

Goodbye to Aleppo

For Inna, Jörg and Ilonka

 

Clashes are raging in the Syrian city of Aleppo as government troops and rebel forces battle for control. (DemocracyNow! Headlines, July 24, 2012)

Whereas I used to follow the reports on the popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, I have caught myself shunning news from Syria, especially the visual footage from the urban battlefields: Daraa-Damascus-Hama- … When about two years ago the tumult of the Arab Spring broke out in the Middle East, an anxious thought of Syria immediately crossed my mind. I expected Syria to join. Knowing the country’s uneasy political past, I sensed how badly it was likely to turn out. The long-lasting silence from Syria was ambiguous: It could be a sign that Syria was doing better and would be able to solve its long suppressed conflicts by taking a path of reform. Or maybe it was the silence of a population too broken in spirit to mount a protest. Deep down, however, this silence gave me hope that Syria might be spared this time the bloodshed of post-revolutionary Egypt and especially that of the excruciatingly brutal civil war in Libya. When the protests finally started, I did not follow them. Glancing only briefly at the headlines, I inexplicably and for a long time hurried to turn away to something else. I did not want to dwell on my reaction, until suddenly in mid-summer I saw Aleppo in the headlines.

Continue reading

10/29/12

The Late Bookstore

A couple of people have let me know that my piece on the demise of the former UCI Bookstore has readers in the outside world, something I never would have guessed from the comments section here. Their reaction has been, “This is terrible! I never knew about this! How do we get our UCI Bookstore back? Do we protest, boycott, Occupy? You tell us to ‘despair.’ That can’t be right.”

The short answer is that it’s simply too late. There was a period of so-called “public comment” about a year ago which had a small number of takers. I think that the people who commented were, like me, ignored and put off, but that would have been the right time to raise a hue and cry.

At this point, the store has sold off practically all of its extant book inventory — tens of thousands of books. (I think there may still be a few hundred book SKUs (items) in the system that aren’t textbooks.) Some titles were sold to customers at reduced prices, some more recent titles were returned to the publisher at their original cost, and everything else went to a jobber who paid pennies on the dollar. The store has doubtless taken a big loss on those books, but consigning them has meant the store can free up shelf space for more profitable inventory, like plush anteaters.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a Save The Bookstore movement coalesced, and had at the top of its list of demands: “Bring back our books!” From a business perspective, this cannot be done. You cannot liquidate inventory at pennies on the dollar and then bring back the exact same inventory in at the regular wholesale price of 25-40% off list. If I were the Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, I would fire the Bookstore director who did such a thing. The only way out would be if a director could make a compelling case that the store could sell, say, at least three copies of each book every year. That is far in excess of the sales rate of the average trade book at the former Bookstore, which was .75 to 1 copy per year.

If the director were to commit to selling three copies of every title every year, the customers of the store would have to make a commitment to buy them. I could see a sort of Kickstarter-style campaign, where people would agree to reserve $25, $50, or $75 book gift certificates, good for one year and not redeemable for cash, in their names. If the inventory were funded up to or over a certain level, say, $75,000, the donors would be charged, the certificates issued, and the inventory purchased. Without such a setup… we know what that looks like already, where well-intentioned people loved the Bookstore so much, they bought all their books online. When I think about the Bookstore in this respect, I think of Abie Glassman, the Jewish peddler from John D. Fitzgerald’s Great Brain children’s books. Glassman came to stay and sell notions in Fitzgerald’s fictional Mormon community. He cared about his customers, and he was beloved. Nonetheless, he starved to death because nearly everyone went to the official Mormon ZCMI store; it was simply more expedient for them to do so.

The idea of a crowdsourcing campaign gets to the bottom of “how to get our store back.” The argument for the destruction of the Bookstore was economic; any counter-argument, at least in the current reality, will have to be economic as well. A university bookstore is a business. It brings money into the University. When that money dwindles, it means that there is less to support University programs, and, especially when State money keeps getting scarcer, administrators have to fill the gap, period. Anyone who wants to bring the UCI Bookstore back will have to come up with a realistic business plan of his or her own, one that fills that gap over the long term, or comes very close.

I said, “at least in the current reality.” In the world of principles, which is where many readers reside, things are — or, should be — different. Access to books, and the promotion of higher forms of literacy, should be parts of a university’s mission. Libraries, by their nature, go only so far with this mission; every book acquired must be argued for, and every book acquired must help develop a collection. A real university bookstore is not under these constraints; people are exposed to the streams of fiction and non-fiction in real time, and they can get what they want without contending with someone else’s loan period. What is that worth? Could a university bookstore be operated, not as a profit center, but as the part of the educational enterprise that encouraged reading? Those who play the zero-sum game would ask, “Which would you rather have: a real university bookstore or more students getting financial aid?” I invite you to think your way out of that question.

