“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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“Choreographed response to patterns of violence”

For about as long as I can remember, the front page of every major paper has been covered in crises and negativity, in numbers and names of the dead.

It has been a rough year.

By now, our violence is down to a pattern, and there is a choreography to our reactions.

A killer seeks out a nightclub, a church, an airport, a courthouse, a protest. Someone is shot on video, sometimes by the police, and marchers fill the streets. An attack is carried out in France, America, Turkey, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Tunisia, Nigeria, and then claimed and celebrated by a radical terror group.

Our phones vibrate with news alerts. The talking heads fill air over cable news captions that shout “breaking news” in red. Rumors and misinformation abound. The comments erupt on Twitter, Facebook and news sites.

And then what? We sigh and shake our heads, mutter to our friends about how fucked up the world is, and then turn our attention back to our daily routines.  I have always believed in the power of good journalism, but what happens when the message is so constantly negative? Does journalism lose its purpose when the potency of the message is lost?

When I read about the shooting of Alton Sterling, or the hate speech directed at Leslie Jones, the heinously sexist merchandise sold at the RNC, the latest ISIS attack abroad, or Donald Trump’s most recent speech, I feel anger. I feel anger, sadness, frustration, helplessness, anxiety, and guilt. And I am reminded of the Desmond Tutu quote:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.

When thinking about all the violence and injustice in the world makes me feel literally ill, I ask myself: have I done enough? I believe that everyone can make a difference by choosing to lead by example, but how can I do more?

I make a monthly contribution to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Not because I believe she is perfect, but because I believe that if she is elected, she is capable of doing good for this country. My individual $150 might not make a difference, but I know that I am not alone in making a small contribution, and together our small contributions make a big difference. Likewise, every year I choose to donate to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, and to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. As I have limited funds, I choose only to donate to a few causes, and motivation for my donations is very personal.

Sometimes I can’t help it, but I try to avoid daily online media sharing of sensationalized political or social opinions. I personally find oversharing of “current events clickbait” to be annoying and incredibly unhelpful to anyone but the trolls. When I do feel the need to voice an opinion, I try to make it my own via this blog. Sometimes others say it better, but I hope that my Facebook friends read a little more closely and think just a bit harder when the words are coming from someone they personally know, rather than an impersonal link to a video or article whose sole purpose is to go viral and garner as many shares as possible.

I applaud those people out there who are teachers, or activists, or community organizers. Thank you to those who put their time and effort towards charitable causes and bringing about social change. But as for the rest of us…. How do you respond to the news? If you also feel anger, sadness, frustration, helplessness, anxiety, and guilt, what do you do about it?

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What do you do with your privilege? What do you do despite your privilege?

There’s been a lot of talk of privilege recently. I see it on my Facebook feed. I read about it in the news. I overhear discussions about it at the grocery store. Heterosexual white men have privilege. Millenials have privilege. The Kardashians have privilege. 3rd wave feminists have privilege. Donald Trump has privilege. I have privilege. What does it all mean?

I can tell you about my privilege. As a Chinese-American woman in a male-dominated field of study, maybe my privilege may not be not obvious. But I am privileged because my parents decided to immigrate to the US, and I was born a citizen in a free country with a high standard of living. Additionally, I grew up in Ithaca, NY, which is rich with culture and opportunity like no other place in the world. Though my parents are not wealthy and lived a frugal lifestyle, I never lacked food or comforts. I worked hard in school, but I can’t pretend that the fact that both of my parents were Cornell employees didn’t impact my admissions there. I’ve only ever lived in safe neighborhoods, and am in generally good health. Though I am a minority (Asian), even that comes with its own version of privilege. I hate the stereotype of Asians as being the “model minority” but I don’t worry about being racially profiled by law enforcement. Strangers rarely look upon me with suspicion and cross to the opposite side of the road when they pass me at night.

