The former director of the MFA program I graduated from signs all of his emails “Keep writing.”
I used to think, oh! That’s nice. A little boost to my day, a reminder to keep pen to paper even when I’m feeling blue or confused or unmotivated or scattered. (All things that happen.)
But now we are looking at a pandemic. A whole country has shut down. My partner is WFH for the foreseeable future. The hospitality industry is tanking; the stock markets are plummeting; the world as we know it is changing and looking like an even bigger dumpster fire than it was last month. So how can we view something like art in an appropriate fashion?
Art, after all, is elective. It’s a leisure activity. It’s what you do when you have a long afternoon to kill and a rainy forecast. Movies, books, museums.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially since I teach in two MFA programs. My students are non-traditional students, many of whom have been working for some time and who have jobs and families that often have nothing to do with their advanced studies. I’m writing this in part for them, because I want them to know:
Without art, there is no record of what we were. Where we have been. Who we were.
But it goes deeper than that, from my point of view. When we write, or paint, or make a film, we are letting the end user share in our sense of discovery, in our sense of wonder and confusion and fear. And in the process of crafting these paragraphs and sentences, in the process of laying down blobs of color or taking that photo, we understand ourselves a little bit more.
And without this deep, internal understanding of why we’re feeling what we’re feeling, we don’t have a real hope of learning from history. Of understanding why we do what we do.
Ultimately, it’s not the end result that matters so much as the process of getting to the end result.
So yeah. Keep writing. Keep producing. Keep trying to make sense of whatever’s going on in your world. It’s worth the effort, especially now.
Kyle’s parents were believers, whom Kyle describes as “well-meaning white people.”…Before Kevin [Kyle’s husband], Kyle does not remember talking about race at the family dinner table. Kyle says, “[My parents] had never thought of the systems narrative.” When Kyle and Kevin explained how tailwinds benefit well-meaning white people, moral identity reflexes kicked in….”But I am a good person,” Kyle’s mom, Jodi, protested. “I’m not a racist.”
The Person You Mean to Be, Dolly Chugh, pg. 131
Consider the differences in a world experienced by a young person in 2018 versus 1998 versus 1968 versus 1948. We are each a product of the time and place in which we live. Look for the opportunity to ask someone of a different time and place about his or her perspective. Reverse mentoring sounds very formal, but it can be casual. Start a conversation with a young cashier or a young colleague or a young relative.
The Person You Mean to Be, Dolly Chugh, pg. 141
One thing I really love about Chugh’s book is the way the challenges she sets for us seem to cascade into each other, and the way that her anecdotes eventually build to paint a complete picture of the way that we can apply what we’ve read and the people we met in the pages of her book to our own lives. If you’re reading along with me, or following this series so that you see how I’m applying what Chugh teaches us, I’d love to hear what you’ve gleaned so far.
As I’m diving deep into how each part of this book makes me think or reconsider, I feel, as I heard a guest on newsradio say in the wee hours of the morning after President #45 won the 2016 election, a sense of alertness. “I feel awake,” she said, when asked how seeing a racist and a sexist in the White House made her feel, and although I can’t remember who it was, I still remember the tone of her voice. She sounded surprised, as if she didn’t know what she’d say until the words actually popped out of her mouth.
I feel this way, too—awake, to how I see things, and how events and circumstances make me react. I feel like everywhere there are opportunities for me learn and grow, whereas before I feel like I was scuttling around in the dark, looking for the right verbiage with which to express myself.
The big reveal of the first quote above is that “Jodi” is Jodi Picoult, who’s written a number of best-selling novels that explore a wide variety of social situations. The upshot is that, despite the fact that Picoult is a “good person” who tackles “the hard issues” in some of her books, she hadn’t even been aware to the idea that she might be carrying around some systemic baggage.
And in the verbiage around the second quote, Picoult reveals how much she’s learned from her son and his husband, and how listening to them allows her to be reverse-mentored. (I think this phrasing, which is from Jack Welch, is about the traditional model of mentoring being old-person-to-young-person.)
I haven’t noticed a lot of reverse mentoring in my life. I think this is because I grew up in a household that regularly told kids we don’t know anything. Now, I just assume I know nothing, although in my teens and twenties and probably my early and mid-30s, I was keen to prove I already knew everything.
So yeah, I think I can probably say that it’s just in the last decade that I’ve begun to embrace “I don’t know” as a place of comfort and curiosity, rather than defaulting to a defensive position.
