Friday, June 28, 2013

Gang Leader

I recently finished reading Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets (2008).  It was actually a very quick--and very interesting--read.  Venkatesh arrives at the University of Chicago with an interest in studying sociology.

Once enrolled, he quickly begins to notice that academic sociologists don't necessarily spend a whole lot of time living with or speaking to the people about whom they're busy compiling statistics and issuing policy recommendations.

As Venkatesh points out, "the field of sociology had long been divided into two camps: those who use quantitative and statistical techniques and those who study life by direct observation" (2).  The latter, "usually called ethnographers" tend to organize their observations about "a particular sort of question: How do people survive in marginal communities? for instance, or What makes a government policy work well for some families and not for others?" (2)

Quantitative sociologists, however, prefer more scientific--i.e."quantitative"-- measures.  "They argued that [the ethnographers' approach] isn't nearly scientific enough and that the answers may be relevant only to the particular group under observation" (4).

Interested in the study of race and poverty, Venkatesh connects with an eminent academic, who instructs him to learn how to create a questionnaire and conduct an interview.  Venkatesh also begins to frequent the poorer neighborhoods around the University of Chicago--all of the areas that the campus life agencies warn U of C students not to go.

After spending time with older black men in the park, Venkatesh decides to take one of his surveys to one of the Chicago housing projects one Saturday morning and see what people have to say about the issues of race and poverty.

Venkatesh's description of what he finds there is eye-opening to say the least. 
The lobby here was empty, so I quickly skirted past another set of distressed mailboxes and passed through another dank lobby.  The elevator was missing entirely--there was a big cavity where the door should have been--and the walls were thick with graffiti.
As I started to climb the stairs, the smell of urine was overpowering.  On some floors the stairwells were dark; on others there was a muted glow.  I walked up four flights, maybe five, trying to keep count, and then I came upon a landing where a group of young men, high-school age, were shooting dice for money. (11)
This marks Venkatesh's first introduction to the lower-tier members ("shorties") of the Black Kings.  As he quickly realizes, the Black Kings control the building: stairwells are often used as bathrooms, drugs are dealt from the lobby, guns and cocaine are stashed in people's apartments, usually in exchange for protection or a fee.

Venkatesh's naivete could have gotten him killed, obviously, but instead it paradoxically saves him.  When the gang members ask him what he's doing there, he tells them quite honestly: "I'm a student at the university, doing a survey, and I'm looking for some families."

After they pat him down and threaten him, they glance at his clipboard and tell him to ask a question.
The first question was one I had adapted from several other similar surveys; it was one of a set of questions that targeted young people's self-perceptions.
"How does it feel to be black and poor?" I read.  Then I gave the multiple-choice answers: "Very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good." (13)
Needless to say, they laugh.

Out of this (rather frightening) episode of innocence and ignorance, however, comes an opportunity.  Venkatesh befriends J.T., a mid-level leader of the Black Kings, and spends the next six years getting to know the gang and the community of which they are a part.

As Venkatesh's analysis shows, the problem of gang involvement in urban housing projects is neither simple nor straightforward.  Yes, they deal drugs.  Yes, they cause death and create violence.  And yet, for many of the residents, they are the only form of "protection" available.

As Venkatesh quickly finds out, if you're black and you're poor and you live in the projects, when you call the police, the police never come.  If you're black and you're poor and you live in the projects, you call an ambulance, the ambulance never comes.  The residents' relationship to the social service efforts that those of us living outside of these housing projects often think the urban poor should be grateful to receive are ambivalent and tortuous at best.

Gang Leader for a Day offers no simple solutions, no easy answers and no platitudes because, as Venkatesh's study makes clear, there aren't any.  "Get a job!"  "Increase funding and services!" "Decrease funding and services!"  "Eliminate gun violence!"  "Stay in school!" "Eliminate gangs!" are appealing slogans that show a complete lack of understanding of the nature and complexity of the problems that the urban poor face.

In the end, Venkatesh's book offers many things to think about and a critical lens through which to view the political efforts to "remedy" issues of race and poverty in urban America.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Place of Poetry

Yesterday, I discovered a poem that will be with me for a long time.

