My series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be will resume with my next post, but today I want to talk to you about something cool that happened yesterday.
Tuesday evening was rough. Last week I tried out for a writing gig in a space I’m really interested in—organizational psychology, loosely—and haven’t worked in yet. I don’t think I realized at the time how much it would matter to me to not get it.
I went to bed feeling crappy after I got the news and woke up with a pissiness hangover. It was even worse because I’d just come off an epic weekend where I shared a portion of my newest work-in-progress for the first time and got to meet up with some old friends. It always makes a work feel real when you read it into a room—now that other people know of its existence, it’s like you have to make it happen. Before that, it’s all just theoretical, to my mind.
Anyway. Being disappointed is one thing. Knowing I should feel okay about this disappointment because I’d had such a great weekend was quite another, somehow, so I sent this tweet out the Wednesday morning.
When you send a call for help like this out into the Twitterverse, I think there’s a part of you that wonders what kind of response you’ll get back.
The answers I received were heartening. There were ones that have to do with perspective, like this:
And I love this one from a former student of mine, with her reminder that if it matters enough, you’ll find a way to get at it anyway.
In it, she references the first response I got, from a professor I met on Twitter via the writing I’ve been doing about Dolly Chugh’s book. He teaches in the organizational behavior field, too. His answer was striking because his “smile file” is a step we undertook at Tahoma Literary Review to remind us of what keeps us moving forward, but I never took that extra half-step to apply it to my own work.
Later, he sent a photo of his smile file. It’s on his wall; he doesn’t even have to open it! He just turns to it, a pile of cards and notes tacked to a board, and bang! Instant boost.
And then there was some other immediately actionable advice:
And finally, some great advice around personal philosophy.
I think probably the thing I love about all of these is that they come from a place of shared experience: We have all these disappointments. Some of them may feel larger than others, and I suspect the severity of this one has to do with some embarrassment on my part for not performing up to snuff. But seeing that shared experience is what keeps me coming back to social, time and again.
The advice was great, but what really made me pull out of the funk was seeing how many of your coping mechanisms resonated with others.
And as you replied to each other’s comments and added advice of your own, I realized that maybe this was a form of smile file, too; this sensation of a shared space and a community, however ephemeral, built around one person’s temporary disappointment.
This is part 7 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. Chugh writes about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. Buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.
…When we only perceive what we expect, we create an echo chamber. We do not look for or notice disconfirming information….What makes these psychological echo chambers even more problematic is that we also live in social and media echo chambers. These are more willfully created. These are the ones we choose…. A PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) American Values Survey asked participants to name up to seven people with whom they regularly discussed important matters….They found that 75 percent of whites, 65 percent of blacks, and 46 percent of Hispanics had homogenous networks composed exclusively of people sharing their own race.”
Dolly Chugh, The Person YOU Mean to Be, pp 100-102
You know how the universe sometimes conspires with you? You’ll look at your calendar and see three meetings with varying parties and friends related to one client, say. Or you’ll realize that, on a day you have an appointment for your dog at the vet, you also notice a new bird you haven’t seen before, or make a new friend who’s studying to be a vet.
Some people say that that’s all just your brain being aware of opportunities that “go together.” Another friend likes to say it’s whatever “energy” you’re putting out there when you book the appointment, or the meeting. It might just be sheer, magical coincidence.
I don’t actually care what it is that makes these things group; I just like that they do. And I like all the explanations, actually.
In the past seven days, I have spent quality time with six friends I’ve known since at least high school. I had drinks with one of them last night; drinks with another two Wednesday night, and spent last weekend with three others. All of this time with old friends, people who know you so well that they’ve accepted all of your bumps and warts and expect more, has me re-assessing why it is we go back to some people again and again.
Because the truth is, I’ve been sitting on top of the task that Dolly Chugh sets to us in the quote I posit I above for more than a month. Her work implicitly challenges us to examine our own networks, and the extent of our own echo chambers. It’s much easier for me to feel good about the fact that I have old friends who work in widely varying fields, and who I’m proud of knowing and want to keep forever, than it is to acknowledge that my own networks are really, really homogenous.
But this is where it gets really tricky. Because, see, I’m part of a “model minority.” And in recent years, I’ve read or seen a good number of studies that show that Asians are often lumped in with whites: we have similar income trends for instance. And we have similar educational profiles, as well. I think we tend to disappear. (Read this essay, from Matt Salesses, for another valuable viewpoint.)
More anecdotally, the stereotype of Asians not wanting to rock the boat, of just quietly slotting in, fits neatly into this narrative, as well. And actually, maybe it’s not a stereotype. My parents told me regularly to just be quiet, hunker down and get my work done. While, of course, earning the best grades in school and being popular, or something. (Spoiler alert: neither of these things happened.)
All of this is to explain that most of my friends were–and are–white. Of the friends I met over the course of the last week, my high school friends, only one of them isn’t white; she’s Iranian. So while Chugh comments that whites, blacks, and Hispanics have networks that comprise mostly their own races, well…I don’t have that issue. But it doesn’t make me feel any more diverse, because for a long time I acted like I was white myself.
I don’t really know what to do about this, except to exercise more inclusion in my life. I’m married to a white guy; my parents are Asian, so is my brother. It’s like, although it’s enough for other people to have more than one ethnicity in their social circles, it’s not enough for me to have Asians and whites in the pool of people I share important things with; I have to have more diversity; be more.
And suddenly, I’m back in high school again, with my parents comparing me to the next kid, over and over: Why can’t you be more popular, like her? Why can’t you be smarter, like her? Why can’t you be more obedient, like her? Why can’t you be quieter prettier care more about your family not quite you?
Listen: I’m not complaining. I like, need, value more viewpoints. Hearing what it’s like from someone else’s point of view is like having a light turned on in a dark room. Yesterday I spent some time with some young Hispanic and Black students as part of a conference I participated in. And one of the panels I was on comprised a white woman, an Indian woman, a black woman, and myself. I loved hearing about their creative processes. I got to spend some additional time with one of the volunteers at the conference. Driving her home, I listened to her talk about the pressures she’s under as a young black woman, what her family expectations are, how she thinks her career in the fine arts is going to shape up.
I hope one day I’ll be able to list her, or someone like her, among the group of people I discuss important issues with.
But for now I have to tell you that the seven people I most discuss important issues with are white or Asian.
They are: My husband My brother My friend Amy My friend Peter My friends and neighbors Suzanne and/or Aurelia or both together My friends Dawn and/or Leigh Anne or both together
Actually, discounting the high school friends (Amy is one), these are just the last sevenish people I discussed difficult or serious things with.
Of them, only my brother is a minority. And he wouldn’t count as being diverse, since he shares my race.
I don’t actually know what to do with this. I didn’t think I’d arrive at this conclusion. I think I thought that I’d just add this to my long list of “to do” items-—consult with more diverse people; make a concerted effort to reach out more often for differing viewpoints. I thought this was going to end on a high note, somehow, that I’d feel energized, after yesterday’s amazing conference, to make more friends. But really, I’m just tired now, and a little depressed. The collision between wanting to be good and my cultural heritage has caught up to me today.
And yet. Two, three weeks ago I was walking Huckleberry in the soccer field by my house when I saw another dog in the field. It was bouncing and happy, and its owner was sitting nearby. I went over and introduced myself and let my dog go, and since then, Huckleberry, Nala, Bruce and I have spent three or four mornings together in the field, talking about everything from work to President Number 45 to our siblings and work and code-switching.
