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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“Cool girl”

Late to join the bandwagon, but this heavily-discussed passage from Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl is worth reading.

“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”

gone-girl-01_1485x612

As discussed by: TIME Magazine,  Buzzfeed, The Telegraph, Jezebel.

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Private confessions in public

Yesterday, my mother was baptized. As I couldn’t be present at her baptism and the preceding testimony, I pressed her to tell me what she was going to say. This afternoon, she emailed me an English-translated transcript of the speech she gave.

Her baptism testimony was the most communicative I’ve ever heard her in 22 years. Standing before the large congregation comprising the local Chinese Christian church, she spoke openly and honestly about the past 30 years of her life in the United States. She spoke about her strained relationship my father after he fell ill with Parkinson’s disease and became physically disabled. She spoke about the terror she felt after her breast cancer diagnosis (her own father passed away from cancer decades earlier). She spoke about the weariness and weakness brought on by healing complications and necessary second, third, and fourth surgeries in the same year. And she spoke about her unwillingness to burden her children with what she felt to be her own problems. But she also spoke about the support of the church community, and the gratitude she felt. She spoke about the consolation she found in prayer, and the strength she found in finding God.

These things she had never said directly to me or my brother. For over two decades I’ve had to decipher whether “I’m tired” simply meant that she was tired, or that she was depressed but unable (or unwilling) to say so directly. Superficial arguments always ran much deeper, and bad news was delivered when she could no longer hide an emergency. But that speech was written with an openness and a vulnerability that I had never heard, that I found almost hard to believe.

So my first reaction to her words was that of skepticism. Especially about the God part. When my father was baptized less than two years ago, I looked upon his decision with the same cynicism. Part of me wanted to blame his “Parkinson’s brain,” the idea that his disease would eventually take hold of his rational faculties. Don’t get me wrong; I was glad that he had become a Christian, that he had beliefs to share and a community to share them with. But both he and my mother had spent most of their lives dismissing and even scorning religion. God doesn’t exist. What proof is there? Faith is blindness.

But this time, I could not blame my mother’s conversion on a mind-altering disease. And I also could not deny that she had changed for the better. That she had become happier, and her relationship with my father more harmonious. Could it be that her brush with mortality caused her to reassess her priorities? Maybe. Could it be attributed to one of her surgeries which helped resolve problems of chronic and debilitating pain? Probably. That going to church and bible study gave her a community to belong to and a support system? Yes, certainly. But perhaps she did also gain faith. Was that so impossible or so wrong? When I discussed this with my brother, he argued that the motives behind a good deed do not negate the goodness of the deed. And perhaps that’s true, and perhaps that’s enough.

But one more thing that strikes me is the public nature of her testimony. Dozens of people – an entire church congregation – heard her testimony. They listened to her stories. They received her confessions. They heard her promises. And in some way, they will hold her to her words. Perhaps these words were meant for my brother and I – the private conversation she could never have with us – but not for us alone. They were private words that had to be spoken in public.

I spoke with my mother briefly on Sunday evening, and she said she was surprised at how many people cried, how many people were moved by her story. When I, again, told this to my brother, he said he wasn’t surprised.

I think there’s something to be said about the public confessions of private matters. Narcissism aside, there is something deeply cathartic about confession. I am glad that my mother found a forum in which she felt comfortable expressing herself. Some words are more easily spoken to the world than to an individual. There is also something brave about presenting yourself honestly to others, for them to understand you, and to judge you, and perhaps to hold you accountable for your words.

Note: I realize that another barrier to communication between my parents and my brother and I is a language barrier. Even given the circumstances and the desire, without a translator at home, my mother probably couldn’t have communicated these thoughts in an eloquent and unbroken way as she did in her native tongue. It’s a struggle I’m sure is familiar to the children of many immigrant parents.

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Abusing journalists is a step towards the death of democracy

And no, I’m not trying to be dramatic.

In a departure from their usual role, journalists have been the subject of headlines in recent reporting. Between cops threatening to shoot journalists reporting in Ferguson, Missouri, the beheading of photojournalist Tim Foley by militants in Syria, and attacks on journalists in Egypt, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, etc., it seems like a bad time to be a member of the press. Which is depressing because we need good journalists now more than ever.