It's by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, and it's the "preface," if you will, to her cycle of poems about the Stalinist terror, "Requiem" ("Реквием").

I'm including the Russian text, because I know I have a few readers of Russian who are also readers of my blog.

If you don't read Russian, the English translation, by Judith Hemschemeyer, follows after the Russian version of the poem.

ВМЕСТО ПРЕДИСЛОВИЯ

В страшные годы ежовщины я провела семнадцать месяцев в тюремных очередях в Ленинграде. Как-то раз кто-то «опознал» меня. Тогда стоящая за мной женщина с голубыми губами, которая, конечно, никогда в жизни не слыхала моего имени, очнулась от свойственного нам всем оцепенения и спросила меня на ухо (там все говорили шепотом):

— А это вы можете описать?
 И я сказала: — Могу.

Тогда что-то вроде улыбки скользнуло по тому, что некогда было ее лицом.

"Instead of a Preface"

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad.  Once, someone "recognized" me. Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me, who, of course had  never heard me called by name before, woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there):

"Can you describe this?"
And I answered: "Yes, I can."

Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face.

--Leningrad, April 1, 1957

I think this is one of the most powerful expressions of the power and purpose of poetry that I have ever read.  What I particularly like about it is that Akhmatova proves her own talent even as she asserts the significance of her craft.

Poets are so often thought of as "useless" members of society.  But if Akhmatova can describe the prison lines of Leningrad and the years of the Yezhov Terror, she will do more than simply document history.

Source: "St. Petersburg: Anna Akhmatova Museum"
http://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/sets/72157606135122153/
This is why something that looks like a smile crosses what "was once the face" of a woman "with bluish lips."  Akhmatova will testify to the suffering of others, and if she does it well, it will be preserved and reach an audience who might otherwise never know about what happened.

If she does it well, it will be unforgettable.

And the people who suffered will not be forgotten.

Akhmatova's name can wake people up, both literally and figuratively.  Her simple, one-word answer (in Russian, "Могу" means "I can") changes everything for a woman who no longer resembles the person she once was.

The last line is not only haunting, but disturbing.  Does Akhmatova mean it to be read literally?  Has the woman been so scarred that she literally no longer has what could be called a face?  Or is it meant figuratively, as a way of suggesting that the woman--like the others around her, sunk in a stupor, speaking only in whispers--has lost the hallmark of human identity, her face ("ее лицом")?

I think the beauty of Akhmatova's line is the lack of specificity in the final line: it holds out both possibilities simultaneously.  It testifies to the ability of poetry to give hope, to restore people to their humanity, but it also remains profoundly ambivalent.

Is the smile a "real" smile or not (it is described as "a kind of smile"--"вроде улыбки")?  Are "real" smiles still possible, after everything that the woman has seen and endured?  Is it poetry that can return this possibility to those who have suffered?

Akhmatova's poem encapsulates an interesting paradox.  She has to describe what is seemingly impossible to describe--the suffering of millions.  This is not simply an aesthetic task for her; it is a moral imperative.  

How can she do this?  How could anyone?

Akhmatova realizes that, to make others understand that which resists comprehension, she has to combine specificity with indirection.  At times, a mere suggestion is enough.  At times, people must be made to look, very closely and very specifically, at exactly what has happened.

At times, they must do both simultaneously.

The dynamic that results is the source of the poem's interpretive energy.  It is a poem that makes you think, that makes you imagine.  It makes you think about what Akhmatova describes, and think about what you imagine as a result.

It is an amazing poem.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Resilience

I've been reading the work of French psychoanalyst Boris Cyrulnik on "resilience theory."  In his book Resilience (2009), Cyrulnik analyzes how survivors manage to cope with traumatic events and carve out meaningful lives for themselves.

Cyrulnik's work began to take shape in the aftermath of World War II.  Cyrulnik himself was a survivor: he was orphaned when his parents were sent to a concentration camp, mistreated by his foster family, and eventually enlisted by the French Resistance as a "runner"--someone who carried message to French soldiers and fighters.

He was seven years old at the time.

Resilience focuses predominantly on the experience of children: the child-soldiers in Africa, the children who have witnessed genocide, the survivors of the Holocaust and the Gulags, victims of child-abuse.