Bruce is 60. He’s black. I am putting him on my list. Because I appreciate him, yes. But also because I need more of his type of wisdom. I didn’t actively reach out to him that first time; I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But maybe being open to those encounters is good, too, even if it’s not “good enough.”
The American entrepreneur Jim Rohn is often quoted as saying that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. If I’m thinking of this as an aspirational exercise, rather than a foregone conclusion, I feel a sense of great responsibility.
I want to be more worldly. I want to know what it was like for you, if you grew up Black. Or poor. Or gay or queer or trans. I am none of these things, and I can never be. So maybe it’s not that I am the average of the five people I spend the most time with, but that I am richer, a better person, if I can learn a little more of your story.
This might feel like a false comparison. Chugh is talking about expanding our circles; making our echo chambers less echoey. Jim Rohn is talking about bettering yourself. He’s talking about finding people you admire and looking for ways to spend more time with them so you can be more like them.
But I don’t think these two are all that far removed from each other. Internalizing someone else’s struggle—knowing about it, shining a light on it for yourself, knowing more about it—this can’t be anything but a good thing, can it?
This is part 6 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. Chugh writes about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. Buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.
Many of DENCAP’s customers and health-care providers come from Detroit’s African American, Middle Eastern, and Hispanic communities, so Joe wanted his employees to reflect those communities. Many of DENCAP’s customers are also on Medicaid. “Detroit is 80 percent poor. I want employees to understand what my customer base is struggling with.” …A younger Joe might not have seen these possibilities…He just knew he could do better. Noticing has been a big part of the journey. Joe began paying closer attention to experiences he may have missed or dismissed in the past.
Dolly Chugh, The Person You Mean to Be, pp. 92-93
Part of my volunteer work for ShelterBox involves the distribution of ShelterKits and ShelterBox tents. The former is a set of tools that is usually paired with two robust 4-meter x 6-meter tarps. The family can use the tarps to replace walls that have been taken down by floods or earthquakes, or roofs that have been blown off by hurricane winds.
The latter is our signature piece of equipment. It’s a big white igloo tent that can shelter a family in the most urgent times of need.
Along with this kit, we also distribute kitchen kits, water-purification units, blankets, solar lamps.
And education. We teach the families how to use the equipment we’ve given them so that it can best help them through the weeks and months after a disaster. Things like water-purification units come with a prescribed set of directions. Tents should be erected with tight guy lines, so that the fabric doesn’t flap in wind and isn’t as prone to tearing. And we have a worksheet that tells you how to best use your tarp so that it’ll last a long time, until you can get a real roof or wall up.
But when we come back to check on the families as part of our post-deployment monitoring process, we see some modifications to the family’s kit. Sometimes they’re using the tarp in ways we never envisioned. In the Philippines, where I was most recently, some families were using them as covers for production of their coconut harvest, so they could work longer hours without as much heat exposure. “Oh, that’s cool,” we said. “We haven’t seen that before.”
Some families were using them in still other ways: they had draped the tarps loosely over the frames of their homes, leaving the ends flapping free. We approached the families. “You know, right? That you can use the roofing nails we gave you to nail down the tarp? Here, fold it over, like this”–we demonstrated–“so that the edge will be even stronger. And then put the nails right in.”
“And then, for this one here,” we went on, helpfully, “where you have it doubled over? See? There’s a seam here. You pick at this seam, and rrrrip!-—” we mock-tore at the tarp-—”you now have two tarps!” We may have grinned. “See?”
Our interpreters dutifully gave the instructions. The families nodded politely. And then they told us that they had it hanging so because they didn’t want to put nails into the tarp. That they wanted it to remain whole.
That they couldn’t be sure, in the future, if another, bigger storm might come through, when they needed to have true, strong, whole tarps to depend on, rather than a variety of half-tarps with holes in them. Or they needed them for their harvest. Or their family members who weren’t working and who didn’t have a means of building a new room quickly needed them instead.
These are all systems that were not readily visible to us. Things we couldn’t see right off the bat. Sometimes, it’s hard to see beyond fulfilling what’s an obvious, immediate need.
We are still duty-bound to repeat the education, just in case someone couldn’t be at one of the training events we put on for the community, but I am always interested to hear what the family has to say about how they’re using the equipment we gave them.
Another book I’m reading, Story Genius, presents some methods that help writers to craft great novels. Author Lisa Cron posits that a novel doesn’t go anywhere without the writer understanding what the character’s underlying beliefs are.
As with any theory about process, Cron’s may not work for everyone’s brain. But it definitely works for mine. When I was penning the nineteenth (or thereabouts) draft of my first novel, my thesis advisor begged me over and over again to look for my character’s north star, just so I knew what she was about. And another trusted friend, writer and professor John Brantingham, urged me to make her act in correlation to this north star. “She is a protagonist. She must protag,” read John’s margin notes to me. Between the two of them, I have the single most common piece of advice I pass on to new writers.
Cron and my thesis advisor are pointing to things that lie in the background of any good story. They may not necessarily be stated outright, but they eventually manifest in the character’s actions, to Brantingham’s point. So that everything makes sense. So the narrative rings true.
Without knowledge of this narrative, the writer can’t convey why we are meeting the character at this point in time. And the reader, consequently, won’t care.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that hidden narratives (or, in Chugh’s parlance, hidden systems) underlie a great many misunderstandings. Someone once said to me that they didn’t understand why homeless people didn’t just go out and get a job like the rest of us. Welp, I said, to get a job you need an address. To get an address you need first and last month’s payment, plus a bank account. To get a bank account you need a social security number.
Years ago, someone told a table full of us about the narrow escape he’d had as an exchange student in 1980s Kenya. He said he had nearly been the subject of human trafficking. His host families were about to sell him on the black market. The guy sitting next to me said that this story showed that Kenyans were so corrupt. He wouldn’t mind, he said, if the whole population just up and disappeared. Of course that’s wrong. But what mattered to him then, at the telling of that story, was how awful he felt that our friend had had this happen to him.
A decade ago, the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED talk about about the danger of the single story. You’ve probably seen it, but it’s worth another 15 minutes. Here:
What I told my friend that day draws from the end of Adichie’s talk: No matter what we think of a population, or a group of people, there is always a story we don’t know. There is always a reason things, and people, are the way they are, and do what they do.
In the case of Kenya, we need to look to the long, ugly history of colonization, and lack of representation, and the imbalance of power before we judge what feels like an innately corrupt system.
In the case of my novels’ heroines, we need to understand that the heroine is coming from someplace when we first meet her. She was not just birthed, the minute we open the book.
In the case of the families we help at ShelterBox, we need to keep our minds open to solutions that we can’t, in our need to address the urgency, quite see yet.
What I think I want to posit is this: Seeing hidden systems means we have to step a little bit outside of what’s easy. We need to work to find another narrative, to dig a little deeper into someone else’s story.
But although it might look like work, it feels like joy. It feels like scratching an itch. It feels like satiating some curiosity. This kind of curiosity is exactly the reason that the two Youtube channels titled “How It’s Made” and “How Its Made” have a combined 800,000 subscribers. And why etymology is fascinating. And why science shows and nature documentaries will aways be interesting.
And why, because it’s almost football season here and I’m about to lose Mr. Gooddirt for two days out of the week, instant replay is even a thing. And why I’m always interested in seeing slo-mo videos of dogs missing treats tossed at them.