Some of that probably has to do with seeing my parents come late to knowledge. Our family and extended family identifies as Buddhist and Confucist. (I myself practice neither, although elements of each are interesting to me.) In Confucianism, here is no room for anything but respect when it comes to older and younger: the elder is always right. (Further, the wife is always obedient to the husband, but that is a whole ‘nother bag of worms.) So, in my parents’ societal construct, there was never a possibility that they could learn from any younger people. We’ve reached a kind of equilibrium now, and they’re asking about things that I think they should have known ages ago (LGBTQ! The role nonprofits play in society! How readers can tell a poem is a poem!), and this depresses me.
The other part of it has to do with the fact that I’m 45, but I kind of stopped counting at 30, or something. A while ago a younger friend said to me, about a mutual friend, “Mm, she’s more your age,” [emphasis mine] and I had to reconfigure my thought process about just how old I was. Part of me takes comfort in the idea that I’ll always be young and stupid, and that there will always be something to learn.
The unintended effect of all of this is that I had to fight my way to seeing that everyone out there can teach us something. It’s a thing I repeated to myself over and over all the way through my twenties until it became quickly proven to me and then just became habit. It keeps me happy, I think, knowing that knowledge, or another perspective, is right around the corner, and that my only job is to be open to it.
And while I think that phrase—”reverse mentoring”—only addresses the idea that traditional mentoring is done older person to younger person, it’s important to me to recognize that we often unconsciously put people in varying strata of experience, skills, and knowledge. Maybe because they don’t speak English as well as we do. Maybe because they’re younger, sure, but maybe because they don’t work in our chosen profession, say, and so don’t have the same knowledge set we do. (Why, for instance, would I expect my doctor father to understand what a poem looks like, and be able to identify it? Would he expect me to be able to identify a rash?) Or maybe because we’re too quick to write off what they do know as irrelevant to the things we care about.
These are all mistakes I’ve made. I’m glad to have been proven otherwise by people who were patient enough with me, and to have had time in this life to rectify those mistakes.
18 years ago, my friend Andrew said to me that he thought kindness was a function of time. (I wrote about this here.) Until very recently (last night!) I thought it meant that *I* needed to give myself the time and space to be kind. But I think now that it’s more complicated than that. I think it’s that we need to be cognizant that change takes time and space. And that it’s not going to happen overnight, but that if you can be aware that time and space are broad, then maybe you will eventually see the breadth of what you don’t know.
And this, eventually, will lead to kindness, too.
I recently had a conversation with my cousin’s daughter. (In Taiwanese she’d call me aunt.) She’s in her mid-twenties. I remember my mid-twenties. A little while ago our conversations started to shift. Before, she was asking me for advice. Now, we talk to each other. Over Thanksgiving dinner, puzzling out a big overarching thing I was struggling with, I asked her if she thought it was more important to be kind or to be right.
“It depends,” she said. “If you think you can help someone to see a different perspective, then I think it’s more important to be right. But with people like our parents? It’s more important to be kind.”
I agree with her. And I also think that I can see how kindness is still the pathway to being “right,” whatever we think that means. Regardless of what our perspective is, we’ll never get someone else to see it if we’re, well, mean.
I’m not sure how to end this post. I just know that I’m so grateful for all the people with different perspectives out there, even if I’m not ready to hear them yet. At some point, I think I’ll have to take the time to listen more carefully.
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 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 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.
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?
We’re still sitting in the Bergen airport, awaiting for our flight home from a packed trip with my parents. Jim and I took a day to decompress in this laid-back city by ourselves, which was a much-needed reprieve from the cruise we took–a vacation from our vacation, like they say.
I’m not sure the 24 hours here was enough–the city has four art museums all in a row, and a pile of beautiful public spaces to hang out in, as well as a lot of interesting architecture to discover and some great people-watching–but something happened last night that I’m still turning over, and I wanted to share it with you and see what you thought.
We ate out last night at L——–, a restaurant I won’t name here. It has a solid multi-course tasting menu helmed by a guy who’s put in time at some other restaurants we’ve eaten at and loved, so we were excited to see what he would do with food from his native Bergen.
The décor is reasonably stark, naked bulbs and good design. It’s in one of Bergen’s KODE art museums, in an older building, so that loans it an air of coziness. Fresh peonies were on some of the tables, for a mildly Rococo sensitivity.
I won’t bore you with the details of the whole meal, because this is not what this post is about.