Cyrulnik is fascinated by the fact that, of the many who have been traumatized, many have not been victimized.  They have found ways of coping with the horrific events of their lives and are no more bitter or depressed than other adults who have endured far, far less.

Although this is not the norm, of course, it is a substantial phenomenon.  Cyrulnik argues that the tendency to emphasize the lifelong effects of trauma (pain, depression, suicide), overlooks the phenomenon of human resilience.

It is more common than we might think.  People survive the unthinkable. 

As Cyrulnik acknowledges, his work walks a fine line.  Because he feels that psychoanalysts and neuroscientists have not placed enough emphasis on the human capacity for resilience, he has frequently come under fire for implying that trauma "doesn't really matter."

After all, if people get over it eventually, it couldn't have really been that bad, could it?

Yes, it could.  Cyrulnik is not saying this--or anything like it--at all.  His concern is that we risk "re-victimizing" victims when we suggest that there is one way of coping with trauma, one storyline or narrative that we wish to hear.

When we label victims as simply lifelong "victims," without considering the possibility that they may have found ways of making sense of their experience of senseless violence, we silence them.  And for those who have experienced trauma, silence is a double-edged sword: it can protect, but it can also harm. 

In particular, Cyrulnik notes a commonality among children who survive an experience of trauma:
almost all the children who did survive very quickly elaborated "theories of life" that combined dreams and intellectualization.  Almost all resilient children have to answer two questions.  Asking "Why do I have to suffer so much?" encourages them to intellectualize.  "How am I going to manage to be happy despite it all?" is an invitation to dream. (15)
When "this inner determinant of resilience" is given "a helping hand" by external factors, Cyrulnik notes, "the prognosis for these children is not unfavourable" (15-16).  They don't just "survive"--they learn how to live productive--and even happy--lives.

When traumatized individuals fail to establish a "link... between their inner and outer worlds," they may survive, but they tend to suffer more in later life.  They struggle to make sense of what happened to them in the wake of the life they continue to live.

Trauma and its survival, Cyrulnik argues, are best comprehended by notions of ambivalence and through oxymorons--that is, through the combination of apparent contradictions.  Much of our day-to-day life is structured in such a way that we don't acknowledge these contradictions.

Instead, we seek to eliminate or resolve them in moral and spiritual truisms that are then imposed on the world at large, irrespective of distinct cultural contexts and differences.  As Cyrulnik points out,
As a general rule, education tries to get rid of ambivalence.  We must love our neighbors and forgive them everything, just as it is morally right to hate our enemies and drive them away.  All becomes clear and our controlled ambivalence allows us to express a code of pure interactions: we either love or hate, and we have to choose between the two if we are to be at ease with ourselves. (22)
By contrast, a worldview and way of life that embraces ambivalence--and in many cases, this is what trauma survivors must try to construct--requires the joining of contradictory emotions.

Thus, Cyrulnik claims that "In a world of 'cold cruelty' it is the poet who is the superman," because it is the poet who can join inner and outer worlds in figures of ambivalence (24).

Friday, June 21, 2013

Charming

The week got away from me again.

But it was a wonderful week, so if one has to slip by, that's the best way for it to go.

I've been working on my project on the Gulags this week--in particular, I spent the day writing about Shalamov's story "The Snake-Charmer."

And when I went out into my yard to get my bike, what did I nearly step on?  A snake.

No, it was not a cobra.

Just a tiny garter snake, but I jumped a mile in the air nevertheless.

I did not whip out my pungi and begin charming it.  Actually, snake charming, as it turns out, is a pretty cruel profession.

The snake's mouth is generally sewn shut.  The charmer leaves just enough room for its tongue to flick, so the viewing public thinks it can bite.  But it can't.

As a result, the snake usually dies of starvation or a mouth infection, so another one needs to be captured and subjected to the same treatment.

The charmer typically sits outside of snake's strike-zone anyway.  The snake responds, not to the music, but to the fact that it perceives the man and the pungi as a predator and a threat.

Which is actually rather true, if you think about it.

I simply thought that it was odd that I spent a day writing about a story called "The Snake Charmer," only to discover a snake in my yard. 

It must mean the writing project is on the right track.