We love to see how a thing happens.
If we can apply this innate curiosity to finding out how people are the way they are, and how they’re they’re different, why they’re different, we can alleviate a lot of misunderstanding. And, if we assume hidden systems behind everything we see, maybe we can prevent a lot of hurt.
What’s the last misunderstanding you had debunked for you? Or a time when you were able to provide perspective to someone? Tell me in the comments below.
This is part 5 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. Buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.
Colleen realized that even if everyone in the community had her family’s work ethic, they still might not be able to overcome all the headwinds they were facing. … “What if I had been born black instead of white?” she wondered. What if her grandparents had been black? Colleen asked herself. … Because fewer of [Colleen’s] hypothetical black family members could access benefits, homes, places in college, and so on, she saw that there were more opportunities for her real white family. They benefited as black Americans subsidized white Americans, through both tax dollars and forgone opportunities. Regardless of her family’s socioeconomic class, they benefited from the tailwinds at their back and the headwinds slowing down others. … “In other words,” Colleen says, “I am the direct beneficiary of those racist systems.”
Dolly Chugh, _The Person You Mean to Be_, pp 71 & 78
Last year, I wrote a blog post about the phrase “Good luck,” and why I stopped saying it to people. TL;DR: a lot of good luck is preparation, and I want to respect the work that goes into people’s endeavors.
When someone starts off on the first mile of a marathon (or a 5K!), for instance, I don’t tell them “good luck.” I tell them I hope they have all the fun they want to have. These people have worked hard to train. They don’t deserve to think it’s all down to luck.
When I was younger, I demurred a lot when folks complimented me on my success in what they saw as the fickle world of writing and publishing. “Aw,” I’d say, feeling really embarrassed, “I got lucky.”
But then, at some point, I got to believing that it was better to just own it. I had worked hard. And, it made me feel good to believe and say that I had worked hard. I was deserving, dammit.
Enter the bootstrap narrative.
But I did not have to bootstrap; not really. My parents paid for college. (But I worked at the college newspaper and in the public relations office!) We never wanted for anything at home. (But my parents threatened to withhold tuition if I didn’t study what they wanted me to study.) I could afford an apartment my first year living in New York, and I refused support from my family, even when I was eating free Goldfish crackers off bars for dinner and making $18,000 a year.
You must have noticed all the little protests I keep on throwing up there. Those aren’t there for illustration’s sake. They’re completely reflective of what goes through my head, I promise: Every single admission of how easy I had it comes with a knee-jerk response. And I’m not alone, either: Earlier in the book, Chugh refers to psychologists Taylor Phillips’ and Brian Lowery’s work, which reveals what they term the “hard-knock life” effect: respondents answering a question about their relative comfort in life answered one way or another depending on whether or not they heard about another social group’s struggles in comparison to theirs. Put more frankly, white Americans were more likely to report an easier childhood if they weren’t asked to compare their advantages to those of black Americans.
I think this is related to the idea that society is a meritocracy. I’ll sidestep into a field I’m more familiar with. Let’s look at literature, and publishing. So many writers believe that if you’re just good enough, or talented enough, the “right people” will “find you,” and then you’ll be gold. Life will be good. Cue Oprah and Terry Gross and a movie adaptation by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine production company.
C’mon. You don’t really believe that, do you? As a writer I was communicating with put it, “I realized that an executive from HarperCollins was not going to suddenly appear as I was scribbling in my notebook in a diner.” No. No she’s not. And if she does, she’s more likely to ask you for your salt shaker than she is to ask you if she can see your notebook. And then be able to pull a narrative thread from your ramblings.
Let’s take that a little further. You’re sitting in a diner? It means you can afford to eat there. You have time to write? It means you’re not working three jobs to make ends meet. You’re within vicinity of a HarperCollins editor? You’re probably hanging out in an okay part of town.
Let’s not even talk about the MFAs. I have one myself, and it netted me a gazillion connections. I currently publish a magazine and run a writers’ retreat with four friends from that same MFA. And I got one of my steadiest writing gigs via an editor I met at the MFA. And I’m sending my next novel to an agent I met there.
MFAs are expensive, man. I got in because I got decent grades at a good college and could afford to hone my craft freelancing over fifteen years or so. I graduated because I could afford an unfunded MFA at a low-residency institution. That is some rarified air, indeed.
Denying my privilege—my luck—would be silly and misguided. And blind.
I’ve covered each end of the spectrum now: I went from from not being able to admit I worked hard to prescribing my success to only hard work.
I’ve walked away from my desk seven times while writing this paragraph, so that must mean that what I want to say next is hard: I need to find a way to both recognize my hard work and acknowledge the invisible help I’ve had in getting me to this point.
My family is well off. This means that I am more likely to take creative risks, since some part of me is aware I’ll always have someplace to turn if things really hit the skids.
Both of my parents are college educated, which means they also expected me to get an undergraduate degree, at a minimum. Of course they would pay for it.
My parents were able to immigrate to America with no real barriers. My father had a job already set up when he arrived, thanks to his extensive network of doctors who had graduated from the same medical school he did.
Of course I can’t deny that my ethnicity, and that presents a set of barriers.
I was expected to marry.
I was expected to only become either a doctor or a lawyer.
I was expected to demure.
I was expected to fade into the background, or I didn’t fit in.
These expectations came from my parents, certainly. But they also come from the American society I wanted to adopt as my own. The number of times I’ve had to hear “Wow, you’re opinionated for an Asian girl.” Oi.
Now that I see these things written out, I can better balance what I “came with”—what makes me lucky—with what I actually had to work for. I can see more clearly the things that might be useful for me to address when I look at how to better promote equity in my workplaces and social places.
For instance, I can represent minorities working in publishing and media and work to lift others. The publishing industry is 87% white. Minority narratives have not always been in demand, even if they are earning some share of the market now.
My parents have a strange saying that always rankles. But still, it has a tinge of truth to it: “Don’t try to help others until you’re sure you can help yourself.” They’re not wrong: I can do far less good if I’m destitute or starving. What they haven’t quite internalized, though, is that everyone has their own respective measurements of the levels at which we believe we need help. And, I’m not sure they buy the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats argument, but I do.
Last fall, when the election result that I didn’t want to happen happened, I had to sit down and have a long conversation with a white family member about the implications for people who might be impacted, including myself. I’ll never forget what she said:
“But they won’t be targeting you, Yi Shun. Asians have such good work ethics.”
To this day, recalling that conversation makes me go lightheaded. I haven’t pinned down what kind of lightheaded. I’m not angry. I’m a little hurt, still, because I have a terrible work ethic, actually, and this family member knows that. Her lumping me in with this stereotype erased my individuality. I think maybe part of the lightheadedness is a direct reaction to the realization of how far apart this family member and I are from each other in our world views: After a beat during which I saw confused blue spots, what I said to her was this:
“Whenever you see or hear the word ‘minority,’ you should think of me. Black, Latino, Asian–we are all targets. And so are the people who value us and spend time with us.”
Or maybe the lightheadedness is due to the recognition of the fact that she was right. I’m not likely to be as targeted as Black Americans, or Latino Americans, or Muslim Americans.
This is part 4 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. And you can buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.
