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.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The enemy is white supremacy: on Peter Liang's manslaughter conviction

This week my mother has been following protests following Peter Liang's conviction in the shooting death of Akai Gurley. Never one for following current events with more attention than the evening newscast, she did not distinguish between injustice against one race group and injustice against all oppressed groups. To her, the protest against the jury's verdict (and indeed, the initial indictment) was a protest against racism in general.

I am proud that Peter Liang was convicted. He will serve time in the prison system alongside millions of black and Latino men including former police. The white supremacy of America's criminal justice institution has earned the attention of Asian- and Pacific Islander-Americans, like my mom, for the first time on this scale.* This is an opportunity to demand, alongside black Americans, the end of white privilege, not to demand that Liang be accorded white privilege alongside white police officers.

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, "Enduring suffering in love and awareness can erase the bitter hatred of a thousand lifetimes." There is no one or group of people to hate here: the unjust conditions including white supremacy, post-slavery poverty (leading to the unsafe and unlit state of Gurley's residence), police favoritism in criminal courts, unwholesome NYPD culture contributed to Gurley's death and Liang's mistakes. They contributed to the unjust killings and serial non-indictments of so many cases galvanizing Black Lives Matter. Let every one of us suffering under these unnecessary and destructive conditions be aware of Gurley's family's suffering and of Liang's suffering alongside our own.

Can we be aware of not only loud suffering but the years and generations of quiet suffering? And can we hold our suffering in community with love and confidence that what people have created, people can and must dismantle? More and more white people are learning about and preparing to give up their privilege. What privilege are you ready to recognize in your place in society, and are you ready to give it up?

Not being black is a privilege in America. Not being immigrant, especially recognizably so, is a privilege in America. Are you ready to give up those privileges to relieve the suffering of others, and ultimately your own? This is the conversation and the practice we deserve to be sharing with each other as people of color.

* Interesting reading about the history of non-solidarity among Asians in America.