This feeling is further reinforced by the fact that, several weeks ago, I went to a party and there was a copy of one of the history books about the Gulag that we're actually using for our project. 

Needless to say, I was quite surprised, and even more surprised when one of the party guests asked the host, "So how are you liking that book about the Gulags?"

These were not professors or historians.  They were normal people, reading a book about the Gulags and discussing it at a party.  I loved it.  I was totally at the right party. 

I've decided it's a sign.  First a book, then a snake.  What's next, I wonder?  Hopefully, not a Siberian snowstorm on the first day of summer.  That would be taking it a bit too far.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Tech Wreck

Yesterday, I had the kind of day that makes you want to run out into the middle of a field full of daisies and scream.  And scream, and scream, and scream.

I know you've all had this kind of day as well.  It's a day when nothing involving technology in even its simplest and most basic forms works for you.  You are cursed by the God of Technology, and you can only curse back.

I fled the East Coast Tornadoes. I don't know if anyone actually got one: I'm boycotting the Weather Channel because I'm tired of them calling everything a "potential" everything.  I'm a commitment-phobe myself, but even I think they're going too far.  They'll give it a Greco-Roman name, but they won't actually tell you anything you need to know.

Anyway, so I went from Point A to Point B.  I should point out that, while at Point A, I marveled at the fact that there seemed to be extra room in my laptop case this time around.  Given how often I travel and how much of a neat-freak I am, I can't help but notice something like this.  I thought it was odd, but refreshing and wonderful.

When I arrived at Point B, I realized that this was due to the fact that I forgot my AC/Charger.  It's still plugged in somewhere else.

If you have a seven-year old laptop, as I do, and you're stingy, as I am, this is disastrous.  I haven't purchased a battery for my laptop ever, since I don't typically wander around writing.  I sit bolt upright in penance while I write.  True, there may be a glorious view or an adorable kitty cat or a large glass of wine nearby, but I don't put my laptop on my lap.

And based on the reports of people who have burned themselves doing so, I guess I'm lucky I never did.

So, this realization about the charger meant that my laptop is now useless unless I can find another charger.

I'm sure you're chuckling at this point, and you should be.  Find a compatible charger for a laptop that's nearly a decade old?  Go with God, Thinker, cuz you're seriously screwed.

So I went with a lot of ill-tempered comments involving God to the Office Supply Underworld that is Staples, and I found a charger that promised to charge any brand of anything.  But I was particularly dismayed to realize that my anal-retentive decision to "jot down" the model number of my laptop had been for naught: I needed to know how many VOLTS my charger required.  

I did not know how many f***ing volts my charger used, and I said something very similar to this more or less out loud in the aisle at Staples while I stared at the package.  I pay no such attention to such things.  My brain capacity is nearly full as it is.  There is no room for storing such information.

The package had a lovely little phone number you could call to check the compatibility of your computer, so I reached into my purse, only to discover that I had left my cell phone at home.

I said a few things about my f***ing cell phone at that point as well.

So this was my existential dilemma.  Buy a charger that I was nearly 99% sure wasn't compatible (because my lap was so "old" it would be considered "obsolete"--no one charges things at that voltage anymore, it just isn't cool, etc. etc.) and be forced to bring it back, or not buy it, get home and realize that the 1% chance of success was actually in my favor this time around and be forced to bring myself back to Staples.  In the rain.  At rush hour.

So, I bought it.  It isn't compatible.

Meanwhile, before the trip to Staples, I found out that the digital archives I wanted to use for my collaborative project were suddenly, shockingly, unavailable.  I had checked a week before: they were available.

Actually, they had been available online for the past YEAR.  But suddenly, poof!

At this point, I realized what was happening.  I was being cosmically chastized for blogging about how wonderfully smoothly and productively everything was going.

Because I then struggled to get a wireless keyboard hooked to my iPad and my iPad began running so slowly that, when I tried to order a charger direct from the manufacturer, it got stuck three-quarters of the way through the order process.

You know, in that phase in which they've got your credit card number and you've clicked "submit," but no confirmation has arrived.  So you don't know if your card has been charged and will be charged again if you re-click "Submit," but you also know that you can't click "Cancel" because 1) that's no longer an option, or 2) it doesn't work if you do.