“…[Rick] recalled a conversation in which a female colleague had challenged him not to refer to women as ‘guys.’ He had dismissed it with a roll of the eyes. … Remember, Rick hired women. He promoted women. He was a believer. His moral identity was tied to being one of the good guys. … Our unconscious biases, those attitudes and stereotypes outside of our awareness, may or may not align with our consciously held beliefs. …[P]sychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum describe how these unconscious associations are shaped by what she called ‘smog.’ … We breathe [them] in, whether we believe them or not. … While Rick’s explicit beliefs are egalitarian, he breathes in the same cultural biases as everyone else.”
Dolly Chugh, The Person You Mean to Be, pp 51-52.
Years ago, my husband told me a story about how he grew up in Wisconsin and Rhode Island. He said when he was a kid, he and his dad and his brother would go out digging through the garbage cans on the softball fields. They were looking for aluminum cans, which they would then drag to the recycling center, to be turned in at a nickel a pop.
I was horrified. Jim told me later that he never wanted to see that look in my eyes directed at him again: he could see I pitied him. He was deeply hurt by my reaction.
I didn’t deny it. In my limited experience, I could never picture a situation in which you would encourage your children to pick through someone else’s garbage for extra cash.
In my mind, it was exposing your children to all kinds of risks.
But in Jim’s mind, it was fun. It taught him the value of money. He was with his family.
I was living under some cultural smog that told me that when folks are thrifty, or are creative about ways to earn some extra money, that means they’re poor. And that, further, poverty is something to be ashamed of.
Some of this has to do with my personal cultural smog. There’s a rack at my local grocery story by the milk and the extra baked goods. In this rack, things are 50% off, either because they’re out of season or because the product didn’t sell well or the packaging is wonky.
I was maybe in junior high when my mom pointed out one of our neighbors who was rooting through the offerings. She pulled me into another aisle, whispering. “See? If you don’t earn enough money, you’ll have to be like her. It’s so sad. She has to buy the second-rate goods.” Obviously this isn’t a direct translation of what she said, since I don’t actually remember exactly what she said. But it made an impression.
That experience, and the clouding of judgment that came with it, changed the way I view thrift. It created my own personal miasma.
I want to take a look at one way to, uh, diffuse smog, whether personal or cultural. Take a close look at the way I’ve described these two anecdotes. Where I describe Jim’s family on the softball field, I say they’re “digging through the garbage cans.” When I talk about my neighbor in the grocery store, I say she’s “rooting through the offerings.”
Words have power. What happens when I tell these stories in a different fashion? Jim calls the thing with the cans “hunting for cans,” probably a shoutout to the fact that he was the kind of kid who used a B.B. gun to scare off squirrels. I now “have a look” through the 50% off rack myself, because sometimes chocolate bars no one else seems to love but me live there, and because the other day I found a jar of molasses exactly of the brand I use to bake ginger cookies.
(And also because, hell, who doesn’t love to save 50%? You’d have to be an idiot.)
One way cultural smog screws with me is by messing with my objectivity. We all have preconceptions and biases. (Elsewhere in the book, Dr. Chugh talks about how our brains are neurologically wired to use preconceptions to help us to make quick decisions about very basic things, like what’s “dangerous” and what isn’t. We use red, for instance, to signal things are hot.) But our sense of objectivity really suffers when we are lazy and don’t look at things for what they are.
Put another way, we often look at things without seeing all the other possibilities of what that thing could be.
In another book I read recently, Amy E. Herman’s Visual Intelligence, Herman writes about the difference between accuracy and rightness. Herman uses fine art to teach everyone from FBI agents to trauma-room nurses how to be better observers, and thus, better at their jobs. She uses the example of Edward Hopper’s Automat:
The mood of the painting is somber. The girl looks bereft, lonely. But this is all charged language, and although it might be right to say these things, it’s far from accurate. An accurate description of the girl’s face would be that it’s part in shadow. That her eyes are downcast. That her face is slack.
So the girl could be pensive. She could be reading the tea leaves in the cup of looseleaf tea we presumed was coffee. Maybe she’s reading coffee grounds. Or maybe she’s meditating. So many possibilities, although it’d be silly to presume that Hopper wasn’t trying to evoke one mood or another with the painting as a whole.
Taking a page from Herman’s literal book, I think a good way to take some cultural smog away might be to really listen to what you’re being told–and then to describe it to yourself in uncharged, unbiased language.
Here, let’s try it:
Jim went with his dad and his brother to the softball fields. They were looking for cans. They found a few and they went to the recycling center. They turned the cans in and they got money back for them.
In the case of my neighbor in the grocery store:
That rack is 50% off. The woman is shopping in the rack. She finds something she likes and buys it.
Put this way, my neighbor’s shopping in the 50% off rack is no different than my mom paging restlessly through shirts in the Nordstrom Rack’s half-yearly sale.
I’m trying to be rid of a lot of my cultural smog. Better listening is one way. Trying to see all the possibilities is another. Rewriting in a distilled, neutral fashion is yet another. But, as Chugh says, a lot of the cultural smog is invisible, and I think that ultimately, I need a lot of consistent, self-examination around the way I’m reacting to things. And I don’t think I’ll ever be smog-free.
Case in point? When I sat down to write this piece, I told Jim, “Just so you know, I’m going to write about the cans.”
Jim said, “What?”
I whispered, “The cans, the cans. You know.”
I explained it to him, feeling the heat rise in my face, hating myself for making him relive the whole thing all over again.
“Oh, those,” he said, looking exasperated. “So what?”
Right. Because to Jim, it’s just a story about some kids and their dad, earning a little spare cash. And to me, it’s still a story about some people who so badly needed to make ends meet that they had to go rooting through other people’s garbage for scrap metal.
This is part 3 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. And you can buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.
…”[Brittany’s] experiences as a black women had given her first-hand reasons to be a believer, but they did not equip her with the skills to be a builder…[Her] beliefs about her ability to grow were necessary, thought not sufficient. The beliefs she had about the people around her also mattered, specifically, her belief about what business school professor Amy Edmondson calls “psychological safety.” Edmondson…has shown that when a group believes they can speak up, ask for help, admit mistakes, propose ideas, take blame, confess uncertainty, and disclose inability, they learn more and perform better.”
_The Person You Mean to Be, Dolly Chugh, pg. 30
As I’ve grown, I’ve sought out psychological safety, even without really knowing it. Part of this is just figuring out what makes me feel good. It sounds simple, but it’s more than that: It’s about defining what you value.
For instance: I run, sporadically. I’ll happily train for half-marathons and longer events, but I don’t love to run. What I consistently seek is a thing loosely reflected in the runner’s high. I always relish being outdoors, and I like the extra-observational quality I seem to acquire when I run (I notice a lot when I’m out), but really, I’m chasing the sensation of having finished a run, or the idea of being strong enough to go out every day, if I want to. I want to know I can.
It took me years to figure this out. Now, when I try to talk myself out of a jog, it’s easier for me to talk myself back into it: I just need to embrace the Bacchanalian side of me. Whereas before, I used to wear T-shirts that said things like “Yes it hurts” and believe that I enjoyed the sensation of being tired, now I say things like “One beer for two more miles” and “I get to rest tomorrow if I can just manage this many miles.”
(Also, my new puppy is getting very good at running, and he seems to enjoy the time we spend together. I could be projecting.)
This is not a perfect science. Clearly I don’t mind the suffering, and on some level I enjoy the burning muscles and sweaty face. It’s just that my personal value system places a higher value on joy than it does ick.