***

This is, perhaps, too harsh a place to end, so I will return to an earlier time. When I was a graduate student and entry-level worker at the Bookstore, there was a frequent customer from the English department named Professor Homer Obed Brown. He was known at the store both for his benevolence and amiability, and for his besottedness with books. When, in my capacity as a graduate student, I would go into his office, every horizontal surface would be piled four or five feet high with books, the library’s mingled with his own. When, in my capacity as a Bookstore worker, I would walk with him through the store, we would talk, and he would absentmindedly slip books into his basket, until at last he would present himself at the register with some twenty-odd books at a time. I would like to think that, if he were alive today and had known of the Bookstore’s problems, he would have solved them by buying up the literary criticism section outright.

10/27/12

And are also heirs

My first experience of really powerful and complex English prose came through Thomas Cranmer. Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, Dick and Jane and Spot were all good in their way, but imagine the effect on the young mind of such sentences as this:

Immortal and ever-living God, we most heartily thank thee for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us who have duly received these holy sacraments with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our savior Jesus Christ, and dost assure us thereby of thy favor and goodness toward us, and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people, and are also heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom, by the merits of his most blessed death and passion.

It’s a grammarian’s delight (and, on checking, I find that my memory made only two mistakes, neither breaking with the rhythm): a main clause to which are subordinated four “that…” clauses, each with its own attack and consequence (“for that thou dost vouchsafe… and [that thou] dost assure.. and [that thou dost assure us] that we are… and [dost assure us that we] are also heirs…”). Never a dull repetition; always a variant skewing back to the main point; the “members incorporate” of the long, ornate sentence admitting either an interpretation that would make them all equivalent, or one that would make them a series of differences fanning out from an initial act of grace (“we thank thee for that”).

We were off-and-on churchgoers in my family, to the point that friends, relatives and “the help” took us children to a variety of churches in our parents’ stead, but despite the lace and candles that I remember from the Catholic cathedral and the intense musical athleticism of the black churches, the language is what I remember from the Episcopal parish that we were supposed to call home– that and a smell of floor wax and a big brass cross whose nodal point was surrounded by a halo with a curious ring of wiggly flames. I remember a few hymn tunes from my childhood. Nothing about Sunday School. But those long, swerving, delaying and crosscutting sentences, absolutely. There was nothing else like it in my experience. Maybe those pieces my father liked to play on the piano, that started with a simple little tune and wound it up into so many layers of argument and chatter that you couldn’t keep up with them, that were called Bach.

James Wood, recently, wrote a birthday card in the New Yorker for the Book of Common Prayer (350 years old in its 1662 revision; 473 if you’re looking at Cranmer’s first attempt, which dates from 1539). He praises Cranmer’s ritual prose for its “simplicity and directness… ‘coziness’ or ‘comfortability.'” I wouldn’t think of simplicity first. Coziness? Well, anything that you’ve heard for decades tends to get cozy in your ear; that’s no explanation. “Comfortability” is a borrowing from Cranmer (the “comfortable words” are the exhortation to come forward to communion). What comes most to my mind is the slanted, scarred quality of Cranmer’s words, acknowledging and bewailing their impossible or insincere content under a perfect pastoral straight face. The words of administration of communion name the bread and wine as the body and blood, but in the next sentence specify that the congregant is to take and eat them “in remembrance.” To paraphrase a bit: “Yes, that’s what we would like to say about these mere material elements, but we can’t truthfully state that that’s what they are, so let’s follow up with this more commonsensical version of the presence doctrine which is all you’re going to get anyway.” Another fine bit of truthful and artful dodging is the way the officiant uses the subjunctive mood (a piece of old-fashioned English grammar one might have to learn from Cranmer, if growing up in Tennessee): the remission of sins is performed not by the priest, but (in hope and under conditions) by the Almighty who is invoked but not compelled. As with so many other grand churchly paragraphs left us by Archbishop Cranmer, the mustering of clauses and sonority might give one the impression that something wondrous has been done, but a closer inspection reveals that the operative clauses were shrewdly minimized: “Almighty God… have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, strengthen and confirm you in all goodness,” etc.: all in the subjunctive mood. The swinging of robed sleeves and censers, if any, is just decoration. The operative bit is no performative speech act, but a wish. It might happen, then again it might not.