I tried to access my credit card account online to see if it had been charged.  It wouldn't let me in because I typed my password wrong (of course I did), and when I finally got in, it told me it couldn't update me about my recent transactions because they were experiencing "system problems."

Of course they were.

Shortly after this, I realized that the rebate offer for my contact lens purchase was not applicable to my  particular purchase, and I found out that my Staples Rewards Dollars will only take effect NEXT month.

At this point, I fully expected my phone to ring and have it be an ex parked in the driveway wanting to "talk about us."  (That did not happen, luckily.)

Instead, when I tried to email an article as a PDF file, the app hung up my email and the message sat in my outbox being "sent" for, oh, gosh, well over an hour, until I finally figured out how to go in and sever its connection to the server.  Any other time, I lose things willy nilly or hit "send" and they disappear into internet limbo.  This time, I couldn't lose that email to save my life. 

At this point, I became so enraged that I actually contemplated hurling my Ipad like a frisbee.  It has the right heft and balance... it could happen and it could be spectacular.

Thank god I had Kindle installed on it.  Because what brought me back from the brink was not the question of cost or the contemplation of the sheer senselessness of such an act, but the fact that destroying my iPad would be akin to destroying my books.  

I could never do that.

So, the moral of the story is, if you're ever afraid that I'm going to kill someone, jump in front of me and quickly hand me a book.

(FYI: if I quietly hand it back to you and say, "Get out of my way," then you really should get out of my way.)

I finally gave up and went to bed early.  This morning I woke up early.  (Funny how those two things are connected.) 

And although the Technology God was not smiling upon me yesterday, today, the Weather Goddess was.  In Ancient Egypt, her name was Nepythys, and she always wore a green dress, which just happens to be my favorite color. (I strongly suspect she supports my boycotting of the Weather Channel.)


So I was able to take advantage of the cloudy and cool temperatures to transplant all kinds of plants, to weed, and to install yet another raised bed (this time for an herb garden).  And now I am able to return to technology, with a tired body and a healed spirit.

I just got an email: the archives are back online.  Of course they are.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Progress Report

I have been working for a full week on a collaborative project, and here's what I've learned:

If you take one moderately productive person (myself) and pair them up with a highly productive person (my collaborator), they will end up rocketing themselves into the stratosphere of productivity.

Of course, as I write this, I realize that many who know me will say, "Come again?  You're characterizing yourself as 'moderately productive person'?  Say what?"

It's true, evidence would suggest that I'm pretty highly productive myself, and that this might be why we have reached the stratosphere in the past week.

I tend not to think of myself as "highly productive," though, because I tend to accomplish a great deal on the assumption that I "don't feel like" or "won't do" a whole bunch of things.  Or anything, actually.

Freud argues that, despite all appearances, human beings innately seek to return to a state of total inertia--he calls this "the death drive."

Odd as it sounds, my mindset--and certain specific weekends of my life--might offer compelling proof of the validity of his theory.

I suspect I get a lot accomplished simply because I have become extremely efficient in my quest to return to a state of total inertia.  I give myself permission to contemplate not moving or doing anything at all, and then I say, "Well, okay, I'll do this one little thing, but THAT'S IT."

Many little things later, I find that I've been productive.  My recollection of the process, however--and my perception of my own role in it--tends to remain tied to my initial decision not to do anything at all. No one is more surprised than I am when I've been productive. 

And I'm left feeling quite pleased with myself, needless to say.

In Bird by Bird, writer Annie Lamott talks about this method of tackling projects--and writing projects in particular.  Her book opens with a memory of her ten-year-old brother facing the impossible task of writing a report on "Birds of North America."  

He's had the assignment for months, it's Sunday night, it's due Monday--you know the scene.  He sits down to write and is quickly on the verge of tears.

Lamott's father puts a supportive arm around him, sits down next to him and says, "Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird."

This is Lamott's advice in writing: take it bird by bird.  Don't contemplate the larger project, just work on putting one foot in front of the other, one sentence after another.  (And they can be pretty crappy sentences at first, too.)  Just write them down.  Move forward.

