Saturday, January 23, 2016

Crossing the Line

My dorm did an exercise on Wednesday night that I've been thinking about since then. It's called Crossing the Line and involves a moderator reading a series of statements. Without speaking, students who agree with the statement/feel as though it applies to them step over the line, face the rest of the people who didn't cross, and then walk back when it's time for the next statement.

Topics covered: class/SES/income level, religion, race, gender/sexuality, mental health, body image, friendship, feeling understood, feeling like an impostor. Miraculously, with over a hundred people, no one made a joke out of the experience. I was extremely tense the first ten minutes, and then after that, the sense of vulnerability stopped being quite so terrifying.

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Statements that I mentally flagged as interesting:

"I identify as a person of color."

I crossed--obviously. But some other people whom I would consider POC did not.

"Based on my family's income, I am upper class."

I crossed, because my parents' earnings do fall into a high income bracket. But if asked what my SES is, I'd probably say "upper middle class." I don't identify as "upper class"--and yet, class privilege works in my favor. In the debrief afterwards, a lot of people said they felt that class and economic status were not topics they felt comfortable discussing--but that they also wanted to start having these conversations.

"I am not the gender to which I was assigned at birth."

I crossed. Apparently some people to whom I am close felt vicarious happiness for me as I did so, which makes me happy, because despite being only one of two people who crossed, I didn't feel particularly afraid/anxious/like a freak. I've been out in my dorm since the beginning of the year and it's helped make me more comfortable in who I am.

"I am lesbian, gay, or bisexual."

I didn't cross because I'm not. Later someone suggested to the moderator that in future events, the statement be made more inclusive.

"I consider myself physically unattractive."

I crossed. I don't think my face is unpleasant, but if I had to pick attractive v. unattractive, I'd go with unattractive. And that doesn't mean that I have low self-esteem or that I feel bad about it. Do I exist for the aesthetic pleasure of others? Is my worth dependent upon how good I look? Some people do feel good when they look good, and that's fine, that's great--but beauty is not something that I think deserves to be a universal value, and I don't need to think I'm good-looking to be happy with myself.

"I feel as though someone in my dorm really knows me."

I crossed, but one of my good friends didn't. That honestly kind of hurt--but it's not my place to get defensive about it. Still need to talk to this person (not about that statement in particular, just in general).

"I have reached out to people outside of my friend group."

I crossed, because I have really solid friendships with some of the frosh whom I did not know before, and I'm happy about that. But a lot (a lot) of the RAs did not.

"I do not feel comfortable talking about alcohol in my dorm."

I didn't cross, but a lot of people, especially freshmen, did. I didn't cross because my policy on alcohol is and has always been "no," so there's nothing to discuss. This is one of my blind spots.

"I am a pacifist."

I did not cross, because while I think that there is too much violence in the world, there are times when I think it is necessary. Self-defense, for example.

"I would fight in a war."

I hesitated, then decided that given my answer to the previous question ("I am a pacifist"), I would be hypocritical not to cross. So I did. I think it's true.

"I feel as though I am a part of the dorm community."

I crossed, and so did everyone else. There may be some sample bias going on (not everyone in the dorm attended, and those who chose not to attend may have done so because they didn't feel a part of the community), but it was a good one on which to end.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Building a Path

I left out some stuff that happened in the second half of the week from the Sunday (er, Monday morning) post. Namely, I had a rather intimidating interview with the director for the Germany study abroad internship program, leading to some minor freaking out, resolved mostly by meeting with my very kind advisor and resolved almost completely by a spate of emails on Friday morning that resulted in me shifting around my class schedule one week before the deadline.

But this feels right. I was worried that my schedule this quarter was too weak--not because I want to suffer, although I am susceptible to the kind of academic machismo that leads people to think that 17 units is too few. Rather, I was worried about getting off track with my major and hindering myself from becoming the person I want to be in order to carry out the work I want to do. This rights things. Less theory, more practice. I'm in a BIM class, which feels really good because building software skills is fun. I'm back in the research lab, which also feels really good because I enjoy working with the people, and it's one of my advisor's labs.

So I'm taking 19 units still, but they are the right nineteen.

I also got some good work done over the weekend on Ubermadchen. Marilla is going to pray, because that is what works best for her in terms of getting her mind in order, and then everything explodes (not literally), which means I have two scenes to write to finish up the Graz section. The second of those scenes is the climax of the entire story, so it's going to take a few sessions to work through unless I blow off other commitments this weekend, which is tempting. I don't know if I'll be able to. I'd like to. I've been in this story for two years and getting it closer and closer to the finish is exciting.

(Then I have to plan and write the Vienna section and the epilogue, but that is mostly denouement stuff so it can hang together more loosely, by which I mean I probably won't take a long time planning it out.)

The path forward is clear--not in the sense that it lacks obstacles, but rather, I can see it. What I'm doing now is building skills, creating knowledge, making a story. I think that for me, what is most psychologically rewarding is not so much being productive as constructive. Not so much getting things done as getting things built.