To return to the title of this blog post, the United States is a democracy. This means that the citizens elect the officials who represent them. These elected officials are entrusted to make and execute policy decisions. A true and well-functioning democracy is dependent on a well-informed public that is able to elect the government that best represents their interests, and then hold said government accountable for its actions. This is why the free press is so important. They are the link between us and the government.

Lifelong journalist Helen Thomas one said, “We in the press are the only institution in our society that can question a president on a regular basis and hold him accountable. It’s the greatest profession in the world. It’s a search for the truth.”

But the reach of the press extends far beyond the White House. Not every person can be in every crisis zone all the time. And not every (if any) person probably wants to. But I think people have the right to know about the militant police action against protesters in Ferguson, so that they can be properly outraged and be moved to bring about change. I think people have the right to know about Ebola outbreaks in Africa, so that they can take proper travel precautions or to donate to aid agencies. I think people have the right to know about civil struggles in Ukraine, Iraq, Gaza, and Syria, so that we can form our own opinions about wrong and right and support or oppose the actions of their political representatives. The US has many sneaky fingers extended in many places both domestically and internationally, and we have the right to know what those fingers are doing.

The press serves as this link between the citizen and the world. Journalism is a difficult job; it can be tough to form the right questions, and even tougher to do the sleuthing or prying of reluctant interviewees to reach the answers. Journalism is a dangerous job; even though the press is often granted access and protection in conflict zones, neither access nor protection are guaranteed. Often, we read the paper and take for granted the information that is provided to us, unaware that people risk their livelihoods and lives to print these words before our eyes. Journalism is also a noble job; as Thomas said, “It’s a search for the truth.” And finally, I think journalism is a necessary job. We can’t have a true and functioning democracy without it. A blow to journalists and journalism is a blow to democracy.

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In-between

As I type this sentence, I am sitting in my bedroom. A small bedroom in a small apartment which is in turn part of a large student housing complex. The semi-curated wine and craft beer assortment and the growing literature collection on my bookshelf could belong to an adult. The mismatched assortment of cheap furniture and the movie posters Scotch-taped to the walls belong to a teenager. The person sitting on the bed, typing at her laptop feels like neither.

I’ve always heard that college was the transition between childhood and adulthood, and I do think that in many ways it is. The undergrad lifestyle leaves much room for mistakes, and is incredibly forgiving of those mistakes in a way that fosters personal growth. One semester of poor grades is unlikely to ruin your cumulative GPA, and one ruined friendship is unlikely to ruin your entire social structure. You get a little better at thinking, and a little better at being. You grow up a little bit.

But living in a dorm and eating in a dining hall are different from living on your own. Mostly likely, your tuition and living expenses are paid by some combination of your parents, student loans, and part-time employment. You are not directly working to support yourself. You divide your time between class, the gym, and social events. If you’re an underage female, you’ve probably never had to pay for a drink. College campuses are incredibly insulated environments. A college degree is not a badge of adulthood.

I’m not even sure if graduate school makes you an adult. I could divide my life into two lists of adult (financial independence, filing taxes, the craft beer and the books), and not-adult (the meals of frozen ravioli and Ramen noodles, the subsidized student housing, the cheap wine bottles hiding behind the nicer ones), but I don’t think that having a 9-to-5 job, being a homeowner, or even having dependents of your own necessarily makes someone an adult. I don’t have a good definition of what makes an adult, or at least not one that is both neat and satisfying. Yet, I can point to certain acquired habits, experiences, and life lessons that I would count as definite moments of growing up. And I know that everyone has these moments, whether they occur before, during, or after college.

In the past year, I have had to support my parents in ways that I’ve only ever counted on them to support me*. I’ve wanted to protect my friends from their own lives and cried with them when I couldn’t. I’ve learned that being in a relationship with an adult doesn’t necessarily constitute an adult relationship. That people have different expectations of undergrads and grad students**. That first impressions can be lasting impressions and you are accountable for how others perceive you. That I might not always know exactly what I want (career, personal growth goals, romantic prospects) but knowing what I don’t want can be just as important in guiding decisions. More and more often, I’ll mentally stop myself before I make a decision. My life will be so much easier if I keep up with by budgeting. This has to be the last drink if I don’t want to make a fool of myself in front of this person whose opinion I care about. I should skip this unnecessary weekend trip to NYC in case I need the vacation days for another family emergency. I should learn how to bake a layer cake/whole chicken/souffle.