I am always aware of my struggles, but I try to be aware of my privilege as well. I remind myself how fortunate I am to be where I am, and reflect upon where I fit in in my society. When I encounter people who are more disadvantaged than I, I acknowledge that they may have had to work harder than I to make it to where they are. But I don’t need to give them differential treatment. I don’t try to be oversensitive or cloyingly politically correct. I just try and conduct myself with self-awareness and with respect.

We often criticize people of privilege because they speak with ignorance, with lack of understanding of others’ situation. But that doesn’t mean that any statement made by any white, heterosexual male should be automatically dismissed. Not even if that statement is about race, or gender, or sexual orientation. A person needs to be realistic in acknowledging the role of their privilege in their achievements, and often these two things are so intertwined that they cannot be separated into what a person has achieved and what they have inherited. But privilege does not make someone “good” or “bad.” How much privilege you have does not correlate with the validity of your opinions or your worth as a person. Not only those who are underprivileged ever struggle. I believe that for those who have been fortunate enough to inherit, the real testament to character is how they choose to wield their influence and power.

A lot of people who dislike Hillary Clinton choose to criticize her privilege. How she comes from a political dynasty and is the embodiment of white feminism. I won’t argue against those statements, but I do argue that those facts do not preclude her from being a great president. I think Hillary has shown self-awareness of her privilege, and shows very little self entitlement that doesn’t come from her own hard work and personal achievements. Since she was a law student in her 20s, Hillary has fought for civil rights and women’s rights. She has a strong record of fighting for and serving disadvantaged people. To me, this is a shining example of how a person can use their privilege to do good.

However, not all liberals are free from abusing their privilege. I’d like to draw attention to the recent comments made by actress Susan Sarandon during an interview with MSNBC on whether she would vote for Hillary Clinton if she were to become the Democratic nominee:

SARANDON: I think Bernie probably would encourage people because he doesn’t have any ego. I think a lot of people are, sorry, I can’t bring myself to do that.

HAYES: How about you personally?

SARANDON: I don’t know. I’m going to see what happens.

HAYES: Really?


HAYES: I cannot believe as you’re watching the, if Donald Trump…

SARANDON: Some people feel Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately if he gets in then things will really, you know, explode.

HAYES: You’re saying the Leninist model of…

SARANDON: Some people feel that.

NY Times columnist Charles M. Blow recently wrote a wonderful piece addressing “Bernie or Bust” supporters, and criticizing Sarandon’s comments as “smack[ing] of petulance and privilege.” Elections are often won or lost by small margins, the presidency is not a game, and this is no time to risk losing the election to a Republican. He goes onto summarize the very real consequences of electing a Republican president, especially ones as extreme and/or unqualified as Trump and Cruz. One commenter summarized:

A Republican wins, and I and millions of other Americans lose our health insurance. The Supreme Court will go hard-right conservative for decades, obstructing any reform in my lifetime and maybe in yours. Your vote is too important to use as a symbolic statement in an election with such dire consequences for flesh and blood people.

Some Americans will be able to afford healthcare even if Obamacare was repealed. Some Americans will make a living wage even if unions lost power and collapsed. Some Americans will never have to experience discrimination for the color of their skin or their sexual orientation. Some Americans will never need an abortion. Some Americans will never be at risk for deportation and will never worry that their family members will be deported. Some people have the privilege not to care. But these are very real and very hard battles that are being fought right now in the Supreme Court and in our top levels of government. Many (innumerable) Americans do not have the luxury of waiting out a Trump or Cruz presidency, anticipating a big Republican collapse or a political revolution that may or may not come. And those that do should realize that the consequences of their actions reach far beyond themselves.

I think it’s about time that everyone takes a long, introspective look. What privilege we do or don’t inherit is rarely of our choosing – but what we can choose, is what to do with our privilege, and what to do despite it.

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I believe in Ithaca, its mayor, and its people

Recently Ithaca has come to the attention of major media outlets such as the NY Times, NPR, and the Guardian for a radical proposal – to establish the first “supervised injection facility” in the US, a place where people can go to legally inject heroin under medical supervision.

