Filthy radical, difficult, impossible forgiveness

I’ve been listening a lot to Brandi Carlile’s most recent album, By The Way, I Forgive You. It’s a raw, acoustic, melting pot of country, pop, and Americana sound with some beautiful tracks containing personal stories about her daughter and her parents. In a live radio performance in March, she played four songs interspersed with discussion about the new album. At one point the host asks her about the title of her album and the theme of forgiveness. In her response, Carlile describes forgiveness as a “not a word to be taken lightly,” but rather a “filthy radical, difficult, impossible thing to do” and shares the story of a minister who refused to baptize her when she was 15 because she was an outwardly gay teenager. She addressed the incident in an open letter to the minister, published before the album’s release, that explained that despite what happened she still loved him and never lost her faith.

To forgive is to let go of anger and resentment that we hold towards someone who has wronged us. We are taught that forgiveness is a virtue and that it frees us. The Bible preaches forgiveness of others as a way to ensure God’s forgiveness. Step 8 of the 12-step addiction recovery process asks you to reach out and seek forgiveness from those you have harmed. Forgiveness is supposed to help us grow and move on. It may be difficult, but to forgive makes us good people. Right?

When I think about the people in my life who I would like to forgive, the first person who comes to mind is my mother. I won’t go into my accumulated lifetime of grievances here, but I feel like this blog has practically become an outlet to vent about my parents and upbringing (ugh, sorry), so if you want context just read some of my recent posts. I think that I’ve turned out generally ok, but sometimes I feel that it’s despite my parents, rather than because of them. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more sympathetic towards and understanding of the (largely good) intentions that fueled my mother’s (sometimes misguided) actions. I can understand why she did much of what she did. Though I still don’t agree with many of her choices, I am at the very least able to make excuses for her (she was a product of her upbringing, a product of the times, a product of her culture, etc.). Knowing these things, I want to forgive her, but I don’t know if I can.

“Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.” – Oscar Wilde

Perhaps I find forgiveness difficult because my mother probably doesn’t feel as if she need to be forgiven by me. Even having gone through what she has and knowing what she knows now, she probably stands by her choices and would scoff at the idea that there is anything to forgive. And because of this, perhaps what truly makes it hard to forgive her is that she seems unwilling to change and completely absent of remorse**. And as a result, I believe she will continue to hurt me in many of the same ways. I spent some time with her and my brother this weekend, and in the span of 24 hours, she managed to criticize my weight and eating habits, she was rude to multiple waiters and excessively critical of our food, and managed to make false and disparaging remarks about a gay friend of my brother.

My weekend wasn’t entirely miserable and I do love my mother, though perhaps some of the conflict arises from the fact that we hold those we love to higher standards. We want the people we love to be good, perhaps even better than ourselves. I remember returning home for Thanksgiving in 2016, just weeks after the election, and running into some old high school classmates at a bar. We bemoaned not just the results of the recent election, but having to sit at the dinner table and make nice with our conservative, Trump-supporting relatives. To maintain civility would be a tremendous exercise in patience and restraint, we agreed.

I’m not asking for a 67-year old immigrant to adopt all of my liberal and progressive views. But it would be nice if we could dine out just once where my brother and I didn’t have to apologize to the waiters and leave an extra-large tip to compensate for my mother’s rudeness that verges on harassment. I don’t need her to jump on the body positivity train, but there’s a difference between showing concern and being condescending and critical; it would be nice if she considered the influence of a mother’s criticism on a daughter’s self-confidence. If forgiveness requires letting go of wrongs, then I’m clearly not there yet and don’t know if I’ll ever get there. I know that much of my mother’s happiness hinges upon hearing from me and my brother and knowing that we are doing well. So sometimes it makes me feel guilty to be so upset with her. Is it wrong or selfish of me to continue to hold this grudge? Will I regret it if I am never fully able to forgive her?

By the way, I forgive you
After all, maybe I should thank you
For giving me what I’ve found
‘Cause without you around
I’ve been doing just fine
Except for any time I hear that song

Every Time I Hear That Song, Brandi Carlile

**Completely unrelated to my mother. But I believe that absence of remorse is huge obstacle to forgiveness. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the lens of the #metoo movement, and the many men who were knocked down from their positions of power but are now seeking to make a comeback (Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, Mario Batali, Bill O’Reilly, etc.). I generally believe that people who make mistakes – especially isolated mistakes, which are different from an established pattern of behavior – deserve a second chance, but only if they express regret or remorse for their actions. Those men (and women) who haven’t learned from their mistakes, if they think their only mistake was getting caught, or still deny allegations that were proven to be true, do not deserve sympathy and forgiveness. They are not to be trusted and do not deserve a second chance because that chance will likely be squandered, and once returned to positions of power and influence they will only hurt others again.

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Thank you to all the extroverts who have ever adopted me

Growing up, I was a shy kid. Not entirely avoidant or especially socially inept, but more… timid and reserved (why isn’t there a good antonym for outgoing?). If anything, from carefully observing the interactions of my peers, I figured out how to make myself comfortably invisible, agreeably nodding and smiling from the periphery of the circle, contributing just enough to the social atmosphere for my friends to want to keep me around (at least some of the time).