So how does this translate to the things I value in psychological safety? In the example that comes right before the passage quoted above, Chugh describes an organization that is “stumbling upwards.” It is trying really hard to do diversity and inclusion, but every once in awhile it fails hard, even as it’s putting in measures like including minority members on its board.
She lists the risks people feel they can take in safe psychological spaces, like admitting mistakes and taking blame, and that got me thinking about the safe psychological spaces that populate my life, and whether or not I can pinpoint the qualities of those spaces that allow me to perform better. I’ve chosen a few of them below, and I hope you’ll share some of yours with me.
An all-woman disaster-relief team. I volunteer for ShelterBox, an international disaster-relief agency. Most of our team members are male, so it’s rare that an all-woman team gets matched up together on deployment. On my thirteenth deployment, I finally landed on one. ShelterBox puts all response team members through the same rigorous training, so we all know what’s in each other’s kit; what the safety protocol is; what our remit is, and so on. These provide us with a basic level of psychological safety when we’re in questionable places. But having an all-woman team made things like complaining about your period totally okay. Being able to tell someone, “I got my period,” and having them exhibit empathy instead of “I don’t know what to do with that” is extraordinary. Also, my teammates put “Yi Shun, CALL YOUR HUSBAND” on the team calendar because I was deployed over my anniversary. That was pretty great, too. I’m not sure a team of men would have thought of that. Not having to consider whether or not it was appropriate was aces.
(from left to right: Kate, Ursula, myself, and Amy. This team was deployed just before International Women’s Day, which felt appropriate.) This example speaks to my preference for a low-stakes default state. I prefer to just tell people things, for instance, without having to anticipate a bad or embarrassed or embarrassing response. Both these things—my period, which can cause fatigue, and worse, extra extra hangriness; and my anniversary, which was causing guilt—needed to be dealt with. Being in a safe environment allowed me to allow the team to help with those.
The team at Tahoma Literary Review. Four of us run this literary magazine, which is trying to add to the status quo of the literary-magazine industry. We are not affiliated with a college or university, and we pay our writers and our staff. (This is an unusual thing in the world of literary magazines.) We are nowhere close to even federal minimum wage, but we are working towards a new model that we hope will inspire change. We have published a lot of first-timers and undergraduates and strive for diversity and inclusion, and most of our meetings are fun. We share similar communication styles, or we know enough about each other to be able to parse what we are each trying to say even when we stumble. Because we are all remote, we all have to be really, really good about communicating our needs and worries to each other, and for the most part we are able to do so. When we have stress points, I think we are pretty good at saying so. I think much of this has to do with our commonality of cause. Because we all ultimately want the same thing for our magazine, we can surmount more and take more risks with each other.
Southern New Hampshire University. I teach in the online MFA program here. I like it a lot, even though its mascot is…meh.
(Frankly, I find him terrifying.) The entire MFA is online, so we need to have a pretty good support system for both students and faculty members. In this program, I’ve never lacked for answers or felt lost. When I need help, I can choose from a student’s academic advisor, my own team lead, or one of two associate deans to communicate with. Of course I need to do some due diligence to ensure that I am communicating with the right person, but I don’t ever feel alone or unsupported. This system, maybe because of its structure as an online education tool, puts communication first. We are asked to respond to all students within 24 hours maximum. And we post welcome messages at the beginning of every term and introduce each week in the term with an announcement of some sort. SNHU places a high value on constant communication. This creates a feeling of safety for me, and has allowed me to weigh in on everything from diversity initiatives to internships in my short time with the program.
My high school friends.
These are the women I have known since high school or before. They are people who already know what I was, and so are not expecting anything more than my teenaged self, which was probably the worst version of me. They allow for flexibility and allow me to ask a lot of stupid questions. This relationship speaks to the part of me that values the (sometimes harmful) ideology behind family. You can make mistakes around each other and you can inadvertently hurt each other, but you can’t imagine not seeing each other, so you make steps to move past it. This relationship also allows me to talk through ideas even when they are not fully formed, something that’s echoed in my relationship with my husband and my brother.
These are the values that underscore my sense of psychological safety and contribute to my growth mindset. In her book, Dr. Chugh invites the reader to think about where you feel safe, and I’ll echo her here: What are your psychological safe spots or relationships, and what values do you think they underscore? Tell me in the comments below.
This is part 2 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. And you can buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.
…If I have a growth mindset about drawing, I believe that I can improve my stick figures with effort, time, and feedback. The alternative, a fixed mindset, is where I see myself as fully formed—either as someone who is terrible at drawing or wonderful at drawing or somewhere in between—and destined to stay that way. The fixed mindset is an “either/or” mindset because it allows no room for being a work-in-progress.
Dolly Chugh, The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, pg 24
During a group activity I was participating in, one of the group members kept on calling out for his “Cambodian wife.” Earlier, he’d introduced me to our colleagues as his “Korean wife.” When the Cambodian wife line got no answers, he switched to asking for his “Vietnamese wife.”
I am none of these things, but it was apparent he was calling for me: I was the only Asian woman on the course.
Let it be said that my relationship to this person is jovial, and long. It involves banter and beer and a lot of loudness. This had been going on for years before I finally said I’d had enough. “Stop,” I told him. “You’re not saying these things because you think Korean, Cambodian, Vietnamese women are to be respected. You’re saying it because you think they’re caricatures. And I’m not any of those things, anyway.”
“I know,” he said, and “I’m sorry. I really thought we were having such a good time.”
“You were,” I said, with a twinge of guilt. “But I’m not. It’s hurtful. You have to stop saying things like that.”
I don’t believe my friend and I have ever really recovered from this exchange. But I’m willing to bet that those of you reading this probably are focused on the fact that I felt guilty telling him these things. “Why?” some of you are saying to the screen. “Why on earth would you feel guilty?”
I’m feeling guilty because I wish I had said something before. I wasn’t ever the kind of person to enjoy a joke like that, but for most of my adult life I just swam with the jokes, believing them to be what I had to work with, to deal with, as a minority in America. I wanted to get along, so I just let them go.
Like Sammy Davis, Jr., I suppose, when he endured being the “Man of the Hour” at Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast. Oh, you, haven’t seen it? It’s an hour long, but you only have to watch the first eight minutes to be party to jokes about everything from watermelons to lynching:
(As always with YouTube videos, don’t read the comments. They made me nuts.)
“Oh,” you might say, “it’s just a sign of the times.”
It was this kind of thinking that led to my belief that I could only endure. I didn’t think it mattered enough for me to stand up and say something. But then I realized that the people around me weren’t necessarily laughing. And when I brought up the incident and the previous ones to leadership of the event we were at, they said, “Oh. When we first saw it happening, we took cues from you. We saw you were laughing, so we just went along with it.”
Later, they told me that they had mistaken it for something personal to our relationship, which I maybe could have stood for. And then they said, “We thought it might be an American thing.”
When Chugh writes about growth mindset versus fixed mindset, she’s mostly talking about individuals, and the way we see ourselves and each other. But I’m thinking more about society, and the way we see it. I’m thinking about how the way we see ourselves as individuals feeds into the way society is, and whether or not it’s within our power to do anything about it.
I was operating under the assumption that there was nothing I could do to change this. “It is what it is” had become my motto. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ had become my lifestyle.
Take, for example, my allergy to math. For a long time, I caricatured myself: “You’re talking to the only Asian ever to have scored a D- in Algebra,” I’d say at cocktail parties, by way of eliciting a laugh, or by way of making myself stand out, maybe.