You have to start somewhere, so just start.  Building something from nothing is always a daunting task, but building something from a bunch of smaller somethings seems much more do-able.

So do it.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Jury Duty

I've spent the past week reading about Soviet Gulags and Shalamov and thoroughly enjoying it, so I haven't had much time to do anything else.

I did, however, have a small conniption fit when I was summoned for jury duty AGAIN.

Here's the thing.  I was summoned to serve on a grand jury about ten years ago.  I went, I was picked.  I spent every Friday for an entire summer sitting on a grand jury: the term of service was 12 weeks.  I had to argue to be let off because they wanted to extend my term of service past that time--my classes were starting, so I put my foot down.

I did my civic duty.

Because I did, I couldn't be summoned for petit juror service for a period of three years.  I was summoned anyway.  I sent them a notice indicating that I had served within the past three years, so they let me off.

About two months after my three-year grace period was up, I was summoned again.  I didn't have to report.

I was recently summoned again.

I'm sorry, but I think the whole "juror selection is a random process and each eligible individual has the same chance of being picked" is a load of hogwash.  I couldn't play the lottery and experience odds like this, that's for sure.

I requested a deferral, and got it.  I'll be a reasonable citizen this time around and report (AGAIN), but as God is my witness, if I get summoned for jury duty AGAIN after this, I'm going to point out to them that what they call "random" is clearly NOT.

In a decade, I have now been summoned 4 times, and served once.  I didn't even live in the state for a year during that time, and I wasn't a homeowner or a registered voter for about 4 of those years.  Methinks something's fishy.

There have to be a few people in my county who aren't over the age of 75 and convicted felons.  There just have to be.  

The irony is, according to my friends who are attorneys, I have a 0% chance of being picked if I actually do have to report.  No one wants a frickin' ENGLISH professor on a jury.

As one friend put it, "Even if the prosecution wanted you, the defense would object."  Apparently, lawyers are typically reluctant to put people who think critically or function in leadership positions on a jury, for fear they'll lead the jury in a particular direction.

So I'm working on putting that little annoyance behind me--until August, when I have to report.  

When I wasn't thinking about jury duty or Gulags, I spent the week picking strawberries, broccoli, and spinach at the nearby farm.

This meant that I was able to make a mean little batch of broccoli cheddar soup with fresh broccoli today, to celebrate the fact that I had taken a five-mile walk (to celebrate the fact that it was no longer raining).

That takes the edge off of things.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Accidents of Assimilation

I spent the past two days reading Eric Liu's collection of essays, The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker (1999).

I have very mixed feelings about this book.  I started out really liking it--and really liking a couple of the essays in particular ("Song for My Father" and "The Chinatown Idea")--but I ended up feeling very ambivalent about the book and about many of the arguments it seems to be making as a whole.

I don't know if I've entirely processed that ambivalence in a way that I can put into words, but I'll try.

Liu's work reflects on his experience as a second-generation Chinese American.  His opening essay, "Song for My Father," confronts the paradox of an Chinese American's "Chineseness" and the question of assimilation ("assimilation" refers to the process by which members of an immigrant community become integrated within their adopted culture or country).

Liu looks back at his father's life and realizes all of the many things he doesn't know about him--and will never know, since his father died of kidney failure in 1991.

The essay revolves around Liu's discovery (or rediscovery) of residual texts of his father's identity: letters he wrote, slips of paper found in jacket pockets.  Liu reflects on a memorial book written by his father's childhood friends after his death: he is unable to read it because most of the entries are in Chinese.

This is the starting point for Liu's reflection on his own life and identity--what his "Chineseness" might mean, as an assimilated Chinese American who is definitively more "American" than "Chinese," in contrast to his father who was "Chinese" but immigrated and "became" "American."  Whatever that means.

And this is Liu's purpose: to figure out what that might mean, and why it might mean different things for different individuals and different generations.

As the scare quotes indicate, tricky issues abound in such reflections.  For the most part, I think Liu does a great job of confronting the provocative questions and struggling with what they mean, both for his own personal experience and for American culture at large.