It wasn’t until I was in late high school that labels “introvert” and “extrovert” came into vogue. The self-identification was immediate, and I was able to point to many of my behaviors as being characteristic of an introvert. I get uncomfortable when left alone at large parties. I use the self-checkout line when shopping even if there’s an empty cashier lane. I exit from the middle exit of the bus to avoid saying bye to the bus driver. Even now, I’ll hit the door close button after stepping into the elevator, hoping no one else gets in. When my younger brother started high school I was a junior, and walking through the halls it was impossible not to run into another one of his friends (he seemed to know everyone) who would call me “Larry’s sister.” As far as I know, even to my friends he was Larry, never “Eva’s brother.”

At a time when most students had to build their social circles from scratch, starting college in my hometown allowed me to cling to my high school friends (it also helped that ~10% of my high school graduating class ended up at Cornell). At the start of freshman year, I remember waiting until the sun went down at 8:30pm to eat dinner with a friend who was observing Ramadan. I didn’t mind eating that late, especially since he seemed happy enough to have me as company, but it also allowed me to avoid having to sit among strangers, however friendly they were, and go through another cycle of scripted freshman introductions (Where are you from? What’s your major? Which dorm do you live in?). For the first few months of college, I mostly made new friends through old friends, tagging along to meals and parties. I got used to being the lone science major eating lunch with a group of econ and CAPS majors, or the stray non-athlete at a tae-kwon-do team party because I was friends with someone in the group.

It wasn’t really until my junior year that I made friends entirely on my own (not friends-of-friends or hallmates I fortuitously liked which I consider cheating), and only because it was impossible to survive Quantum Mechanics and Analytical Chemistry lab working on problem sets and lab reports alone. It was at this point that I met someone who was to become one of my best friends; he was a guy in my major who was outgoing to almost an extreme. My thoughts upon meeting him went something like, “Who the hell is that loud kid in the corner who seems to know everyone? Why is he talking to me? Oh wait, he’s offering to help me debug my Mathematica code. Huh, he’s actually pretty cool.” It wasn’t long until I was chasing him through the chemistry building at 11pm as our study break suddenly pivoted from an existential life discussion to a decision to bother our night-owl faculty advisor and ask him for life advice (previously I had always thought of professors as these inaccessible entities who were always too busy with important things to talk to undergrads – I still largely believe this, but clearly my friend didn’t). I looked on in bewildered amusement as during a lull in lab periods he would snatch our grad student TA’s phone and text himself so that he’d later have their phone number in case they wanted to hang out. While I can’t say for sure how much befriending an extrovert rubbed off on me, I’m extremely grateful for not just his friendship, but how he made accessible to me relationships with some people I never would have approached on my own.

This made leaving Cornell and starting grad school all the more difficult. My first year of grad school, I had a pretty rough time and will confess to at least a few late-night texts sent to college friends that read something like, “Ugh, I hate everyone here, and I really miss you” (This is not entirely true. I didn’t hate everyone, but I did really really miss my college friends). Again my saving grace was an extrovert who adopted me, a rotation student in my lab who invited me to a Halloween party. I had enough drinks to loosen up a bit and apparently made a good enough impression that she kept inviting me to things (pro life tip: alcohol can be a very effective strategy for those introverts who need to temporarily be extroverts). And it’s largely because of her that most of my closest grad school friends now are not in my department (Chemistry) but hers (Mol Bio).

So thank you to all those friends who have let me use them as a social crutch – there are many, many of you and only a few have been mentioned in this blog post. And especially thank you to those extroverts in my life who have adopted me and invited me into experiences and interactions far outside my comfort zone.


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On being ABC (part 2/2): The past and future of Asian “Tiger Parenting”

ABC: American-born Chinese. A term widely used to refer to American citizens of Chinese descent, excluding first-generation immigrants. 

Thanks to Amy Chua, the Tiger Parent has become a cultural trope discussed to death, yet only more recently have I seen attention being paid to what the next generation is doing. Are the sons and daughters of tiger parents choosing to tiger parent their own children? And what happens when they don’t?

These thoughts crossed my mind as I read a recent NY Times opinion piece titled “The Last of the Tiger Parents,” written by Ryan Park (described as a lawyer and father of two).

… like many second-generation immigrant overachievers, I’ve spent decades struggling with the paradox of my upbringing. Were the same childhood experiences that long evoked my resentment also responsible for my academic and professional achievements? And if so, was the trade-off between happiness and success worth it?

In cultural discussion of what motivates tiger parenting, you’ll encounter the idea of academic achievement as a driver of “normative success,” and the idea of faith in a meritocratic society. Here, I think it’s worth defining what I mean by normative success. Often you’ll hear the joke that there are only two parent-approved professions for the children of tiger parents: doctor and lawyer (my parents definitely wanted me to be a doctor, – sorry mom). Both tick all the boxes: culturally respectable, high salaried, job stability, performs a service for humanity.  Other tenets of normative success include an appropriate and happy marriage, the material comforts of a middle class lifestyle (such as home ownership), and having a few smart, well-behaved kids.

It’s easy to understand why someone, tiger parent or otherwise, would value normative success, but I think specifically for people like my parents – Chinese immigrants of their generation –  there’s more to it.

I find my thoughts unavoidably circling back to a story from my father’s upbringing. My father was a teenager during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. In mid 1960’s China, schools and universities were shuttered and tens of thousands of teachers and academics were persecuted in a massive purge of the educational system. Yet during those years of political and cultural turmoil and instability, my father taught himself an entire college curriculum and tested into the graduate program at Fudan University as soon as it reopened. “I only got one question wrong on my entrance exam,” he would tell me and my brother. I don’t know much about my paternal grandparents, but from how my father would tell this story, and what I observed of him, he was fiercely self-driven. And his self-made academic success was what allowed him to start his life as a postdoc at an Ivy League university in the US. My father never shared many stories about his life, so his occasional retelling of this one was very revealing about what he viewed as success and how he believed it could be achieved. And clearly, he was motivated to pass on these values to his children.