This post is about our young waiter, which is why I won’t name the restaurant. He’s in some of their social-media posts, and this isn’t a witch hunt. When we sat down, he immediately asked what we wanted to drink. “I need a few minutes to look at the wine list,” I said.
“I’ll make it easy for you. Sparkling or still?” he returned. It took me a minute to realize he was talking about the water.
He was deadpan; he gave off the impression that we were lucky to be stepping through the restaurant’s rarified doors. He dropped food off quickly, spit-firing a bunch of terminology and explaining it quickly, not waiting for us to digest the information, as if it needed to be explained; making me feel like I wanted to resent being explained to. And, in fact, I did resent it.
Later, even as the space between our 7 courses slowed down (timed exactly so, he assured us), he rushed through things.
During one super-awkward exchange, he started to step back from the table, but I had a question about the ingredients, so he had to stop from stepping away. Instead of stepping forward again, though, he just stood there, causing me to be half-turned in my seat, cranked around to talk to him.
I think, as a result of my perception of him–or the attitude he was giving off–every joke he cracked landed flat:
“Anything else? No? Fine, I’ll just tell the chef you thought everything was terrible.”
“Beer? No. We absolutely don’t serve that.”
And every comment he made seemed like a sneer. Jim asked for the menu back, so he could send a photo of it to his father. The waiter laid it on the table like it was a page out of the Gutenburg Bible and said, “Do you want two? No? Are you sure?”
When the time came to close out, he took a few minutes to chat with us, telling us about how he travels. How he goes to all the better restaurants, and his dad wants menus from all of them. How, even in Tokyo, where his father couldn’t read the menu, he wanted to get a translation from Google.
It was a nice attempt to connect with us. But the ship had sailed for me.
Tipping isn’t part of the culture in Norway, but we’d heard that it’s always appreciated, and that it’s becoming more expected at higher-end restaurants, so we’d planned on giving our waiter the last of our Norwegian cash. But I balked, hard. When I unfolded the bill and laid it on the plate, I gave it an extra-sharp crease.
And last night, I found myself turning over the interactions in my head, wondering what about the whole sequence was so off for me: Was it that I found myself reacting in such a bad manner to his supercilious ways? Was it that I found myself judging him immediately for everything that came out of his mouth?
Or was it that his colleague, the greeter, delivered this witty parting shot as we left and wished him a good night?
Jim wants to go back to the place. He loved it.
I found the food ethereal in places: well thought-out, with flavors of my mother’s own kitchen (the place uses Asian influences frequently, our waiter said) mixed in. I found it earnest in others. The Minke whale triggered my gag reflexes for its fishiness and gaminess, but I ate it.
I enjoyed meeting one chef’s interpretation of his native cuisine.
But I hate the restaurant, and this rankles, because I’m reasonably sure it’s because of my very personal reaction to this one server. I’m annoyed at myself, and wondering if it is possible for me to separate: if I can manage to enjoy part of one experience while hating another part of it.
Restaurants are funny places. They are equal parts service and product. Some might even say that the service is part of the product.
What about all of you? Do you have experiences like this, where you can’t compartmentalize?
I know this is something I’ll be watching about myself in the future. Tell me about your experiences below.
I want to take a second to talk to you about joy. So we can be on the same page, here is an official definition of it, from my favorite dictionary, Merriam-Webster:
This a fine, workable definition for now.
Now let me tell you about Seb.
Seb is Huckleberry’s trainer at our local pet store.
The remarkable thing about Seb isn’t how well he’s trained our dog or how much our dog loves him or how much we look forward to showing Seb whatever new thing Huckleberry has learned after a few classes with him; it’s how we got to this point.
In dog training, they talk all the time about positive reinforcement. Most people take that to mean that you pat the dog on the head; give him a treat. Sprocket’s trainer advocated full-body rubs and smiles and enthusiastic “good boy!” exclamations; another we knew said, “Yes!” as if she were executing a mental fist-pump whenever Dog did something right.
I liked this last one; it feels dignified and true.
But Seb does not do this. Seb’s brand of training has no time for dignity. Seb is all authenticity and enthusiasm.
Whenever Dog does something right, Seb gets down on the floor and hugs Dog.* “Oh, Huck,” he says, “I am so proud of you,” or “You are so smart. What a good job.”
Seb’s brand of training extends right to the person attached to the dog.
