Wednesday, July 18, 2018

#3: Emma

Emma tells her story of her Mexican American family. I had technical problems with the audio, so please excuse the quality.


Emma's strong American identity reminds me of the moment when, arguing with Indonesians in Bali, I realized for the first time that I was not only Chinese but unequivocally American. She is often read as white and doesn't feel wrongly distanced from Mexican society in California because she is American. She gracefully shares her conversational Spanish with patrons in her retail job and brushes off discriminatory remarks from coworkers. And yes, I hear irony in her references to black and white Americans as, simply, "Americans," in contrast to ethnic minorities like us. Perhaps we'd do better to question who is included or excluded every time this word it used.

Catholicism comes up again and I delight in the casual attitude Emma shows, as in telling the story of her grandmother who protested her leg-revealing summer outfit. Not having grown up under any religious pressure, I recoil when others even use explicitly religious language, let alone impose moral dogma, and perceive real harm as a result of her parents' self-identity of "living in sin" unwed culminating in a financially and emotionally messy separation. Yet Emma engages fully with her extended family, complete with Catholic holidays and rituals, an easy Catholicism that doesn't make the news but guides so many in religious America.

She finally details the difficulty of navigating institutions as immigrants. While her reflection is on academia in particular, I recall hearing my father asking my mother, when preparing to start his first US job, what "business casual" means. Before the internet, how could immigrants possibly know norms and standards like this? First-generation college and graduate school students lack any frame of reference for crucial details like requirements for application, advising conventions, and funding sources which differ between areas of study and schools. Ultimately this is an issue of class and social mobility.

I have to plug this episode of Hidden Brain where a study showing temporary improvement in creativity is shown for people who have dated someone from a country not their own, but not those with friends from other countries.

May we cultivate kinship with those in need by listening deeply.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

#2: John Park

John Park* spoke with me about internalized racism among young Asian Americans in Orange County and his experience as a Catholic Korean American youth minister. Here's his story.


I broke out our dialogue below because there are subjects that may be difficult for sensitive listeners. Please air as appropriate. I find it particularly useful to note when my truth is so fixed as to feel solid; the security of solidified truth is false, a red flag marking where the heart is blocked.

First part:

There's a moment when I thought John misspoke by calling himself pro-choice, but later he asserted public law should not be an arm of religious rules. We certainly found common ground, but there were some points that remained murky to me.

One of the views I can't "un-see" is the constructed nature of gender and norms, especially how they are pegged to reproduction. We are millennia advanced beyond the valuation of human beings based on the gametes we produce and yet our bodies are daily made currency and debt for misogyny. John admits his insistence on the possibility of pregnancy (as well as a loving relationship) for permissible sex doesn't take this into consideration. When we try to protect something, we risk all. I think it's interesting that the risk the church chooses is on the side of harming ourselves through gender-based constraints, while I have chosen to risk harm on the side of exploring and finding out for myself. I obviously find the latter approach more consonant with the nature of science and learning. I admit that in the course of finding out for myself, I have harmed myself and others. I can assure you my effort to stop harming is, as a direct consequence, all the more fervent. Were I not allowed to find out for myself, I cannot say how sure my steps would be on this path.

I relate my experience of a deplorably common form of rape here. I was struck, in this exchange as well as in my interrogation of what John's church does to prevent sexual misconduct by its clergy and members, by John's mostly procedural response. The first times I heard my friends' stories of being sexually assaulted in college, I did not know what to think or how to respond; with more experience and the publicizing of #MeToo stories I am getting better at bringing forth my love for those harmed and immediate condemnation of sexually violent and exploitative behavior. Let's also share how we offer and want to be offered support for survivors.

Second part:


We both left the interview wanting to continue the conversation, and I hope to encourage you to engage sincerely with those in your life whose values and norms threaten our well-being. The fate of this democracy depends on it.

*This is not his real name.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

#1: Jay

My first interview is with Jay*, a fellow graduate student in my environmental microbiology lab at California State University Fullerton. I met him on my visit as a prospective student last year, where he spoke candidly and enthusiastically about the lab and we connected over Indonesia. He begins by describing the circumstances of his family's escape from Jakarta in 1998 following fatal and sexually violent anti-Chinese riots. What I love about this story is how at once relatable it is -- I certainly watched many hours of Tom & Jerry cartoons -- and how horrific.