My mother’s story of growing up around the same time is perhaps even more brutal and even more telling. Both of her parents were not only teachers, but had supported the wrong political side before the Cultural Revolution. After Mao’s rise to power, my mother’s entire family was uprooted and deported from Shanghai to perform manual labor in the countryside. It was many years before she was able to rebuild her life, return to school, and eventually immigrate to the US to be with my father.

While these thoughts have long been swirling around in my head, until recently I lacked the word(s) to properly express them. In a conversation with a friend (also a child of Chinese immigrants) that was sparked by the above quoted NY Times piece, he described how he was struggling to help his parents understand why he didn’t prioritize the same normative success that they wanted for him, and why he was willing to take certain risks that he believed would enrich his life in ways that were more abstract, and therefore more difficult for them to accept.

It wasn’t that he didn’t understand why his parents valued what they did. They lived their lives in the mindset of scarcity. Scarcity – that was the word I had been missing. Our parents were immigrants who had left their families and homes to seek greater opportunities for themselves and their children in the US. They did not always have job security or financial security, they had to work – and work hard – to earn these things. To them, no longer having to strive, the ability to live in comfort, was the ultimate success.

But I have never lived in such scarcity. So while I understand where my parents are coming from, my own (comparatively cushy and privileged) upbringing has led me to cultivate different values and different priorities in life. I will not downplay my own desire for some version of normative success  – certainly I’ve spoken about my own career ambitions –  but I have other goals by which I measure my success. I find rewarding my endeavors to cultivate deep and meaningful relationships with others. I harbor a desire to spread love, and tolerance, and progressive values. And I find purpose in using my talents to give back and make the world a better place in some way.

And I believe that many second-generation ABC’s feel similarly. We have seen and lived the payoff of discipline and enforced academic rigor, but have also observed the value of an environment of love and emotional support (often in jealous observation of the upbringing of our more American peers).

To return to Ryan Park’s column,

The childhood I devise for my two young daughters will look nothing like mine. They will feel valued and supported. They will know home as a place of joy and fun. They will never wonder whether their father’s love is conditioned on an unblemished report card.

I’ve assumed this means my daughters might someday bring home grades or make life choices that my father would have regarded as failures. If so, I embrace the decline.

I will resist conjecturing too much about how I may raise my very hypothetical, unborn/unconceived children, but I cannot imagine that it will be as my parents raised me. Perhaps this arises from a place of privilege – after all, my own upbringing has positioned me to achieve some degree of normative success. As my brother said, we (he and I) would have to fuck up pretty badly to ever find ourselves broke and homeless. We’ve cultivated good habits, have a strong educational foundation and practical training, and a family that is not only able but willing to support us through the ups and downs of life. But these things were achieved not entirely without cost. Growing up, I was less understanding of, and much less sympathetic to, the iron fist with which my parents ruled our household. As a result, I bear emotional scars from my adolescence and teenage years, and perhaps have missed valuable opportunities to explore and to fail and learn from my failures – opportunities that were taken away by the strong and directioned guiding hand of my parents. I now recognize that my parents acted out of love and the best of intentions, but I’d like to believe that each generation learns from the mistakes (and successes) of those that come before them. I hope that if I am ever to become a parent, I would have the courage to meld my own values with that of my  parents and follow Mr. Park in “embracing the decline.”

Read On Being ABC (part 1/2) here.

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On being ABC (part 1/2): It’s called “internalized racism”

ABC: American-born Chinese. A term widely used to refer to American citizens of Chinese descent, excluding first-generation immigrants. 

I was in middle school when I first realized that the popular kids were mostly white, and that these social groups seemed to have a quota of at most one or two “token Asians.” Growing up, I had two separate groups of friends. One group was entirely Chinese, and we were brought together by our parents’ friendship. We bonded over the many hours spent together during multi-family weekend parties featuring long nights of food and card games, and our parents’ favorite topic of conversation: us. We learned to look appropriately modest or ashamed as we were alternately praised for good grades or scolded for disappointing SAT scores in snappy Chinese that was always a few decibels above the indoor voices we had been taught to use in school. After heaping platefuls of rice and stir fry, the kids would crowd around a TV in someone’s basement to play hours of Super Smash Bros, or run around and play aggressive games of tag or capture the flag.  Separate from my Chinese friends were my school friends – the people I first would have named as my friends – mostly white with the occasional other Chinese girl or Indian guy. We were generally good students (though not obsessed with grades), with a smattering of musical and athletic talent, who listened to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and hung out at the mall. We skipped class to go to Gimme! Coffee, and gossiped about crushes – average American teenager stuff.

Despite my attempts at social integration, I never felt like I entirely fit in with my school friends. I observed enviously my friends’ easygoing relationships with their parents, marveling at their jokes and casual banter. In contrast, I would correct my mother’s broken English and ask why we couldn’t order pizza for dinner.  I fumed at my parents’ overprotectiveness and rejected their lack of acceptable reasons why I couldn’t go to sleepovers or school dances. Maybe people would think I was less of a nerd if they didn’t make me skip two years ahead in math and play the violin. Did they even want me to have friends?