I’m thinking of the future.

*I’ve written about family before, read the posts here, here, and here.
**Likewise, I’ve written about the expectations I felt as an undergrad, read here and here.

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Summer anthem

The Kid Cudi original is good, but Lissie really makes it her own. I had the privilege of seeing her live in Webster Hall this November, and she closed her concert with this song. Amazing, of course.

Bonus Danzig cover – just because.

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Curves or lack thereof

In the last two months, my mother and I have had hours of conversation about fake breasts. Silicone breasts. Breasts reconstructed from your own body fat. Chicken-cutlet-style falsies tucked into a special bra. More importantly, the pros and cons of each, and what she wanted. Prior to this, we had never had a conversation about her body. But cancer changes things.

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in April; the tumors were small, but they were there nonetheless. Though the cancer was in its early stages and had not metastasized, she knew unequivocally – as if she had long prepared for this moment – that she wanted to pursue the most thorough and proactive treatment and get a full mastectomy rather than the more common and less invasive lumpectomy. “Tell them to cut it all out,” she said with absolute certainty.

A few days after she broke the news to me, she brought up fake breasts. Her doctor had presented her the option of surgical breast reconstruction, suggesting that she have the surgery done immediately following her mastectomy to avoid an additional separate procedure at a later date. With less than two weeks to decide, I talked through all her options with her. A silicone breast meant putting a foreign, artificial object into your body. A breast from her own body fat would mean an additional surgical procedure to extract the fat. And what if the fake breast looked unnatural? Even if they managed to recreate the shape and feel of a real breast, there would be no nipple unless she wanted to tattoo one on (she did not). Choosing not to have reconstructive surgery would mean asymmetry and [literally] losing a part of herself.

“I’m an old woman. I’m not vain. What do I care?” she said to me. And this much was true. My mother is 63 years old and has always taken a low-maintenance approach to her physical appearance. She always looked put-together and presentable, but never fashionable. Even the efforts of an occasional touch of red lipstick for social outings and the periodic re-dyeing of her gray hair had all but ceased by the time I was a teenager.

But to me, it was not just about age or vanity. “This has been a part of you for decades. What happens when one day you look down and you feel like you’re missing something?” I argued back. I thought about amputees and ghost limbs. “It’s part of what makes you a woman,” I heard myself saying, at once feeling sexist and un-feminist, not knowing whether I believed that or not. “You’ll be self-conscious if you look different from everyone else.” My arguments were quickly becoming more superficial and more vapid. I felt uncomfortable and wondered how far I had drifted from facilitating her decision-making to projecting my own anxiety and insecurities.

In the end, my mother decided against reconstructive surgery. “I’m strong enough to live with my decision.”

Later, I continued to think about breasts. The “classic” female silhouette featured buxom curves with a slender waist. Not that my mother cared to have an hourglass figure. I thought about push-up bras and low-cut v-necks. Not that she owned either of those. About breast feeding, and those stupid pink “save the boobies” wristbands. She hadn’t breast-fed in nearly two decades, and well, those wristbands were stupid. But one in eight women in the US will get breast cancer during her lifetime, and to many of these women these things do matter.

Two weekends ago, I saw my mother for the first time since I had accompanied her to her surgery. With a silicone mold tucked into her bra, I couldn’t tell fake from real. “It gets hot and stuffy to wear, but it’s not so bad,” she said. When I asked to see her scar, she showed me the harsh straight line, purple and brown that cut across her heart. “It’s just another one,” she said, referring to the equally severe scars on her abdomen and forearm from two C-sections and a major car crash respectively. “I don’t care how I look. I just want the cancer to be gone.”

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What is…

“THE MEANING OF LIFE” is a surprisingly poignant short film by Don Hertzfelt (of “Rejected Cartoons” ie. “My spoon is too big!” fame). Maybe it’s the Tchaikovsky soundtrack. Or the perspective that turns all of human communication into white noise. Or that X years in the future, round-bodied, single-eyed creatures of then still look up at the stars and wonder “What is the meaning of life?”

Undoubtedly, the man is strange but not without charm. And never lacking in imagination.

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