 I was keen on the story of Chinese cultural norms perceived by many, including my guest, as rude (5:15). My mother relates public shaming stories from her WeChat feed such Chinese bus riders piling onto public buses by elbowing each other aside -- it's telling that many Chinese nationals and expats feel shame about this norm while no such standard is applied to imperialist and exploitative norms perpetrated by white folks in media, business, and schools. If I got a dollar every time someone asked where I'm from...

The conversation turned away from culture clash and toward the political climate depleting research funding to favor unsustainable industries. Jay intends to enter research in environmental conservation, an area fraught by political unpredictability, Scott Pruitt having left his post the day before our conversation. The stereotype of Chinese American academics and professionals silences our impact, ongoing and potential, on society and markets, but leadership doesn't have to look like executive positions and elected office. It made me realize the rich intersectionality of first-generation immigrant survival mentality and governance, political subjects I want to explore more with future guests.

*Jay chose a pseudonym for this post.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Executive orders on the fate of immigrants

Twenty-eight years ago, a six-year-old was bundled onto a jet plane in Beijing and conducted by kind stewardesses to her parents in New York. It was 1990, bare months after thousands of student demonstrators were cut down and hosed off the city square for petitioning the Chinese government for democracy.

After President George HW Bush vetoed a Congressional bill to protect Chinese international students, pressure from Congress and the press led him to issue an executive order extending a hold on deportation of Chinese students, allowing students with expired or revoked passports to apply for temporary worker status, and extending work authorization to Chinese nationals here at the time of the massacre. This provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for my parents to stay here after completing their degrees, so they sent for me and eventually had my brother, a second child who would have been barred by Chinese law.

I'll never know the extent to which any of my family might have been persecuted for pro-democracy views. The topic is still actively suppressed in Beijing in a cyber arms race bottomlined by thuggish intimidation and imprisonment. I do know that it's far from the minds of most Americans, including Chinese and other Asian Americans, when considering the nation's immigration policy.

And why should it be foremost? We mustn't wait for atrocities to open our hearts to those in need: the influx of Jews and other refugees during WWII were primarily opposed by the American public at the time. How do we regard that hatred and alienation now, with our incomplete immigration system spiked with reluctant executive orders, loomed over by an activist Supreme Court?

Facing political polarization, I turn to the ultimate lesson of Mahayana Buddhism: we are interconnected. Over the next weeks, I will share interviews with other immigrants on this blog on subjects including racism and social conservatism. In the meantime, take care of yourselves and reach out to those whose views seem offensive and difficult. Our sense of separation is but a seductive delusion.

May all be safe and protected from inner and outer harm.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Orlando shooting was part of my world

When my housemate stumbled into the kitchen Sunday morning, ashen and wide-eyed at the news, I expressed to her that this senseless killing was consistently a part of my world already.

Every day, I am observing more clearly that I am exclusion, hatred, and alienation. I walk into the classroom and see Others who are unlike me, incomprehensible, and unapproachable. I feel disconnection and I perpetuate disconnection. And it's only 9am.

I was at first surprised after straight family or friends, with a single exception, chose not to reach out to me. At most an acquaintance would ask me "How are you?" with a bit more emphasis than usual, and perhaps show hesitation as they received a peaceful and joyful answer.

Exclusion is part of this world and knowing it is the first step on the path to freedom from it.

When I was beginning transition nine years ago, a Berkeley Free Clinic trainer explained to volunteers that, should someone draw a firearm in the clinic, "we take him down." As a martial artist, I agree, and I was relieved to learn that this is the official US recommendation for a group of people trapped with an active shooter. In reality, though, exclusion from those around us obstructs this unified protective response. This natural response.

If a mother sees her children's lives threatened, she moves without hesitation to "take down" that threat, even if it costs her her own life. The Teaching on Unconditional Kindness instructs us to love the whole world as if it were our only child. How can I become so connected to those around me, so reverent for life, that I can trust any group I'm with to be right behind me in "taking them down?"

I am taking steps every day. Summer classes started this week, and I was troubled to hear no one reference the violence. Today, just before starting math class, the professor commented on last night's basketball game, drawing the most lively response yet from most of the students. I felt miserably excluded, and during the break, with compassion, let her know how alienating it felt only to hear sports news referenced in such a week. She responded with tears in her eyes that she gets so emotionally affected by violence that she can't mix it with teaching. I felt authentic connection, a worst-case fear of homophobia extinguished, and still, sadness and silence. It was a baby step.