During a game of Cards Against Humanity, a close friend drew a set of cards that had her nearly choking on her drink. They were so funny–and seemed so apropos–that I took a photo of them. All of my friends know and believe that I am terrible at math. I have told them so. They never let me calculate the tip.
But in another interaction, a friend looked at me curiously when I ran the line about my being a terrible Asian/math person. “Why perpetrate that stereotype?” he asked, quietly, and I went into a corner to sit and Think About What I Had Done.
And in yet another interaction, my friend Roz’s mother, who teaches fifth grade, put on her teacher voice and said, “You’re not bad at math, Yi Shun. You’ve just never made it a priority.”
Hey. I like that. And even if my not making math a priority does lead to my being terrible at math, well…it doesn’t mean I can’t be better at it one day. Everything is a work in progress, even my math skills.
I think seeing systems—and ourselves!—as flexible, and works in progress, has true application beyond our desires to be good. A belief that we can change the systems around us to work more efficiently is a valuable, healthy way forward.
A friend works as a programs director in a small city government. She has inherited what can only be described as a dysfunctional workplace. For instance, when she doesn’t respond to emails within ten minutes, the person or resident who is asking for help or information either calls her directly or comes to her desk, even if she’s specifically asked for that time alone, to work on grant proposals or paperwork or admin. When I told her I had moved to checking e-mail only three times a day, she laughed merrily and told me the system wouldn’t tolerate that.
My friend essentially works every single weekend as a direct result of this system.
I don’t know anything about working in a city government. But I think that there are lots of ways she can challenge the status quo to make it work better for her, even if she’s having to press against many years of doing things one fixed way. And people can change, too. My friend’s claim that the people around her won’t respect her time is a false claim, I believe. I think she can probably encourage them, in her role as programs director, to see that the workplace can produce even better programming than ever before if she can cut down on things like e-mail and interruptions of a more obvious nature, like people opening her closed office door or stepping into her blocked-off calendar.
In the case of the first interaction I described, my friend thought he was being jovial. He thinks of himself as being funny, the guy who gets the laughs. I thought of myself as the cool girl, the one who could roll with the punches and “take it,” whatever “it” was.
In the case of my friend and her dysfunctional workplace, she may see herself as the woman who can work with whatever difficulty she’s presented with. She may not want to rock the boat.
I don’t know what’s happening yet, in the case of me and the mathematics thing. It’s probably a combination of wanting to be the cool girl, the girl who can laugh at herself in straight-talk fashion, and the girl who will never rock the boat.
Challenging the system feels like touching a cactus spine, to me. “I wonder if…” and then, the inevitable, ouch! But sometimes, you touch a cactus spine, and you think, Well, hunh. That’s not so bad. If you touch it gently enough, you might even try it again, until you eventually see that cactus as not a terrible Danger Plant (TM), but just as something to be navigated.
In the extended version of this metaphor, and if you’re me, you might find yourself loving cacti, and then saddled with an unhealthy obsession with all things related.
Or you can draw your own metaphors. Whatever way you choose to look at it, the best systems are the flexible ones. And those systems comprise flexible people, with growth mindsets.
This is part 1 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. And you can buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.
Sarah wrote out the names phonetically. She practiced saying them … She was surprised to realize that the names were not that hard to say semi-correctly, albeit in an American accent … She just had not tried before. A week later, Sarah called Gita. When Gita answered, Sarah asked, “May I speak with Gita Suryanarayanan Varadarajan?” Gita cried. It was the first time anyone had tried to say her name since she had moved to America several years before. “The first time,” Gita emphasizes.
The Person You Mean to Be, Dolly Chugh, pg 11
The other day, on a long road trip, my husband introduced me to “A Boy Named Sue.”
(I know. You thought it was Johnny Cash. Me, too. But no one does maniacal sing-yelling like Shel Silverstein, and I’m glad he wrote it. It slots with everything I thought I knew about Shel Silverstein.)
When I first heard this song, I felt immediately seen. Because everyone’s name has a story to it: Your parents named you Mike for your great-grandfather, say. Or you’re called “Tick” because your name is actually Christopher, but your parents called you “Kit,” and when you were little you couldn’t pronounce it, so you introduced yourself as “Tick,” and now it’s what’s on your business card. (This is a true story, by the way. I don’t know where Tick is anymore, but this is one of my favorite name stories.)
Me? My name means “humble.” And I’m named so because when I was born I had flaming red hair, and my grandfather said, “Uh oh, better name her something that’ll temper that red hair,” and so, humble it was.
This is the story I am told, anyway, with great love and joy, by my family members.
My name is complex. Spelled out in Mandarin, it comprises some 34 strokes and three characters, if you include my last name. In English, my parents chose to spell it out in two discrete words, which is why sometimes you’ll see me, on Goodreads or on Twitter or on Facebook, as “Yi.” (This is an annoyance to no end. It’s like Shelby being called “Shel” all the time. Or Allison being called “Al.” It’s fine for close friends. It is not okay for the DMV or a faceless social networking tool, because they don’t know jack about me. Well, they do, but that’s a different post and issue.)
Some people butcher my name. That’s okay. I just correct them and laugh and tell them it will take them a while to get it. I encourage them to keep trying.
But the ones who really rankle are the ones who tell me, straight up to my face, that they’re not even going to try.
Right after my husband’s grandmother’s burial, the pastor came up to me and said, “Now, who are you?” I told him I was married to the eldest grandson, and introduced myself, and then he said, “I’m not even going to try.”
Okay, I was at a cemetery, but I could not stop myself. “You should,” I said, and waited through an uncomfortable silence, and then spelled it for him and pronounced it again, and then waited until he had tried it.
My impatience may have been because of where I was–my husband’s family and I have come to loggerheads several times over political and humanitarian matters–and it might also be because, just the day before the funeral, I was getting a breakfast burrito at an airport kiosk. I put my name in and waited.
The young man behind the counter called my name when my burrito was ready. “Yaeshooon?” he called, tentatively, and then, when I started laughing while coming to collect my burrito, he said, shoulders slumping, “I’m so sorry. Please tell me how to pronounce it.”
In Chugh’s book, she quotes Dale Carnegie: “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” But to me, hearing that young man ask me how to pronounce my name was sweeter than my name itself: It told me he was trying to understand where I come from.
Perhaps a person’s name sounds so sweet to them is because it carries with it baggage of identity, of history. I used to say, when introducing myself, “Don’t worry about it. It’ll take you ages. In the meantime, I’ll answer to anything.” I don’t say this anymore, because I have come to realize that my name is tied up in the fight for my identity. That not having people even try to pronounce it is a sign of my struggle as a minority, which I’ve only recently begun to explore. That giving the Starbucks barista “easy” American names like “Sue” or “Melissa” or even my husband’s or my friend’s name so I can avoid seeing my name butchered on a coffee cup is just dodging the truth–that I live here, that I am multi-cultural. That even so, I deserve to take up just as much brain space as Sue, Melissa, Mike, George.
Each year, my father’s high school hosts five or six kids from Taiwan to come visit California. They live with host families over two weeks and are introduced to … erm, American things. They learn about the higher education institutions here and visit a famous aerospace lab. They go to Disneyland and Universal and baseball games too, don’t worry.
These kids, who speak some English, are placed with Caucasian families so they can better their language skills. When my husband and I picked them up at the airport, they introduced themselves to us with their Taiwanese names.