In recent years, the numbers of heroin users and heroin deaths have increased in Ithaca, as they have in much of upstate NY and the rest of the country. The number of overdoses has generated a tragic public health crisis, inciting the local government to try a more drastic approach in combating drug abuse. Ithaca has always been politically liberal and progressive town, with a focus on drug prevention and treatment rather than criminal punishment.  The city has established rehabilitation centers, a well-maintained homeless shelter, and a needle exchange program. However, these programs currently in place have proven to be insufficient to fight the heroin epidemic.

Recently, Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick announced The Ithaca Plan. The comprehensive Plan begins with acknowledging that current and past approaches to tackle drug use are insufficient, and that new perspective is needed:

While new practices are adopted to reduce the negative health and social consequences of drug use, older practices criminalizing drug use remain … Too often, our past approaches have failed to recognize that fundamentally, the community prevalence of health problems, such as problem drug use, and social problems, such as participation in the illegal drug economy, reflect deeper issues related to social and economic opportunity and racial inequality.

The Plan outlines specific aspects of prevention, treatment, and law enforcement that are lacking (affordability of treatment, comprehensive drug education, perceived racial profiling, etc.), and proposes new measures to improve education, treatment, community development, and public safety among other fields. One of the many proposed suggestions is the supervised injection facility.

The goal of such a facility would be to reduce the transmission of blood borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis by providing clean needles, and to reduce the number of overdoses and overdose deaths, especially in public place such as parking lots and public bathrooms. Nurses and social workers would be present to provide information on treatment and rehabilitation options as well.

Such facilities have existed in Vancouver as well as European countries including Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands with some degrees of success. The NY Times article reports,

In Vancouver, fatal overdoses dropped 35 percent in the community surrounding its main injection site in the two years after it opened in 2003 and fell 9 percent citywide … According to Donald MacPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, the addicts who have availed themselves of the program are 30 percent more likely to get treatment and other health services than those who do not.

Additionally, I think that Svante Myrick provides the ideal leadership to make this work. First, Myrick enjoys popular support in Ithaca. He is very visible, high energy, and optimistic. People like him and trust him. In the past I’ve written about following him on social media. It’s hard not to like the mayor who posts on Facebook, offering himself and his roommates’ help shoveling residents’ driveways the day after a blizzard. Or the mayor who has an LED sign in his office that in real time transmits text messages from his constituents.

Myrick also has an incredibly inspiring personal story. His father was a crack addict who eventually abandoned his family, and he spent time during his childhood in a homeless shelter. Myrick worked multiple jobs to pay for his college education at Cornell, and at 24 became the youngest elected and first black mayor of Ithaca. He has valuable perspective in understanding the problems Ithaca faces.

There is much opposition to the Plan, especially the supervised injection facility, with the local police chief unable to condone illegal drug use – even under supervision, and one Cornell Law School professor calling it a “government-run heroin shooting gallery.”

I have always believed in and loved Ithaca. Ithacans form an incredibly diverse and supportive community, and I think these qualities will are important for the success of any programs to combat drug abuse. I hope that The Ithaca Plan comes to fruition and that it can serve as an example to the rest of this country.

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It matters that Hillary is a woman.

I support Hillary Clinton because she is a woman. Gender is not the sole reason I support her (I certainly would not vote for Sarah Palin or Carly Fionina), but I won’t pretend that Hillary’s gender doesn’t matter to me*.

I don’t believe that voting explicitly for a [qualified] female candidate makes me sexist. Not any more than supporting affirmative action to increase institutional racial diversity makes me racist. Nor am I under any illusion that electing a female president will solve all of this country’s gender issues. While electing Barack Obama did not make America a “post-racial utopia,” the symbolism of the first black president has undeniably changed the way this nation thinks and talks about race. I believe that electing the first female president will do the same for issues of gender inequality. Electing a President Hillary Clinton would make history in a very significant way. I believe a female president has the potential to inspire a generation of girls and young women who would open their textbooks and see that despite hundreds of years of history, a Y chromosome is NOT a requirement to become elected to the highest office in the nation.