When Human does something right, say, planning a new trick for Dog to learn so that Dog can be shaped towards good behavior, Seb marches in place, a little mini-jig, all lug soles and cargo pants, and sometimes hops a little. “Oooh, yes. That is perfect for Huck. Great idea. I am so excited to see that.” Or when Human executes their part of the training well enough for Dog can follow along, Seb adopts some of the dignified approach: “Yes, Yi Shun! Good work! That’s a great ‘heel’!”
Seb puts his whole body into his emotions. I have never seen him sad, or mad, because he is a pro. But I have seen him questioning things. He puts one hand to his chin and goes, “Hunh. How abooout…”
Or he cocks his head. “Oh, I see. What about…”
Or he just asks questions. “Wait, do you mean…” or “Is it like…”
Most of us have body signs that go with our speech. Both Mr. Gooddirt and his mother claim to have issues talking if they are sitting on their hands.** But this seems to be different to me. I think this is because I think Seb is basically in his element when he is expressing joy.
And actually, I think he reacts this way because he experiences joy on behalf of others. He experiences it on behalf of Huckleberry when Huckleberry does something right, because it means Huckleberry will have a better life for it. And when he sees us learning, or stretching the bounds of our knowledge even just a little bit, that gives him joy, too. It gives him so much joy that he has to expend the extra jolt it gives him by doing a little jig, or clapping his hands.
This vicarious joy is a beautiful thing. It is the exact opposite of schadenfreude, and I think it is a thing I would like to practice more, and a thing I would like to see more of. It does not have to manifest itself in the same ways Seb’s joy manifests itself, but I would like to see and experience more of it.
Our English language does not, as far as I know, have a handy one-word equivalent of the opposite of schadenfreude. We say clunky things, like “I’m so happy for him.” But that does not fully express the internal sense of satisfaction one can have on the behalf of others. The more encompassing “empathy” doesn’t have the specificity I want, either.
Recently, a friend told me she was moving from California back to Connecticut to be with her family. She is a single parent and has a young boy who will soon turn two; having her parents around fulfills a family unit that she doesn’t quite have here. When I heard this news, I felt pretty bereft. Some tears welled up. Running concurrent with that sadness, though, was joy for her. Moving back was what she wanted, had wanted, ever since her boy was born, and I know our friendship won’t slip away. We have the means and will make the time to visit.
Maybe now that I am older, I can more easily experience joy on someone else’s behalf.
I just think it’s something worth paying attention to. If only because this joy on behalf of others seems to have the power to mitigate feelings of confusion, or sadness.
I mean, look at Huckleberry. After some bouncing some failed “sit” attempts because he was so, so excited, he did this.
A calm, floppy dog is a pretty good indication that something has gone right. Vicarious joy is a thing I will always equate with calm, floppy dog, and I think I am likely to spend a good chunk of my time, now, chasing that sentiment. If it means I’ll get to experience more joy on the part of others, well, I’ll take it.
What was the last thing you heard or experienced that gave you vicarious joy? Tell me in the comments below.
*Some of you will be tempted to put somewhere in the comments that dogs do not like being hugged. Mine does. And Seb would never hug a dog who does not want to be hugged, so please do not leave that comment. We are not concerned with that here, because Seb is a pro, like I said.
**I cannot actually envision a thing where someone would be asked to sit on their hands and talk,, but this is the way they tell it. Later on tonight I will ask Mr. Gooddirt to sit on his hands and talk to me and we will see what happens, okay?
This weekend, I taught for a couple of days at the incredible Mt. SAC Culturama. I’ve been involved in this event for four or five years now, and it’s an event that never fails to leave me feeling so satisfied, and full of the hope that inevitably comes from having had a whole weekend of being a part of a strong literary community, yes, but also being able to pass on what I know and have worked hard to know in intense, 75-minute sessions.
I always end up starving at the end of every day, probably from sheer joy. This is as it should be. But this is also beside the point.
In a class I was teaching on alternative essay forms, I covered braided essays, some experimental techniques, and finally, the hermit crab essay, which is by far my favorite type of essay. (It’s the essay form that takes on the form of something else, like a list; a set of directions; advertisement copy.)
I described two events that I’ve been noodling over since they happened, and used them to illustrate how, when you’re struggling with what things your brain won’t let go of mean, thinking of them in different forms can help you to resolve them.
I’m past that point. These two events have taken up a lot of my brainwaves and I need to write them down. Maybe someday I’ll do something more creative with them, but right now they’re burning a hole in my creative pocket and I want to tell you about them. We can discuss them together in the comments below, if you like. Or just take them home and noodle them and then tell me what you think.