A few hours later, when we met them and their host parents for dinner, they had started using their English names. “Oh, you mean Justin?” said one host parent, blithely, when I asked how her student was settling in. I told her, “That’s not his name.”
She said, “It’s easier for us.”
I said, “You should try. He has a name already. It’s–” and then I proceeded to completely mispronounce Justin’s Taiwanese name.
I don’t think this was necessarily the right place for me to bring this up. Lots of Taiwanese kids have English names. I have cousins who have chosen the names Joanna, Brenda, Brian, Willy, Henry. But the motive, in this case, was way off. “It’s easier for us” is way shittier than “It’s what he wants us to call him.”
I’m not all that interested in your ease, lady. I’m interested in this kid’s sense of identity.
For what it’s worth, I asked Teddy and Justin and Eddie what they’d prefer to be called, and they said their English names were okay, but that they also liked to hear their Taiwanese names. I told them that, in America, it’s okay to be called what you want to be called.
If you haven’t noticed, I can’t remember any of the kids’ Taiwanese names, but I remember their American names perfectly fine. And, when I was repeating them back to them, to make sure I got them right, I Americanized the bejesus out of them. This is because I can’t actually write or read in Mandarin,* so remembering Taiwanese or Mandarin names is rote memorization, using rhythms I don’t know as well, and combinations of letters I don’t usually see. Some might argue that it’s pointless to pronounce someone’s name unless you can do it perfectly. But you know what? Speaking from long experience? It only matters that you try.
Because not even wanting to make the effort sends a pretty clear signal that you don’t believe the word that sums me up–my name–is worth your time.
Think about it. When was the last time a friend of yours did something endearing, or hilarious, or frustrating, and you said to yourself, “Oh, God. That’s so Peter.” Or “That is straight-up Jim.” Or, “That is 100% Borchien.” In this roundabout way, I have come to see people’s names as a personification of who they are, all their bits and bobs and trip-ups and foibles.
In relating the anecdote about Gita and Sarah, above, Chugh relates that Gita told Sarah she believed people don’t try to pronounce foreign names because of arrogance. Sarah, Chugh writes, was horrified. She had never tried to pronounce Gita’s middle and last names because she was afraid of getting it wrong. Now, her friend was telling her her behavior was arrogant, which sent Sarah’s sense of self-identity into the red zone. She had always believed she was a nice person, but here she was, being told she was arrogant.
It’s so important to make our motives clear, but in the end, what matters is how they’re perceived–the feelings you hurt. To write those possibilities off is of highest arrogance, isn’t it? There’s no winner in the name game—at worst, the offender is perceived as arrogant. At best, the person with the unusual name ends up feeling like she has to bend to majority opinion, and she always does it, putting her feelings and her history at a lower value than the majority rule.
You know what? No one’s feelings are worth that. And realizing that, I think, takes true humility.
It’s why the guy from the breakfast place will always be my benchmark. He put his feelings aside, and asked, humbly, to be taught something new. No matter how the rest of my day went, I was always going to remember that someone thought my name–my person–mattered enough to set his own ego aside.
It matters enough that I’ll tell you how to pronounce my name at a grave site. It matters enough that I’ll call you out for your laziness at a social gathering meant to honor you. Why? Because my temporary discomfort, and yours, is nothing compared to being told that the word that embodies a person should be easier for you to pronounce–or never uttered at all.
I asked my parents a few nights ago why they hadn’t given me an American name. “Your pre-school teacher,” my ma said. “Mrs. … Piccone?”
“Uh huh,” I said. “I liked her. She had curly brown hair.”
“I told her your name, and I said if it’s too hard, I can change it.”
“Oh,” I said.
My mother shook her head. “Mrs. Piccone didn’t want that,” she said. “She said, ‘No. I have to learn.'”
My mother would have chosen “Hope” for me, she said, and my father, perhaps already seeing a future comprised entirely of bumps and scrapes and hoping to change my stars, “Grace.”
But for Mrs. Piccone, I may have had an easier time. Maybe I wouldn’t be so neurotic about people’s names, although I have a terrible habit of mixing up friends who come in twos (married couples, best friends, and the like.) But she’s become a part of my history too, and for her, if for nothing else, I’m glad I’m called “Yi Shun.” (Use my business card below to learn how to pronounce it.)
*Taiwanese relies on Mandarin for its written language. So although I can speak it fine, I can’t track new words very well. It’s something I’m working to change.
When I was in college, eleventy trillion years ago, I was editor-in-chief of the paper which served the five colleges that made up our undergraduate system. I think I did that for a year or so.
Our offices were in the basement of the college bookstore; I had a key and a stipend and there were a few scandals during my tenure on the paper overall, from writer to news editor to editor-in-chief. I really can’t remember what they were about or who they involved, probably because my hippocampus or frontal lobe or amygdala or whatever or maybe all of it wasn’t developed enough to comprehend what was actually happening.
At any rate, all of this led to some indignation and righteousness and then I became editor-in-chief, and this led to a good friend of mine sitting in the living room of one of the dorms we used to hang out in at another college (??? why did we do this? so strange. i know we had friends there, but…anyway), talking about the newspaper.
I remember distinctly telling him I thought it was broken. And I remember Jake being royally pissed off. He was red in the face, even. “How can you say that?” he asked. “This is your thing now. You should be proud of it!”
“I am proud of it,” I said. “There’s just a lot that needs to be fixed about it. It needs a lot of changes.”
Jake wouldn’t budge. He couldn’t comprehend how you can love a thing, respect it, and want it to change. He saw it as the height of disrespect that I would tell him that it needed changes.
But see, for me, loving a thing means wanting to change it. You love a thing despite of all its flaws, or maybe even because of them. You see it for everything it is. You know it so, so well that you are an expert in its weak points, its pain points, its very realness. And yet, you continue to work at it, because you see what it can become.
College was a long-ass time ago. (I graduated in 1996.) But I’ve never forgotten that conversation, and it pops up in my memory now and again.
Most recently, I remembered it because of that terrible tweet from our commander-in-chief, saying that four congresswomen should “go back to the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” (It’s missing a hyphen, but whatever.) Yes, yes, three of the four women he was addressing are from America already, but I was struck by how intent 45 is on how great this nation is. Lawmakers go into office, as I understand it, to effect change in a place they love, not to sit on their laurels.
But then, probably because I can’t stand to think of 45 very long before my head explodes and I make yet more wrinkles in my lips from unsavory expressions, I pivoted to the conversation I had with Jake, all those years ago: How I feel the way I do because of the way I grew up. And how it’s probably the same with Jake.
I don’t know much about the way Jake grew up, actually. I’ve visited his home town only once, and his family home on the same visit. (On this same visit, Jake ribbed me about being a baseball fan who doesn’t know what a “balk” is. “You know, I think it’s really weird that you call yourself a baseball fan but you don’t know what a balk is,” he said, and I returned that there was so much more to love about baseball than its infuriating intricacies.)
But I do know about the way I grew up. In my household, criticism was a daily pill. No! Pills you take once a day. This was more like windows, peeing, air–criticism was always there. My brother and I were criticized–too fat, too sickly, too loud, too stupid–as a manifestation of our parents’ love. Nothing was good enough, and so nothing would ever be perfect.
This backdrop manifests itself in my adult life in other ways, too. When I am running with my young dog, Huckleberry, I give him grades for how he behaves. If he looks at a dog passing by on the other side of the street and doesn’t lunge or drag me in its direction or bark, that’s 98% good. If he lunges, that’s 73%. If he lunges and barks and drags me, that’s 33% and no cookie.