I also support Hillary because she has a strength that is unique to women of her achievement and position. The kind of strength that allows one to maintain her principles with dignity and poise in a world of old white men, many of who are uncomfortable with the idea of women in power and see her as a threat to the status quo. Just watch footage from the Benghazi hearings. Numerous media outlets have written about the unique struggles and inherent disadvantage of “running while female,” how women must “prove themselves extra-competent in order to be understood as basically competent.”

There’s been some talk about how a female candidate could never be as scruffy as Bernie Sanders, as uncombed and unkempt. A woman could never be as grumpy as Bernie, as left-leaning as Bernie, as uncooperative with party machinery as Bernie. And that stuff is true enough. But the bigger truth is that what Bernie does, to great acclaim, that Hillary Clinton could never do is make big promises of institutional overthrow, tug on our imaginative heartstrings by laying out a future that might not be grounded in reality, and urge a revolution. Here is a truth about America: No one likes a woman who yells loudly about revolution.

I believe that the simple fact that Hillary has made it this far – where even her adversaries are forced to take her seriously, or resort to to dismissing her with sexism and baseless attacks – adds to her qualifications.

I don’t believe Hillary Clinton is perfect or that she hasn’t made mistakes – far from it. Like many others, I acknowledge that there are other female Democrats (Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand among others) who would be qualified to run for president. And I wish that they had challenged her, but at least in this election cycle it hasn’t happened.

As a Democrat and a feminist, I support Hillary Clinton because she is qualified and because she is a woman. I wouldn’t go as far as to say not to support Hilary is un-feminist, but as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently said at a rally for Hilary, “there’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other.”


Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and Cory Booker at a rally for Hillary

*I also believe Hillary has great experience, vision, and well thought out policies. I have plenty of specific policy-related reasons for supporting Hillary as well. Ask me if you care to know.

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When were you going to tell me?

As I boarded the bus departing Ithaca last Saturday, my mother called after me, “Why do you always leave so soon? … Don’t forget to call home often! Call me if anything happens. Have a safe trip!” I rolled my eyes and looked up the bus driver who gave me a sympathetic smile as I maneuvered my bags down the narrow bus aisle.

“Yeah, ok,” I replied to my mom without looking back. “I love you, but you’re such a hypocrite,” I wanted to turn back and tell her. But instead, I threw by bags down and settled into my seat.

I’ve written about my relationship with my parents before (read here and here), but there is one pattern in my mother’s behavior that has particularly grown to bother me in recent years.

The first incident was in 2010. I was a sophomore in college when my father was hospitalized for an emergency. As I was not living at home, I did not witness the incident and only learned that something was wrong  when my mother called me to ask me if I had a spare copy of the house keys. She explained that she was at the hospital, she had locked herself out of the house by accident, and my younger brother wasn’t answering her calls. Confused, I answered no and asked her if everything was ok. She quickly dismissed my concern and reassured me it was. Not reassured, I called my brother, who alerted me he had just learned that my father had been taken to the hospital in an ambulance and that my mother was with him.

Later that night, after confirming that my father would be ok, my concern and anxiety for him turned to anger towards my mother. Why hadn’t she told me as soon as it happened? Why did she lie to me on the phone? When I confronted her, her replies were dismissive. I was at school and she didn’t want to distract me from my studies. It turned out not to be an emergency – everything was ok. There was nothing I could have done and she didn’t want to make me worry unnecessarily.

I grew even angrier. He was my father and I had a right to know. I was nineteen – an adult now – and she didn’t need to protect me like a child. Would she have hid this from me forever if I had not found out from my brother? I felt betrayed, as if she didn’t trust me – or trust that I could handle the truth.