I am laying bricks now.

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Liebe ist Alles - Adoro

Monday, January 18, 2016

Listen to the Silence 2016

Meant to write this up on Saturday night, but got busy.

On Saturday I attended Listen to the Silence, an annual conference on Asian American issues held on campus. A lot of attendees were high school students, or students at other local universities such as UC Davis and Santa Clara.

I attended all three rounds of workshops but had to leave right after the last one, so did not go to the performances that closed out the day.

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Workshop One: Asians for Black Lives

In a movement that is not about you, let your involvement be informed and requested by the group that is at the center of it. Be supportive, say your piece, but do not speak over the people in whose name you organize. Do this, however, without treating the central group as a monolith.

Reaching networks of people who can help out: balance scope with trustworthiness. People's safety and liberty are at stake in movements such as this. Be careful whom you trust, but also know that sometimes, you have to move fast.

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Workshop Two: Chinese American Coming-of-Age

Chinese gender roles are a fun (read: not fun) addition on top of the misogyny we are already steeped in. Family relations in particular. As the second female-bodied person in my family in my generation (or: as the younger of two sisters), I may not have existed if my parents had stayed in China.

The model minority myth is damaging in a whole lot of ways, from creating a false "racial hierarchy" that places minorities in opposition to one another to adding extra stigma to "unsuccessful" East Asians to glossing over the problems in Southeast Asian communities.

Meta-comment: there were several workshops on South and Southeast Asian issues, but the imagery around the conference was strongly East Asian, which is also a problem.

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Workshop Three: Environmental Justice in API Communities

Could have focused more on the local connection. But environmental justice as an idea and as a movement is important for someone who considers sustainable development a key theme of their future. The EJ movement really began at the People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991, where they adopted 17 Principles of Environmental Justice. Previously, the POC-led SouthWest Organizing Project had sent a letter to ten mainstream environmental groups calling them out on their exclusivity.

Nature is not just wilderness. It is the systems that underlie human life, and it includes humans.

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Turning over some of these thoughts still. But it was good to spend most of a day gathering material, gathering new perspectives, being reminded of the wider world and how I may have to navigate through it. Talking to high school students also was a valuable experience because I can see myself in a lot of them--quiet Chinese girls who are trying not to take up too much space. I still am not bold, and my voice carries about two feet, but I am more comfortable talking, giving my opinion, and not worrying about seeming dumb. If I seem dumb, so what? I am dumb. But I'm dumb and I'm learning, which is the important part.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Gray Areas

I had a lot of good conversations over the weekend/early part of the week, and I want to lay down some of the ideas we were talking about. Not trying to form an ideology just yet: this is gathering the pieces.

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Topic: gray areas of identity, in particular 1) ambiguous identity and 2) being privileged and non-privileged at the same time.

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1) Ambiguous Identity

For people of mixed race background, which race, if any, forms their "primary" identification, and how does that depend on how society reacts to them? A few of my friends who are mixed black and white say that at home, they act "more mixed" and at school "more black." From what I gather, this is because being mixed black and perceived as black has shaped their experience more than any whiteness.

For people of nonwhite background adopted into white families, who are "culturally white" but have different blood, comes the question of how much they belong to the group that people perceive them as.

For me, where this comes in is being Asian-American. Why does that description give a more accurate (not just more precise) image of me than if I said simply "American"? Why does it still not bring to mind an accurate image of someone who is, for example, South Asian or Southeast Asian?*

Something that particularly struck me over vacation was that when people (mostly white) spoke Mandarin to our group, assuming that we didn't understand English, all the parents (Chinese expats) were thrilled and all the children (first-generation Asian-Americans) cringed. My sister put it this way: our parents are secure in their nationality and ethnicity lining up in a predictable way. Hearing Mandarin is for them a recognition of their Chinese-ness (in nationality as well as ethnicity). For us, however, our "American-ness" is being constantly questioned, so hearing Mandarin from someone who thinks we don't speak English is a reinforcement of the message "you don't look like an American, you don't belong."

And the thing is, that I don't think I can claim to be "as (traditionally) American" as most of my white friends. I am distant from my Chinese roots but I am also not a part of many American traditions. There was a post I said I would write over the summer that I have not yet written, which is to be entitled "Zheng Heritage." To give away the punchline: Zheng He, the famous explorer, is the same Chinese Muslim minority group as my mom. I was ridiculously, dizzyingly happy to find this out, because as a first-gen kid of Asian extraction, especially one who internalized a lot of racism growing up, I don't have a strong sense of history, of being connected to something that extends into the past. Now, suddenly, there is a name in a history book that has something to do with me. That's pretty amazing.

*Just as white is the default for everybody, East Asian is the default for Asian. This is not a footnote, this is a segue into the next section.