Since graduating high school, I’ve spent the last decade in elite academic institutions that pride themselves on their diversity, yet have become the recent focus of a national debate about “reverse racism” and discrimination against Asian Americans in the admission process. In college, I had my first exposure to cliques of “fobby” (fresh-off-the-boat) Asians. With their distinctive clothes and haircuts, and their animated chatter in their mother tongues, they were hard to miss – eating sushi at the dining hall, smoking cigarettes outside the libraries, handing out sticks of Pocky to recruit new students to cultural clubs. My first instinct was to distance myself for fear of being perceived as one of them. I hoped that by evading them, I would evade their stereotypes. I knew that from my appearance, people would already make assumptions about me, and I didn’t want to be seen as even more of an outsider. No, I’m not from China. I was actually born right here, in Ithaca. I wanted to say, “Can’t you tell from my Birkenstocks and my lack of accent? I’m just as American as you.” It wasn’t so much that I thought myself better than the recent immigrants and foreign transplants. I just assumed that we wouldn’t have much in common and that I wouldn’t connect to them. I felt that I had much more in common with my white, American peers and was eager to fit in with them.

To quote Wesley Yang’s fantastic 2011 piece in New York Magazine:

Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans: an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it. A conspicuous person standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality. An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honor but that it in fact patronizes and exploits. Not just people “who are good at math” and play the violin, but a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally.

I’ve always been of two minds about this sequence of stereotypes. On the one hand, it offends me greatly that anyone would think to apply them to me, or to anyone else, simply on the basis of facial characteristics. On the other hand, it also seems to me that there are a lot of Asian people to whom they apply.

I understand why stereotypes occur, but there’s something more sinister about applying stereotypes to your own ethnic group and using them as justification for social segregation.

But one of the great things about college is that it brings people together, not only to learn with each other, but also about each other. Through assigned lab partners and peer-editing of narrative essays I realized that the fobby Asians frequently defied the stereotypes I held and weren’t any more homogeneous than the European students, or the Americans I grew up with. A few years ago, my brother completed a Masters program where the student body was heavily international, and he told me he came to a similar realization that just because it’s not easy to communicate with someone, it doesn’t mean that you can write them off as not having a personality or that you can assume they embody the stereotypes of their ethnic groups. Many foreigners socially clustered, not because they always chose to associate with their own, but because it was difficult for them to penetrate any other social circle (no thanks to people like me…).

I learned that, as progressive as I liked to consider myself, I was not free from bias. And I learned that the term that described the self-loathing for and rejection of my own heritage was “internalized racism.” The idea that I had subconsciously accepted society’s negative stereotypes of my own ethnic group and associated feelings of inferiority as being part of that group. And the subconscious part is important. I would have scoffed had someone pointed out that I thought Asians were inferior to any other race, nor would I have blatantly admitted my bias towards seeking white friends. These were never things that I said aloud. They were ideals that subtly permeated my mind, but powerfully directed my decisions. I have only too-recently realized just how deeply ingrained these ideas were, as I slowly grew out of them. I’m fortunate that in growing up, I have learned to become more comfortable with who I am (though I probably still have much growing to do!). A large part of it is not feeling as much pressure to “fit in” as when I was a lonely kid or angsty teen. Another part is just growing up and realizing that the loudest person standing in the biggest group in the room isn’t always the one saying the most valuable things.

It also helps that aspects of Asian culture that were once rejected (remember the cafeteria scene from the trailer of Fresh of the Boat?) are now more culturally accepted or valued. Asian foods such as dim-sum and pho or ramen are now hip. Public schools offer Mandarin alongside Spanish, French, and German. Korean beauty brands fill shelves at Sephora. It took me way too long to realize the value of my heritage. I regret that I wasn’t more diligent in trying to learn Chinese. I regret that the Chinese dishes I try to make are bland in comparison to my mother’s. That when I catch a cold, I call her to ask her what medicine to take because even though I could never read the labels, the powders and pills she gave me always seemed to make me feel better. Now, when I bring my friends to meet my mom, they always comment on how warm and welcoming she is, and not on her Chinglish (or they find it funny and charming).

I’m trying to get better, but I’ll also be the first to admit that there are times and circumstances under which I still struggle. I struggle with how Asian Americans fit into our national conversation about issues of race and oppression (this entirely merits a discussion of its own), and I’m sometimes conflicted when it comes to dating. My brother and I recently had a conversation about dating while Asian (someone should write a sitcom?). After acknowledging that Asian men (and black women) were most often socially penalized while dating, I complained about the prevalence of white men with Asian wives in academia, and how I didn’t want to be lumped with with the other Asian significant others. And I definitely didn’t want to be seen as the fetishized romantic interest of a guy with “yellow fever.” I am terrified of being perceived as a pretty, docile, submissive, exotic counterpart who worships white men. I wonder if white men who are culturally aware ever hesitate to get romantically involved with me for fear of similar perceptions, and whether this ever leads to missed connections.

Sometimes people are surprised when I tell them I’ve never been romantically involved with an Asian guy, though I explain it’s not for lack of trying or interest on my part. I can list off my explanations (excuses?). There are simply more non-Asian guys around, I connect more easily with those who have Westernized cultural values, I’m pursued less often by Asian guys, and more Westernized or “white-washed” Asian guys tend to be attracted to white girls. My brother agreed, arguing that it bothered him that attraction isn’t entirely innate, and was to some degree culturally learned. That everything from Hollywood to his peers enforced norms of attraction that were not favorable to Asians. We briefly mused about our future challenges if(for me)/when(for him) we were to have families of our own.