And when burying someone, the Prayer Book says that it is done “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.” Clever Cranmer again: what’s sure and certain is not the resurrection, but the hope of it, and perhaps our hope is sure and certain only because it’s one of those things that are “meet, right, and our bounden duty” to say. I always found this escape-clause comforting, in a grim way, when consigning people I loved to the ground.

As James Wood does not say (perhaps he is reporting on the state of things in England), the old Prayer Book, last revised for US Episcopal churches in 1928, is no longer in use. The 1970s substitute offers a modernized version of all the services and “traditional” versions for some of them (1928 with light revision). Comparison shows what subtleties are lost. Where Cranmer had written these lines for the congregation: “We do earnestly repent and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings,” the 1970s US Episcopalians go all touchy-feely: “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” This is getting it backwards, according to the somewhat cynical psychology of the 1539 service book. You repent first and then you have the luxury of feeling sorry. In the 1970s, you are subjectively, emotionally sorry first and you describe that as humbly repenting. I don’t know what an omniscient, omnipotent being would feel about anything, but my impression is that the 1539 people are playing their cards a little more carefully, allowing for more distrust of their own motives, and the 1970s people are unable to tell the difference between a feeling and a state of affairs.

James Wood’s article ends with cases of “reverent irony” in citations of Prayer Book language by Woolf and Beckett. I rather think the reverent irony was there to start with; but you have to discover it. In my case, it took memorizing those labyrinthine sentences and uncoiling them in my mind, again and again, over decades, to see what a Cheshire Cat of a shaggy dog the cautious archbishop had perched on the tree branch.

10/6/12

My Bookstore

From the second year of graduate school until about five years after I left, I worked for my university’s bookstore. I did a variety of things, ranging from heaving medical textbooks onto the shelves for $6.15 an hour to working as the “Internet Projects Manager,” which basically meant that I was a one-man web development shop in direct competition with Amazon.

It was a wonderful place, with visionary people. We had a classical music CD department, an anime department, and about 100,000 books on the shelves in academic and non-academic subjects. We had an ongoing reading series with authors from our MFA program, like Maile Meloy, Glen David Gold, Aimee Bender, and Michael Chabon. My bosses turned me loose on web technology a couple of months after the final bits were dry on the first web browser, NCSA Mosaic. We were one of the first bookstores to try e-commerce, and my bosses and I wound up on the cover of the June, 1996 cover of American Bookseller and in the LA Times.

Amazon put an end to our nascent, at times Rube-Goldberg-like efforts, and I struggled with the limitations of being one person trying to fight an e-commerce battle I had no chance of winning. One boss left in frustration, then I left, and the second boss retired a couple of years after that.

After that, the focus of the store shifted away from strategy and towards operations. By the time a few years had passed, without anyone at the store completely realizing how quickly it was happening, Amazon had eaten our store’s lunch. Together with its competitors, it had peeled off too many of our textbook customers. It was because of a monopoly on textbooks and their profits that we’d been able to do all this great stuff; without that monopoly, the number of students coming through our doors started to dwindle and our margins started to thin.

The end of the store soon followed, brought from on high by administrators who were frustrated that the store was no longer a cash cow. There was a sham of “consultation” with the University community — my letters were met with form letters — but management consultants were brought in, and they made the brutal suggestions that you would expect. My friends there who cared about books and literary values were forced out, along with all the employees over 50. The store has now been emptied of books. It is now selling textbooks, plush animals, and sweatshirts. It has been, in a word, deconsecrated; the word “Bookstore” has been taken out of the name.

So here is a photograph of the shelves that used to hold literary criticism and philosophy, now filled with plush anteater mascots. Look upon it and despair.

Shelf of Anteaters

Shelves where the books used to be: UCI Bookstore, now “The Hill.”

 

NOTE: I’ve published a follow-up piece to this article at http://printculture.com/the-late-bookstore/.

10/2/12

Watch this if you can find it.

I will never see this show, because I’m not in the habit of going to the theatre (and don’t live in New York), but I was glad to read that a Broadway adaptation of the documentary film, “Hands on a Hard Body” is about to open. Maybe the film will find a new audience and be available for streaming somewhere (it’s currently not available for rental on Netflix or Amazon).

Short plot summary: a car dealership in Texas runs an endurance contest in which contestants must keep a hand on a brand new fully loaded pickup truck. The last person standing wins the truck.

I remember watching the film when it showed briefly in a theater in L.A. back in 1997. The audience laughed  derisively (“look at those hicks!”) when the interview subjects waxed philosophical about the meaning of the contest in their heavy Texas drawls. But the film itself never demeans its subjects. My sense was that the filmmakers went into the project with a certain ironic distance but then got pulled into the human dramas playing out in this manufactured microcosm. A real gem.