If he goes right on by, that’s 100%. Perfect.
I actually tell him this. “Good boy, Huckleberry! One hundred percent! I am so impressed!”
Or, “What was that? That was terrible. Sixty-five percent. Not even close to passing.”
Friends, I hate grades. I hate them with the fire of a thousand flaming Dumpsters.* I hate them because I am bad at them, and because they were used as leverage all my life. I avoid them whenever possible in my teaching, preferring to assess my students qualitatively.
And yet, with the least assuming creature in my life, there they are. Bang. I cannot escape them.
You probably already know where this is going. I am fascinated by the role our upbringings have in who we are as adults. I think I can trace everything I do today to what happened to me and what I was exposed to as a kid. I am fascinated, in short, by unconscious, or implicit, bias.
For the next few weeks, or however long it takes, I’ll be working through a live-blog** of Dolly Chugh’s book _The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. Chugh is a social psychologist, and I admire her work. I learned a lot from her book, and the posts are meant to be a way for me to illustrate for myself the lessons I’ve learned, and they can also be seen as a way for you to think about some of the issues she raises. Some these issues are: Why we believe what we do; how to broaden our perspectives; how to talk to people who don’t have our perspectives and not go completely batsh*t.
For anyone who’s ever thought of themselves as a good person, for anyone who wants to be a better person, for anyone who feels stymied about how to be a good person when there are so many varying definitions of “good person”–this book is for you. I hope my posts can supplement your reading of it.***
Talk to you soon. And if you’ve read this book and want to discuss with me, drop me a line: email@example.com
*I used this phrase in a comment to my class awhile ago. They have to cite themselves to avoid self-plagiarizing, so I’ll do the same here: Yi Shun Lai, Brightspace class announcement, 7.22.19, SNHU Online MFA program.
**It’s not technically a live-blog. I’ve already read the thing. But I didn’t know what else to call it.
***I find seeing examples of things helps to cement an understanding of it, so this is also for me.
No? This is a cat thing. Here is a video compilation for you, just in case:
This is cute, even if I don’t quite understand the internet/meme-speak people insist their cats engage in. (“I can haz cheezburger?”)
(To be fair, even though I’m a declared dog person, I also do not understand most of the Internet “doggo” speak. My friend Chels refers to her dog as a “puppalups,” and this I understand, but this might be because I can hear Chels saying it in my head.)
Anyhow. None of that is either here nor there. I’m writing because I think my dog is actually a cat. Witness:
He loves fringes of any sort: on my head, on my blanket, on my tablecloth; on people’s trousers.
He uses his paws for a lot more than normal dogs do: to get your attention; to open doors; to juggle toys.
And last week he ate a fern.
I mean, just look at it. He ripped it right out by its roots. The pot was still standing. And then he sat on the remains of it, so I couldn’t see the evidence. There were some dirt clumps on the side table where the fern used to live. It was a near-perfect crime.*
Also, he climbs on things. He’s only allowed on two pieces of furniture, but Christ, how do we explain this?
And then there is this:
This is the dog version of if it fits, I sits.
Here, have another look.
Obviously, there are some marked differences.
This is just sloppy. No self-respecting cat, I think, would leave a limb hanging out like this. I mean, an appendage, sure–a paw, or a tail. But not a whole limb. It just seems uncouth.
Then there is this:
What even is this? This is uncomfortable. No one would ever choose this, unless one is a dog with no nerve endings in his head and does not give a flying whatsit. Dog’s head is against a table leg. Dog is half-in, half-out of bed.
Then there is this:
What are these evidence of, you might say? This is evidence that dog does seem to care what we think. Which is not to say that cats don’t care what we think**, but this is obviously some kind of needy stare-down.
In fact, I think it’s downright pugnacious.
Look, I know other dogs do this “if it fits, I sits”** thing. In fact, I think Huckleberry does it because his friend Scooby, a gigantic black lab who belongs to our friends Non and Jess, did it first.
But I do think that I’m prescribing cat-like behavior to The Berry because I’m struggling to understand him.
Our dead dog, Sprocket, was a hyper-communicator. He had funny little eyedots that were a visual cue to whereever he was looking, and sometimes, whatever he was thinking. When he wanted to pick anything up on our walks, he would stop and put his paw on it and wait for us to tell him, “You can have that,” or “No.”
If he wanted to pee, he would stop walking and wait for us to acknowledge that he was, indeed, stopping to pee.
If you told him to “leave it,” he would fling his head to one side, away from the object you were telling him to ignore, an extra signal to us that he was LEAVING IT.
If he came across something on a walk or if he saw something from the window that he’d never seen before, his ears would pin back on his head, and then he would look up at you. “What is that? Is that…okay?”
And we would say, “That’s okay, buddy. It’s just a bunny/raven/lizard. You leave it alone.” We would pat him and the ears would move forward and he would watch, but he rarely bolted or got nervous.
Sprocket had one blue eye, one brown.
Huckleberry’s eyes are very dark brown, and set more closely together and forward in his head. He looks beady-eyed, calculating, sometimes, especially when we are wanting him to do something with us or for us: “Huckleberry, come!” *Beady-eyed stare* “Huckleberry, come!” *Further staring.*
This is frustrating at best, and it makes us really sad, at worst. I worry that Huckleberry doesn’t enjoy the same level of trust or calm that Sprocket did. When he goes outside and we see a bunny, we tell him to leave it. He does, but his whole body trembles. He is alert. Every muscle is waiting for release.
(Not for nothing, but this is a little cat-like, too.)
This morning, I read something that put into more concrete terms an exercise I give to most of my students and my writing-coaching clients. In the case of my university students, always runs the length of our time together.
I borrow the term “deep noticing” from poet Derek Sheffield, and I use Lynda Barry’s daily diary exercise. Part of the exercise requires you to list seven things you did, and seven things you saw. You’re not to spend more than two and a half minutes on each section. The idea is that you just get better at paying attention to what’s actually around you.
We do this because I want students to pay attention to how much wealth of inspiration there is out there, but I don’t want them to be overwhelmed by MAKING SOMETHING of it. Sometimes, a thing just is, and you can get to know yourself really, really well by paying attention to what you’re actually noticing.
When I’m noticing things, for instance, I notice: Patterns Creatures Leaves
(What things are you likely to notice?)
The thing I read is this piece from the New York Times Smarter Living section, which I seem to be reading an awful lot of lately. In it, the columnist, Tim Herrera, talks about “pay[ing] attention to what you care about, and … car[ing] about what you’re paying attention to.”
I love this idea, and putting it into practice with Huckleberry may help me to make more sense of his behavior:
When does he look apprehensive? When does he look happy? What is his body doing when he is happy/apprehensive? When is he paying attention to me? What expression is he wearing when he is paying attention to me?
Probably my favorite thing about life overall is how much the things we love to do dovetail into each other, and how confirming that can be.
Back when I thought my first novel would be a middle-grade/YA book, and the animals in my work in progress were talking, someone suggested I really consider what they’d say if they were actually talking to me. So I built a facebook page for Sprocket, and made up a voice for him. This is the most I’ve ever considered my writing life coinciding with my dog life.
But you know, maybe the thing I should take from this is that I noticed Sprocket a lot more than I notice Huckleberry. That’s a valuable lesson, too.
*So stealthy. **Who’m I kidding? Part of the great charm of cats is that they really don’t care what we think, do they?