I invite you to set foot on this path to inclusion by connecting with others genuinely and without expectation of anything in return. May you receive the whole world, this precious child.

May we all be safe and protected from inner and outer harm.

Monday, April 25, 2016

An open letter to those who disparage goods "Made in China"

I'd like to invite your attention to the conundrum of wanting to save time and money and not wanting to buy factory items that were "made in China."
I'm sure we're all well-intentioned when we declare the desire to find alternatives to these products, and at the same time I'm aware that we're mostly unwilling to sacrifice the convenience and affordability the global economy provides. I think the humanity of parents who have left the care of their small children to relatives in rural villages in order to earn any wage at all in ShenZhen deserves our attention as well. I was among millions of "left-behind" children in my first years and attest to the brutal reality of this experience, however mitigated by my family's relative wealth.

I've seen the toddler I live with weep and cry uncontrollably when his mother leaves for a few hours -- I can only guess at the impact of having parents gone for years, and what circumstances would drive a parent to make that decision. 

I feel all of these things in the label "Made in China," and I invite you to include a bit more humanity as well -- for our well-intentioned selves as well as poverty-stricken families in rural China.

Posted from my 2008 Lenovo ThinkPad, Made in China

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Breaking up a fist fight

On Friday, while waiting for the bus home, I noticed a woman sitting on the pavement, her belongings spread out around her, chattering to herself in Spanish. This is ordinary enough in the Bay Area that I paid her no mind, reading my newspaper a few feet away.

After a moment, though, her muttering became more vehement and I looked directly at her -- she was trans and some of her comments seemed directed at a Latino with his 3-year-old waiting nearby. Without warning she crawled on all fours several steps, now yammering in English, and got up in the man's face -- she seemed to be accusing him of looking at her "like I'm a man" -- and then bent down to yell at the child. At this the man quietly moved between her and his child, urging her away. She backed off and I went back to my reading, but the next thing I knew she was back at him and he punched her into the side of the bus.

I immediately stepped toward him, hand up and quietly talking -- they separated, fortunately, so I could stay between them. Another bystander approached the woman and was talking her down. The man yelled fiercely at her, ignoring me. Bystanders crowded behind him and shielded his kid and a bus driver yelled about the consequences of police coming (this was at Fruitvale BART). Without missing a beat the man redirected his yelling at me.

I stayed, watching and hearing him, feeling a thousand tiny flames erupt over my arms and upper chest, a contrasting piercing solidity of my heart pounding in the middle of it. I smelled sharp liquor in his breath. Then, as soon as it had begun, it ended: he turned away, the crowd relaxed, and our bus was boarding.

When an emergency calls there is no time for thought, performance, or self-judgment. Indeed, there is no self. I didn't assess the scene for safety, review self-defense options, or plan my words. There wasn't time. What took place was my confidence, skills, and presence as they were, however imperfect or inadequate, existing in that place and time.

In taekwondo, where kicking and striking are common, comfortable fighting distance is measured in feet and spans at least a leg-length. In hapkido and other "soft" arts, it's much closer, measured in inches, and keeping contact is essential for controlling the opponent. People learn self-defense in order to confront an "enemy." The alternative is to panic -- running away or breaking down (mentally running away) or overreacting and possibly escalating conflict. I think the practice that took place for me on Friday was this turning toward and facing violence without fear or anger. I think agency in that moment came from touching my heart with his.

What would I have done if he had tried to hit or grab me? Had he expressed transphobia? Did my presence deflate his alcohol-fueled fury? Could I have intervened sooner to calm the woman? I don't know; it did not realize that way.

It's enough for me to know there is ugliness and terrible suffering in the world. In the alcoholic man's family and in the woman's anger and neglect, there is so much healing needed. It's all I can do to be present with what is and to bring whatever I have. When there is pain, hatred, greed -- whatever your kryptonite -- advance toward it, get closer, and meet it with whatever you have. I trust that every person in that crowd could have done this. I trust that you can do this and are already doing it in some ways.

May all be safe and protected from inner and outer harm. May all be surrounded by and filled with unconditional kindness. May our hearts open.