Over the next five years she continued to downplay incidents. When my father was hospitalized under the same circumstances again, almost exactly three years later, it took a confused text from my brother (“mom said dad’s in the hospital again, do you know what happened?”) and a game of phone tag with my mother before I finally got the truth. She reassured me my father was fine. She didn’t want me to worry and didn’t want me to interrupt my grad classes and make the trip home (I did anyways). Nearly two years ago, she called to tell me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and would get a mastectomy the following week. She promised she would be ok and that I didn’t need to make a trip home for her operation (again, of course I went home). Each time I berated her attempts to shield me from worry and “unnecessary life interruptions” and urged her to tell me as soon as things happened.

A little over a month ago, I received a late-night call from my father. “Your mom found out last week she has a tumor in her uterus. They don’t know yet if it’s cancer, but she needs surgery to remove it.” I thanked him for telling me, and promised I would call her soon. As soon as I hung up, I started to cry angrily into my pillow. Of course she didn’t tell me again. Of course I had to find out from someone else. Why would I have expected any different?

It was 1am, but I needed to talk to someone so I called one of my friends living on the west coast. He listened patiently as I cried into the phone, and then told me exactly what I needed to hear. “Eva, I’m so sorry, that sucks. But really think for a second. You can understand why she doesn’t tell you, right?” His parents were Korean, and in this respect just like mine – the worse a situation was, the more covered up it was and the less it was discussed. Our parents truly thought that they were doing right by protecting us from unnecessarily worrying about a situation we could not change. It was simply not in their culture to share, but to brave on in solitude. “If anything happened to my parents, I’d probably find out only after they died.” I laughed like it was a joke, even though we both knew it wasn’t. He made me promise that when I did call my mother that I wouldn’t lose my temper and yell at her.

A week ago, I received a holiday card from one of my best friends in college. Over the past year or so, he had stopped responding to my texts and calls. The card included a few words updating me on his life, and ended with an apology for being ” a shitty friend and bad at keeping in touch.” The thing is – I don’t think of him as a shitty friend. Yes, I missed hearing about his life and hearing the sound of his voice, but he had been really important to me in college and I’ll always remember that.

As I struggled with family emergencies and other personal hardships, throughout college I was incredibly fortunate to have a few good friends who I could rely on. Friends who were patient listeners and non-judgmental confidants. Friends who gave sympathy but never pity, and were able to dole out no-bullshit advice and tell me to shut up when I was whining. While my mother may have spent her entire life safeguarding her emotions and maintaining a solitary front in the face of adversity, I never had to carry my emotional burdens alone if I didn’t want to.

I do understand why my mother chooses not to tell my brother and I when confronted with difficult situations, but I still don’t think she is right. I don’t know if she will ever be able to lean on me and to share in the way that I want, but at least I am grateful that I have people who I trust and who I can count on. Who I can call at any hour of night to share my burdens and my problems, and whose burdens I am always glad to share as well.

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Because compassion is not a finite resource

Earlier this weekend, writer, professor, social activist, and feminist Roxane Gay wrote an Op-Ed for the NYT titled “Of Lions and Men: Mourning Samuel DuBose and Cecil the Lion.” I enormously respect her message, and it is an important one that has been echoed by many recently – yet I found some of her more peripheral statements to be especially eloquent and meaningful to me.

Often, when I write about race or gender, people offer apologies.

They say, I apologize for my fellow white people.
They say, I apologize for my fellow men.

I understand this desire to say, “We are not all like that,” or, “I wish the world were a better place.”

Sometimes, saying sorry is, at least, saying something. It is acknowledging wrongs that need to be addressed.

These apologies, however, also place an emotional burden on the recipient. You ask the marginalized to participate in the caretaking of your emotions. You ask them to do the emotional labor of helping you face the world as it truly is.

In these words, Gay was able to articulate a discomfort that I have always felt upon hearing others apologize on behalf of their race/gender/social class. A feeling that I have had to dismiss or that even later led to guilt because I could never explicitly justify what made me feel so uncomfortable about what was a sincere apology.