When I look inward, I believe that I have taken strides towards a more healthy acceptance of my identity as an Asian-American. I am able to reflect more deeply upon my cultural biases to understand how they have informed, and continue to inform, my behavior. And lastly, I have been trying to engage others – Asian-American and otherwise – in this conversation because cultural change does not happen single-handedly, but only when we share and listen to each other.

Read On Being ABC (part 2/2) here.

**In this blog post, I’ve linked multiple times to Wong Fu Production’s amazing new miniseries, Yappie. There are five ~20 minute episodes, and I would highly recommend checking them out. Episode 4 is my favorite. LINK TO THE TRAILER HERE.

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“I wish women didn’t have to rip our pasts open and show you everything and let you ogle our pain for you to believe us.” — Lindy West

My mother has always believed that one of the worst things that can happen to a girl/woman is to be sexually violated by a man. From a young age, I shared a bed with my grandmother who lived with my family. She returned to China when I was around age 7, and I had my own bedroom for the very first time. My mother taught me always to sleep with my door closed, and with a chair propped against the door. This was so that no bad men could hurt me, she explained. But there were no bad men in the house, just my father and brother, I protested. Do it anyways, she told me.

Growing up, I was never allowed to attend a single sleepover or school dance. My mother lectured that even if there were no boys at the sleepovers, my friends might have brothers or fathers, and it just “wasn’t safe” for me. I was never given an explanation for why I couldn’t attend school dances. And funny enough, none of these rules applied to my younger brother. Especially as a teenager I was very bitter about this double standard and what I saw as a grossly overprotective way of protecting my chastity (which had deep implied ties to my value as a woman), but I knew that arguing was futile.

Despite (or maybe because of) my mother’s misguided attempts to protect my virtue, I’ve always strived to be a sex-positive person able to have healthy relationships – both sexual and otherwise – with others. Yet I can also say – me too.

It’s taken me a while to jump on the bandwagon, as I’ve read and agreed with some arguments about why the #metoo movement is futile, or can even be negative in pressuring women to share traumatic experiences (see Lindy West quote above). Yet over the past few days I’ve been so proud of my friends and acquaintances (but also of complete strangers in Hollywood and beyond!), and their bravery in sharing their stories that they believe can be a positive force to bring about – at the very least – greater understanding, at the most optimistic, some change.

I’ve also hesitated joining in for a reason that Roxane Gay put much better than I could in her recent NYT Op-Ed:

“And then there are the ways that women diminish their experiences as “not that bad.” Because it was just a cat call. It was just a man grabbing me. It was just a man shoving me up against a wall. It was just a man raping me. He didn’t have a weapon. He stopped following me after 10 blocks. He didn’t leave many bruises. He didn’t kill me, therefore it is not that bad. Nothing I deal with in this country compares with what women in other parts of the world deal with. We offer up this refrain over and over because that is what we need to tell ourselves, because if we were to face how bad it really is, we might not be able to shoulder the burden for one moment longer.”

I do honestly feel lucky that I have never been raped. Yet, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been catcalled or inappropriately touched and made to feel uncomfortable by a man trying to assert his sexual dominance over me. I’d like to share just one of these stories. I picked this one to share, because for so long I brushed it off as just an unfortunate incident one drunken night. Yet, my mind kept going back to it, and it took me 7 years to accept that it had been sexual assault.

This was a Friday or Saturday night my freshman year of college. One of my best friends and I had been party hopping and decided to stop at one more frat house on the way back to our dorms on North Campus. It was 2 or 3am so the crowd had thinned out and we were left playing beer pong with some of the fraternity brothers and just a few party stragglers. At one point, two fraternity brothers invited my friend and I upstairs to smoke, and we tipsily agreed and followed.

The first red flag was when one of the guys led me into a bedroom and closed the door. My friend and the other guy were nowhere to be seen. The guy grabbed me and started kissing me. When I broke away and asked him where my friend was, he told me not to worry, and that she was fine. I kept insisting that I had to find her, that I would be a bad friend if I abandoned her. I grabbed my phone, and as I tried to call her, he started to undress and pulled us onto his bed. When my friend didn’t answer her phone, I started to worry, but at that point the guy was blocking my exit from the room, so I didn’t try to leave either. He tried to kiss me again, but when I resisted he seemed to give up and we just laid there, silent except for the sound of his heavy breathing, as he masturbated. When he finished, I got up and left his room. The whole encounter might have lasted 5 minutes or an half an hour.

I headed back down the stairs and waited anxiously at the front door, where my friend joined me a few minutes later. She commented how scary it was that we had gotten separated and how those guys were creeps. I agreed. I asked her if she was ok, and told her that I hadn’t slept with the guy I was with despite his insistence, and she said that the guy she was with kept trying to perform a sexual act on her despite her objections. I think we were both a little shaken, but not traumatized. Neither of us ever went back to that frat house.

That was scary, I told myself. But nothing really bad happened. Maybe he just got the wrong message from me. I was drunk and wearing a short dress, I might have been flirting. I should’ve known better than to go upstairs. I shouldn’t have let my friend out of my sight for a single moment. When I said no, at least he didn’t force himself on me. He let me leave his room in the end.