What I find... unsettling? curious? (I'm not sure of the word I want to use to describe this tendency that I think I see in his book) is Liu's discomfort with--and what I perceive as his effort to dodge--the fact of discrimination.  Liu's writing is at its best when he's grappling with the contradictions and paradoxes of assimilation and its assumptions--and there are many.

But he seems to me to have a strange need to insist that, if discrimination is out there, he never experienced it, so maybe it isn't relevant to focus on it anymore.  He situates his own experience as a Chinese American in contrast to the experience of blacks and Jews in the United States in the first five decades of the twentieth century.

The source of my skepticism is ultimately personal in nature.  Liu grew up about 20 miles away from where I did.  He and I are exactly the same age.  In my school, there was one--yes, you heard that right--ONE black student.  She was tormented constantly, and she finally switched schools.

My school was K-12.  Granted, there were only about 700 students enrolled: I graduated in a "large" class of about 60 students.  Nearby schools were much larger, of course, and I suspect Liu attended one of those much larger (and more diverse) school systems.  

In my school, there was one--yes, ONE--Chinese American student.  He was tormented more or less constantly.  But he stayed.  His parents owned the only Chinese restaurant in town, and people cut them a bit of slack because 1) "at least they're not black" and 2) "Chinese food is pretty good sometimes." (The second statement would always be followed up with the warning, "But they eat cats and dogs in China, you know, so you have to be careful what you order.")

I grew up 50 miles from New York City.  People of color lived in nearby towns, but not ours.  Looking back, my (subsequently educated) guess is that they were simply blocked from purchasing real estate there for years.

My dad's aunt died when she was in her nineties.  When we cleaned out her house, we found, hidden in the bottom of a box, a group photo that appears to have been taken in the 1930s.

We have no idea exactly who's in it, because they're Klansmen.  I still remember my mom's troubled look when she found it: we had been chatting away, going through boxes, and she suddenly became very quiet and said to my dad, "Look at this."

He also became very quiet.  He said, "Years ago, when I was growing up, people told stories about there being a chapter of the Klan around here.  No one would ever own up to it and it wasn't talked about openly.  The cowardly sons-of-bitches, hiding behind masks."

My mother told a story about pledging a sorority in the early 1950s.  She went through the entire process, and when it came time for the induction ceremony, there was an oath they all had to recite.  My mom said, "All of a sudden, there was all this ... stuff... this crap... about Jews and Blacks and who knows what all, this racist, prejudiced crap and I said, 'I'm not saying this.  What is this?  There was nothing about any of this when we pledged.  This isn't right."

They told her she had to recite the oath or she couldn't join.  She and one other girl refused: they walked out.  My mom said, "Only 2 of us refused, out of 20 or more pledges.  I don't know if that stuff is what they all really believed or if they just wanted to be in the sorority, and they were embarrassed to speak up.  It seemed to me like it was done on purpose: hide all of this stuff until the last minute and then, there it is!  And you're standing there, so... most people will just go along with it, I think, and maybe figure it doesn't mean anything.  But it wasn't right.  I didn't like it.  People shouldn't think that way."  

Several weeks ago, I read Jennifer Baszile's The Black Girl Next Door (2009).  Baszile grew up in California in the 1980's--she's also about my age.  Her memoir describes her experiences as a member of the first generation of black Americans to grow up in a post-segregated American society, during integration.  It's a fascinating--and disturbing--book.

Discrimination was everywhere in the 1980s.  It still is.  Racism is not a "Southern" phenomenon, and it isn't in our past.  It's all around us.  If we don't choose to see it, it's because we have the luxury of that choice.

And I think this is why I regard some of Liu's claims with skepticism and ambivalence. I think he simply chooses not to see discrimination or not to focus on it when he does see it.  And, as he openly acknowledges, he lived in a world of relative privilege: his parents were educated professionals from Taiwan, so their experience was not necessarily typical.

Ultimately, I think Liu's essays want to see the best in America and to believe the best about the American people as a whole, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that.  But as Liu himself acknowledges, in a conversation with the novelist Shawn Wong in which Liu finds himself advocating "race transcendence," he is "gently" warned by Wong, "not to forget history":
By which he means Asian American history: the trials of people before my time, whose estrangement from the mainstream years ago made possible my entry into the mainstream today. (153-154)
I think it is good advice.