Even worse are the discussions in which I have expressed frustrations about personal struggles I have faced growing up as the daughter of conservative and patriarchal Chinese immigrants, or as a female in a male-dominated field, or as someone who feels fierce loyalty to their LGBTQ friends, when my conversation partner has felt the need to address that while they may be any combination of white, or male, or heterosexual, or from a privileged economic background (which is 100% ok! Many of my friends fall into these categories!), they personally do not fit the negative stereotypes of “their label” and that they are open-minded and sympathetic. I am literally NEVER blaming that particular person for my past problems, and that they get defensive only makes us both uncomfortable. I wonder if they’re missing the point.

When you hear, “black lives matter,” don’t instinctively respond that all lives matter, as if one statement negates the other. Instead, try to understand why people of color might be compelled to remind the world that their lives have value.

When others share their reality, don’t immediately dismiss them because their reality is dissimilar to yours, or because their reality makes you uncomfortable and forces you to see things you prefer to ignore.

Avoid creating a hierarchy of human suffering as if compassion were a finite resource. Don’t assume that if one person says, “These are the ways I am marginalized,” they are suggesting you know nothing of pain and want.

I agree with Roxane Gay that it can be difficult to have discussions about race or gender, and it can be difficult to empathize with those who are different from us. But we can always make the active choice to listen and empathize. Compassion is not a finite resource.

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Worried about worrying

I was sitting in a booth in a sparsely populated bar (or what qualifies for one here in Princeton) last Wednesday, when during a lull of conversation, the friend sitting across from me made eye contact and asked, “Are you happy?” Caught off guard, I paused for a moment before slowly replying, “I think that my default mood tends to be a bit lower than most people’s, so I don’t know how to answer that.”*

I think the appropriate answer would have been a resounding “yes.” The four of us were coming to the end of the period in January known to Princeton second-year graduate students as “Generals week(s).” Generals referring to the benchmark exams all graduate students take in their second year, in which they present their research plans and progress in front of a committee of professors who will decide whether the student is adequately prepared to be formally acknowledged as a “PhD candidate,” whether they require further preparation, or even if they might be better off leaving the program. Two of us had passed our Generals exams, and the other two had finished the exam and were waiting on their results. The occasion was celebratory – we had just finished what was recognized as one of the most stressful events in a PhD – yet the mood seemed almost sombre.

“It was pretty anti-climatic.” “It went alright.” “My committee didn’t ask me about anything I actually studied.” “It doesn’t matter how you did – you passed.” “What do I do now? What am I supposed to worry about now that Generals is over?”

That was the lingering thought. Now what? The poser of the initial question continued (I’m paraphrasing here), “I don’t think people living in the first-world worry any less than people living in the third-world. They’re just different worries. Instead of ‘Will my family have anything to eat tonight?’ it’s ‘Is so-and-so cheating on me?’ Even when we have everything we need, we invent things to worry about.” Which sounds oh so entitled, but not entirely untrue.

In the past few years, I’ve grown accustomed to functioning very well under pressure. Given a certain crisis, or expectations and deadlines for a certain task, I work more efficiently, and find it easier to be more mentally and emotionally focused. Ironically, now that my life is absent of major personal or academic crises, I find myself more restless and unfocused. It’s not the lack of tasks to do, but perhaps the lesser gravitas of those tasks. Or perhaps the vacuum that’s left when encouragement and support from peers tends to diminish as you lose those causes to support. Last night I drunkenly penned a birthday message to a best friend of mine, telling him I loved him and missed him, and expressing hopes that we could talk soon, even if he just wanted to rant about his daily life to me. Perhaps I just want to donate a bit of worry to someone else’s life for now.

*In retrospect, this was a pretty stupid thing to say. I have no idea of comparing my emotional states to others’. I guess I meant that I’ve always perceived myself to be more morbid in personality than most others around me, something which I have come to terms with.

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Diamonds and Rust

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