That night came up in conversation a few times over the years, usually when we were sharing stories about all the “creeps” that we had known (a depressingly common conversation), but we never seriously discussed it again until my friend messaged me one day just a year or two ago to say that she had gotten an email from the guy she had been with that night, apologizing for his actions. It was completely out of the blue – in fact she had forgotten his name, and it took her a moment to remember who he was. “Weird,” she said, “I guess he felt bad.” “Weird,” I agreed, “That was sexual assault, wasn’t it?” “Yeah,” she said.

For years, whenever I thought about that night, I thought about all the things that I had done wrong. I dismissed what had happened as not-sexual-assault because it wasn’t rape. That because I was able to easily move on with my life it couldn’t have been that bad. I didn’t feel like a “victim.” But this kind of negative experience is not unique. Not for me, and certainly not for all women.

Like most women, I talk about the sexual harassment and assault I have experienced – but to other women. That’s why now I want to tell anyone who cares to listen to me, me too. Like most of your female friends, and possibly some of your male friends as well, I have experienced sexual harassment and assault. It’s not just angry feminists or damaged victims that complain. If you didn’t realize it before, it’s pervasive. Realize it now.

Realize that these experiences are the reasons why women avoid certain places or certain people. Why we feel nervous walking home alone at night. Why we carry rape whistles and go to the bathroom in groups. Why when we leave a party, we ask our friends to text us when they arrive home safe. We’re not crazy or paranoid or high maintenance. If nothing else, notice all the women in your life that have posted #metoo and realize that this is how things are.

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On Hillary Clinton’s new book, feeling anger, and imagining myself in my 30s

On the phone with my brother last night, I asked him to buy me a copy of Hillary Clinton’s new memoir, What Happened, as an early birthday present. A few minutes into the conversation, he mentioned some leaked excerpts, and conveyed surprise at how angry Hillary seemed at Bernie Sanders. I’m hoping that his surprise was due to the fact that as a candidate, Hillary Clinton was seen to be very emotionally level – sometimes calculating and measured to her critics, and not because he couldn’t understand why she could possibly be angry. Because my first thought was, “Of course she’s angry!”

Truthfully, I’m still angry about the outcome of the election. I’m tired of listening to people explain every wrong move Hillary made during her campaign, as if it rationalizes the outcome. I fume silently whenever people argue that Bernie Sanders was the better candidate – or better yet – that he would have won (by a landslide) had he been the Democratic nominee. I too, am I’m angry at Bernie Sanders, for assaulting Hillary’s character rather than her policies. I’m angry at all the liberals who hated Hillary so much that voting against her was more important than voting against Donald Trump. I’m angry at Donald Trump for even running. And I’m angry at myself for not being able to do anything about it. I have so much anger that if I think too long about it, I can feel my pulse rise and my breathing get shallow. I feel sadness too, but mostly anger. Fuck this. This is wrong. This is unfair. None of it makes sense. Let me be angry.

I can’t tell you why I need to read this book, or what I expect to get out of it. Insight? Catharsis? A sense of closure? Perhaps I’m still grasping for understanding, tired of reading hundreds of speculative reports and news autopsies of her campaign, wondering what really happened.

The 2016 election was more personal to me than any other past political event. Growing up, Hillary Clinton was my childhood First Lady, and then my NY State Senator. I grew up watching her in the spotlight, and following her achievements. She was unapologetically smart and tough as steel, a real role model. And then, in 2016 I let myself become so hopeful that she could shatter the highest glass ceiling. I believed in her so ardently, that the results of the election were nothing short of soul-crushing. The loss felt personal. I think, in some ways I needed her to win, to convince myself that this nation was a progressive place. That when it came time for me to reach for my own goals, that I would have a fair chance. That I would be limited only by my abilities and my ambition, not my gender.

I recently had a long discussion with a close friend and fellow millennial woman about a New York Magazine article (link here) about the mid-life crisis of ambition 30-something women. I excerpt it here:

“But millennial women made the mistake of dutifully believing what they were taught. They presumed their power: everything they read or watched, everyone suggested to them that the path ahead was clear.  They got more degrees, they entered law in greater numbers, they knew they could support themselves and had no gendered expectations around eventual family.

What does it mean to grow up listening to “Roar” when female achievement has flatlined? … There is still no occupation in which a woman who works full time earns a lot more than a man, and few in which women have parity. Women have less savings than men, and are less likely to qualify for a mortgage. … When a woman delays children and partnership into her 30s to earn money and establish independence and then sees how her paths are blocked, it is perhaps no wonder that something like anguish is the result.”

The article discusses how women (typically in their 30s) reach an impasse in their career – despite being educated, ambitious, and hard working – and upon self reflection find themselves at a loss.

“It’s as if the women have cleared spaces in their lives for meteoric careers, and then those careers have been less gratifying, or harder won, or more shrunken than they’d imagined.”

During our conversation, my friend and I lamented not knowing what we wanted. Both of us are in temporary situations – myself finishing a PhD, and she in an unfulfilling government job that she eventually plans to leave. Both of us have many possible paths that lie before us, yet neither of us can clearly envision ourselves confidently following any one of these paths. Marriage is not obvious, kids even less so. We have been raised to be strong and independent, buying into this narrative that professional success is not only desirable, but attainable with hard work. But now we are not so sure. Reality feels much more stark, and the glass ceiling exists. The reminders of it are everywhere. My friend pointed out that it has been less than a century since women in this country were granted the right to vote. And last November, we learned that this country is not yet ready to accept a female President.