Event the first: A tale of heresay
Many of you know that I run a literary magazine with some friends. We buy a booth every year at the big writers’ conference we go to. This year I got to be on a panel with a Bigwig Writer, whom I already knew from another event. We like each other. So after the panel, Bigwig Writer came by our booth to say hello to me. I, alas, was not there. Here is the scene I understand to have taken place.
Personnages: FRIEND OF YI SHUN (FOY); ASPIRING POET (AP); BIGWIG WRITER (BW).
Scene: AP is IN CONVO w FOY when BW appears.
BW: Hello! Is Yi Shun here?
FOY: No, but she’ll be back later!
BW: Oh, okay. I was on a panel with her! That panel!
BW POINTS to the framed sheet we have displayed outlining our staff’s panel appearances.
AP is still AT THE BOOTH, now STANDING next to BW. Some might say she’s LURKING, but I wasn’t there, so who’s to say?
FOY: Oh! You’re [BIGWIG WRITER]!
AP to FOY: You didn’t know that’s [BIGWIG WRITER]?
FOY is suitably embarrassed. I know, because I talked to her afterwards. BIGWIG WRITER, by the way, is still standing there, this entire time. God knows what he thought of the whole thing.
Event the second: A tale of I-Don’t-Know-What-to-Call-This
Personnages: CLASS full of people; INSTRUCTOR; UNNAMED WOMAN; ME
Scene: INSTRUCTOR is telling an anecdote to illustrate how important it is to make literary connections. He tells a story about how, at this same conference two years ago, one of his goals was to get his next book published. He whips out a book.
INSTRUCTOR: Guess what? Today is my book’s birthday. I met my publisher right here, and we made it happen.
INSTRUCTOR displays book.
CLASS oohs and aahs.
INSTRUCTOR: Isn’t that amazing?
CLASS murmurs agreement.
UNNAMED WOMAN raises her hand.
INSTRUCTOR: Yes! A question!
UNNAMED WOMAN: I’m an artist. I already see a problem with this book. I can’t read the title.
UNNAMED WOMAN leans forward; squints. INSTRUCTOR gamely leans forward with book in hand.
UNNAMED WOMAN: Here, let me see that? Yeah, I can’t read this. It’s so busy.
CLASS is dead quiet.
I am fuming.
UNNAMED WOMAN: Who chose that cover, anyway?
If you’re anything like me, you are mouth open, wondering what could possibly make these people behave like this.
You are also furiously thinking up rejoinders, or maybe wondering what the appropriate thing to do or say would have been. I am most often reminded of an article I read about Bernie Williams, the New York Yankees’ former center fielder. He also plays concert-level guitar and composes music and likes chess, but whatever. (#overachiever)
Anyway. The article recounted how quiet Willians was in the locker room, and that whenever anyone would “yo’ mama” him, Williams would usually just gaze at the offender and say, something like, “Man, why did you have to say that?”
I have wanted to be Bernie Williams for a very long time.
I have noodled over these two occurrences for some time now. This is where my writing is supposed to take a left turn to Albuquerque, or maybe take the Osprey’s dive, to use a metaphor I borrowed from essayist Kathleen Dean Moore, and I’m supposed to see something fantastic that I didn’t see before about what these two events mean to me. But that is not going to happen. I can only posit a few theories:
1., I have maybe been shamed enough myself that I know what it feels like to be made to feel stupid in public.
2., I have maybe been shamed enough that I don’t believe anyone should be called out in public.
3. Painfully transparent short-sightedness makes me itch: UNNAMED WOMAN actually asked the publisher’s information, so that she could submit her work to them. And ASPIRING POET clearly did not put two and two together: If BIGWIG WRITER is at someone’s booth, and that someone is not you, them maybe you should consider that being nice to everyone at that booth and not trying to look like you know better is the right way to do it.
4., I am just churlish and curmudgeonly and need an ice-cream sandwich, stat.
5.. I am furious with myself for not having been there in situation the first to say something snappy to AP; and furious with myself for having not spoken up in situation the second. Earlier, I justified it to myself by saying, “Well, it’s not my class” and things like it, but FFS people. I should have said something.
6., I also distinctly remember what it was like to feel so insecure that you just need to prove you know more than the next guy. This makes me sad, both the remembering and the idea that grown-ass human beings still feel the need to behave this way.
I don’t know. I just needed to put all this somewhere. Just–don’t be like this, people, okay? People have long memories. And the ripple effect of your actions are always bigger than you think they are.