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2) Privileged && Non-Privileged

There are many axes on which this works, but as some examples:

Sexuality: I'm ace and can hide in plain sight. A lesbian friend commented that there may be more lesbian representation on TV, but it is also often done in an objectifying way. (I don't watch TV and can't comment, but this sounds plausible.)

Race: Asian. That word probably suggests primarily East Asian imagery--dragons, kimonos, tea ceremonies, the Great Wall of China, etc. But what about South and Southeast Asia? The concept of "model minority" is bs on its own and because it glosses over the problems of health, education, etc. that are more prevalent in Asian communities that are less visible. The concept of "model minority" also showcases how being East Asian is simultaneously privileged and non-privileged. Yeah, I may get stereotyped, perceived as a robot, etc., but people are also going to look at me, see an Asian girl (sadly), and assume no criminal intent.

Gender: One of my frosh said that in his hypermasculine Hispanic community, being a non-hypermasculine guy was pretty bad but that it still got better treatment than being female. For me, being transmasculine* means that distancing myself from feminine things doesn't cost me much. Growing up the messages about girls not being fit for STEM flew straight over my head, and it was relatively easy to blend in as "one of the guys" (being Chinese also probably helped with this). But I still don't have male privilege, and I still don't know if I'm going to be out in my professional life, because singular they might be the word of the year but I still see the closet as a safety hatch.

*I'm not sure if I'm using this word right, because my trajectory is from female-identifying to nonbinary, but I don't know where on the spectrum I land.

Ability: The fact that this has never really been on my radar says a lot about the privilege I have. I haven't given it that much thought before, but I don't want to leave it off the list because I need to.

The question of conduct here is: if you are someone whose demographics simultaneously give and deny you privilege, how do you behave so as to be a good ally to people who are denied more privileges along that same axis?

Friday, January 8, 2016

Looking Forward and Around

Over vacation, as the roller coaster tipped slowly to the big, near-vertical drop, I came to the conclusion: I am a control freak.

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In elementary school I was very fond of the book The Grand Escape, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, which describes two indoor cats who escape and fall in with a clique of feral urban cats. To gain acceptance into this clique, each new cat has to solve a riddle or find something out for the other cats. One of the questions posed was: Humans have power over cats. What has power over humans?

The answer given was "the clock." Humans are always aware of the time, and how quickly it passes, and what they have to do next, and how to get the most out of it. Time: we control it, we are bound by it.

I have, that I can think of, five calendars. My planner, my digital calendar, a quarterly calendar taped over my desk, a yearly calendar on which I cross off dates, and my logbook. The first three are rigorously updated and kept consistent, the yearly calendar is too small for any information, and the logbook is updated nightly after I write in my journal.

I don't know if other people are like this, though I suspect that I'm on the more controlling end of the spectrum. Control is the key: feeling as though I am in control of my time makes me feel as though I am in control of my life, because what is life but time and experience?

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We have just finished the first week of Winter Quarter. This is my last quarter of the academic year that I will be on campus, because in the Spring I go to Berlin. I am excited, of course, but also sad to leave my dorm and the people in it. Separation anxiety is real. The notice for termination of housing is due at the beginning of February, but I know about it now so I should get it done of course, and I had it written in for Tuesday night but...but I couldn't do it. I opened the page for the form, looked at it, thought about leaving, and closed the page again.

I have ten weeks left here (nine weeks + finals). That is not a lot of time. That is no time. Yet--that is also a lot of time, and if I think about how soon it will end then will I be here when I'm here?

At one point, probably during senior year, I thought a lot about what advice I would give to freshmen in high school. One point I came up with: everyone tells you that four years is short. It is not. Four years is long. You cannot wait for these four years to pass to begin your life. You cannot waste these four years marking time because you just want to get on with it to bigger and better things.

I haven't forgotten about this, because if it applies for high school, so much the more for college. What am I waiting on? Why am I even waiting? Sometimes waiting makes sense--I'm not applying for grad student programs because I'm not a grad student. I'm not taking a class that could fit into my schedule because...well, actually, I probably could take it, but that might push this quarter from being slightly chill to unmanageable.

Next year is going to be difficult. I'm planning to get almost all my major core classes out of the way, which means lots and lots of technical classes. I am worried that I won't be able to handle it, and I don't have that much give in my schedule. But I want to do it this way because then senior year would be comparatively relaxed and I hope to staff in my current dorm as a senior, when I have enough time and wisdom to do it well.

One of my most important relationships is with future me. I don't want them to be disappointed in or angry with present me. I want them to be competent and successful and prepared, to look at the future and see open doors. I want to enable future me to have a large, positive impact on the world.

Current me still has needs as well, which is why I'm taking a lighter quarter than perhaps I should. I want to finish writing Ubermadchen and not do a hack job of it (an SFD is fine but a BSFD is not). I want to be here for the people I'm living with while I'm still living with them. I want to have conversations with people, and delve deep into my studies, and give things the attention, energy, and time that they deserve.

The present is short and the future is long. But the present still is.

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And then we fall.