Is professional success worth fighting for if I have to fight twice as hard as my male colleagues? Or is happiness to be found in making a reliable living and a strong family? Do I want to leave my legacy in my work or the genes I pass on? How do I know which is the correct choice? And how do I reconcile this choice with the wishes and expectation of my parents, my peers, my gender, and my entire generation? I don’t expect to find the answers to my questions in a midnight phone call or Hillary’s book, but perhaps it is sometimes enough take momentary comfort and strength in sharing in the struggles of fellow women, and in choosing together to persevere in an uncertain future. We swallow our disappointment and anger and go on, however uncertainly, because we must.

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The March for Science[-based policy making]

Since its inception, the March for Science has been contentious, drawing as much vocal criticism as praise. Scientists getting politically involved? What are they protesting? What do they hope to accomplish? I’ve found this debate to be very encouraging, and I believe that the debate (and actions) that precede and follow the March will be as important as the March itself. Here, I’d like to share some of my own thoughts:

The March for Science is not about science, per se.

The March is less about taking a stand against an attack on scientific study and use of the scientific method, and more a response to our government’s increasing disavowal of evidence-based policy making. While the American public largely retains its faith in science, and believes in the ability of science to improve lives, there is a growing gap between what scientists believe and what the public believes (and what politicians legislate).

Science is inherently political, but doesn’t have to be partisan.

Science necessarily shapes public policy. Scientific research has provided us with an understanding of disease, as well as methods to combat and prevent disease (indoor smoking bans, public school vaccine requirements, bans on use of certain chemicals in food, etc.). Science allows us to predict and prepare for natural disasters to minimize human casualties (storm warnings and responses, allocating money to build damns/reservoirs for droughts, etc.). Scientific findings better allow policy makers to craft legislation for the greater good.

Accordingly, much of science is publicly funded, and in our current political climate that funding is at risk. The National Institute of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE), and even the Department of Defense (DOD) are all government agencies that use taxpayer money to finance scientific research. Research funded by the private sector is often limited to what is financially profitable, which can sometimes exclude many important areas of research including basic science research, antibiotic development, and research on rare diseases. Government-funded research has led to numerous breakthroughs that are now ubiquitous in our lives, including the internet, fiber optics, and bar codes. Taxpayers deserve to know where their money is going, and how their investment has paid off.

I’ve heard the criticism that the March will reinforce the view of science as partisan, with scientists as part of the urban intellectual elite in opposition to Trump and those who elected him. However, it is useful to remember that support for science funding and evidence-based policy making has historically been bipartisan. Cancer does not discriminate between Democrats and Republicans. Severe weather hits urban California and the rural south alike. And those who reject science are present in both political parties as well. While the right is known for denying climate change, the left harbors an aversion to GMO crops.

This fight is bigger than our individual squabbles and differences as scientists. 

The label of “scientist” encompasses an enormous and heterogeneous group. We represent diversity in race, gender, and sexual orientation (and continue to work to improve our diversity in these areas). We come from different backgrounds with different training, hold differing opinions on the role of science in society, and may even interpret the same data differently. This diversity and heterogeneity is crucial to the advancement of science in which scientists must constantly challenge what is accepted as “truth,” replacing old hypotheses with newer, better-informed ones. But we are united in our belief of the sanctity of the scientific method. Of the value of science in improving our lives, and that scientific evidence should inform policy.

March for yourself, and as a first step.

It’s unlikely that the March for Science will directly lead to any policy change. But I would argue that it shouldn’t have to. And that’s not why you should march. March because you have a message worth hearing, and a thousand voices are louder than one. March for yourself. It can be cathartic to stand in solidarity with thousands of strangers all joined in the same cause. It can be inspiring to hear the stories of others. Laugh at some witty signs. Make sure to carry one yourself. And then return home energized, but don’t stop there. Get involved in local outreach. Write an op-ed to your local paper. Explain what you do to all your non-scientist friends and family members – and, you know, maybe the British bartender at the Canadian hostel where you’re staying*. Start a blog or a podcast. Start your political involvement by marching for science. And then stay involved.


My sign at the Women’s March on Washington. Still accepting ideas for a witty science poster slogan.

*It was my last night on vacation, and I was nerding out pretty hard. I’m sure the poor guy got much more than he bargained for when he asked me where I was from and what I did.

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“I have never felt more like a minority in my entire life”

“I don’t know this country”

It took Donald Trump winning the Presidency for me to realize just how much I have spent my entire life in a bubble. A bubble that is diverse, well-educated, mostly middle-class, mostly liberal, and not at all representative of the population of the United States. Never has this felt clearer than on Tuesday night as I watched the American people elect a man who has repeatedly and very publicly disrespected people such as myself. Female. Chinese-American. A daughter of immigrants.

I have spent much of this election worrying. Worrying that I won’t have access to affordable contraceptives and the option to terminate a pregnancy if I so need. Worrying that employers will use my gender as an excuse to pay me less than my male peers. Worrying that it will become more acceptable to voice prejudices against people who look like me, with yellow skin and black hair. These are my worries.

But every American has their own set of worries. And many Americans – hundreds of thousands of them – worried about the loss of their blue-collar jobs. They worried about the decay of “traditional family values” and infringement on their religious freedoms. They worried about their rising health care costs. They feel forgotten, emasculated, and abandoned by the Obama administration and the changing times.

And all their worries are no less valid than mine. I’ve heard my peers dismiss those who voted for Trump as being racist, sexist, xenophobic, and bigoted. And some of his supporters do explicitly fit those definitions. But they are not to blame for voting in their own perceived self-interest. Many of these voters have been told, time and time again, that their jobs are being stolen by illegal immigrants in the US, and Chinese workers abroad. These are the voters who have been told that gay marriage is to blame for the decay of family values and will lead down the slippery slope to bestiality. I believe that these voters have been taken advantage of through their worries, that they have been lied to, and that this has played no small part in Donald Trump winning the election. This misinformation is extremely tragic and extremely frustrating.

I am heartbroken that these hundreds of thousands of suffering Americans were willing to empower a man who advocates for policies at the expense of women, racial minorities, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community. No matter how loud my individual voice – how many editorials I share, how many doors I knock on, or dollars I donate – it does not change the fact that in this election, there were too many people who disregarded the worries of people like me. And we all each get one vote.

I hope that I never again experience the sickening roller coaster of emotions that I felt on Tuesday night. I’m tired of feeling fear, and anger, and bitterness. And while those emotions are unlikely to go away anytime soon, rather than wallow in them, I’d like to harness them and channel them into something more productive: determination. I still feel more lost than anything, but I know that for the next four years and for the rest of my life, in whatever small ways I can, I want to promote and spread diversity, inclusion, and open-mindedness. I want to fight for the institutions that protect people like me and the people I love. I believe that institutions like Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and the NSF benefit all Americans, and are worth protecting and fighting for.

It’s important to understand that your civic duty does not start and end with your vote. We need activism. Signing an online petition is good, but calling your local representative is better. Donating money to a charity is good, but volunteering your time is better. Do not fan the flames of hate by re-tweeting nasty tweets and posting alarming, incendiary clickbait. Support good investigative journalism, and share ways that you do good so that we can join you. I know that even as a minority, I am not alone. And we are always stronger together.

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Election 2016: How did I end up here?

To even many of my closest friends, it’s not obvious how I’ve become so involved in this election. As an introvert and a busy science grad student, how did I come to spend my weekends knocking on doors and talking to strangers? I have no history of political involvement, experienced no life-changing event catalyzing a sudden need to make a difference. The most honest reason for why I started canvassing for Hillary Clinton’s campaign was that someone asked me to.

The psychology of how campaigns are run is fascinating (and I’ve only seen a tiny part). But it seems that at the ground level, the most deployed and most effective strategy is to give people a lot of opportunities to say yes, and very few chances to say no. One day in late September I received a call from a woman at the Princeton Community Democratic Organization asking if I could help the canvassing effort in Philadelphia. Once I made it clear I was a Hillary supporter, she made it very hard for me to say no, giving me multiple date and time options for volunteering, and going as far as to organize a ride for me.

I had never canvassed, or otherwise worked on a campaign and had very little idea what it entailed. Over the past few weeks I’ve come to understand working on a campaign is not all big rallies and photo ops with politicians and celebrities. Canvassing is a very tiring, very un-glamorous, and even tedious task. I’ve walked multiple miles over many hours, and knocked on hundreds of doors that mostly go unanswered. I’ve been pushed outside my comfort zone, having strangers look me in the eye and tell me that they are Trump supporters. I’ve been in rough neighborhoods, where people tell me to be careful, or ask me if I’m alone and warn me to avoid certain houses. And I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been dismissed with a “go away,” or “I’m busy,” or an “I don’t talk politics to strangers.”

But there have also been moments of light. I had one man ask me if I could help him change his voter registration from “Republican” to “Democrat.” I’ve had people greet me enthusiastically and promise that they’d make it to the polls no matter what. I’ve had strangers stop me on the street and thank me for doing an important thing. I’ve had honest, insightful, and sometimes surprising conversations about the national debt and minimum wage.

And throughout this whole time, the news keeps dropping one bomb after another. As an outspoken Clinton supporter, I am often asked for my opinions on her campaign scandals. Doesn’t the fact that she used a private email server bother me? What about the Clinton Foundation? Covering up Bill’s affairs? And the answer is, yes. These things absolutely bother me. Recently, I felt my heart drop with disappointment as I read about CNN reporter Donna Brazile having provided the Clinton campaign with debate questions prior to the debate. I wanted to believe Michelle Obama when she said “When they go low, we go high.” But I have also come to accept that Hillary is a flawed candidate.

To me, the most important thing is to keep this election in perspective. Hillary is not running against a better candidate. She is not running against a different Democratic candidate, or even a solid Republican one. She is running against Donald Trump. And I don’t need to criticize Donald Trump here. Just turn on the TV, or go to any news station to look for reasons why Donald Trump is the worst possible candidate. I believe that this is no ordinary election. This is not just “another sad election season.” It is a public, and consequential fight between a strong, progressive, highly qualified female candidate and a man who represents literally everything she has spent her life fighting against. I believe that it is a fork in the road for this country, and we can either continue on the path of progress, or towards self-destruction. To me, it could not be a more obvious choice.

I’ve run out of excuses. I can’t pretend not to care. As a non-white female of reproductive age, hoping to make a career in the sciences, many of the issues that will be decided in this election will affect me. And as an able-bodied young person with two legs and a voice, I can’t pretend that I’m too busy to give up just a few hours each weekend when called upon to help. When Sunday rolls around, I understand wanting to stay in your comfort zone – catching up on TV and doing your laundry – but I can’t. And I won’t.

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