- Considerations of "Modern life"
- Creative writing
- Joie de vivre
- New York City
- The law
“There is a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race. But by the statute in question, a Chinaman can ride in the same passenger coach with white citizens of the United States, while citizens of the black race [cannot]….” – Justice Harlan, 1896, in his famous Plessy v. Ferguson dissent, in which he rejects racial segregation in the Jim Crow south.
I attended this thing hosted by MOCA and AAWW almost three weeks ago, where I basically sat through 20 minutes of Wesley Yang’s very public very pathetic self-flagellation under the pretext of marginalization in America of Asianness, seething with the kind of anger only possible when you’re dealing with, on the one hand, secondary shame on someone else’s behalf, and on the other, a kind of derivative embarrassment caused by another due to the unfortunate association that he’s prescribed by way of his own inferiority complex and existential crisis.
In short, fuck Wesley Yang for being the unfortunate representative that we’ve been assigned, against our will. It is a shame that burns so deep that, after 3 weeks, having remembered not much else about the panel, I managed to encapsulate my rage in the long-winded, poorly constructed run on sentence above.
This is all to say, memory is vague and I can only now recap it in a very general way that doesn’t come anywhere close to the intense recap session post-panel, at Great NY Noodletown.
I grew up in China, and all I knew about America was from movies and sitcoms (Growing Pains dubbed with Chinese represented, as far as I was concerned, a life I was to lead once I cross over that ocean and go to America.). 美国人(American) meant white people with different color eyes and hair than my brown and black. I had the idea that I was going to a place that would vaguely resemble (in reality) a Scandinavian country. When I moved here in 5th grade, I started at an elementary school with all black, Latino, and Asian kids. The Hasidic Jews in the neighborhood startled me (as did the fact that squirrels and pigeons just roamed the streets; as my mother would say, in China, these animals would all be dead, and their existence represents the goodness and humanity of America). I didn’t see any white people until much later. I also didn’t realize the spectrum of ethnicity that exist in the US until I got here.
When we talk about race or racial identity in the US, non-black “minority” groups are a secondary mention or a non-issue, much like how my conception of the US did not include non-whites. Mainstream rhetoric just doesn’t make room for it, so discussions happen in the fringes. I understand the need to fit our narrative in accepted rhetoric like this, and that “are Asians black” is kind of a provocative thought that might make people go hmm, but ultimately, that hmm is followed by confusion. The answer is emphatically, no. However our stories might have converged (both groups have faced discrimination, there have some exchanges between cultural groups), references to those rare occurrences, even in sum, do not amount to a common story. True, we’re both subjects of a racial hierarchy constructed by a white society, but drawing a comparison based on that sad nugget of commonality reduces both groups to nothing more than victims.
I had a lot more to say, especially about the many, many fallacies of Wesley Yang’s pathetic little monologue constructed based on arbitrary statistics that can be construed many different ways, as statistics often can be made to do, but I don’t have the energy to revisit his spiel.
This is not to say that I did not enjoy the program. I appreciate that we’re trying to have a dialogue, especially not just amongst ourselves as Asians but in a wider demographic, but I just think the focus could have been different and, maybe more narrow. Because a survey panel of such varied perspectives need at least like, a day, to be comprehensive.
“I’m not a foodie, I just like what I like,” she says. “Yes, I know, it’s just like hipsters saying, ‘I’m not a hipster.’ ” (The cliché cracks her up.) “But it’s like when my boss says, ‘Oh, you’re such a foodie.’ I’m like, Oh God. When I hear the word foodie, I think of Yelp. I don’t want to be lumped in with Yelp.” – Young Foodie Culture via @Davidchang
I’m not taking offense because of the narrow exception of myself and a handful of Yelp friends whose reviews are merited not only for their candor but also for the writing itself. I have a problem with people who so emphatically dismiss (or worship)a group of people without exception or clear basis. While I’m not a cheerleader for team Yelp, I can’t deny the undeniable place the site has established for itself regardless of the deteriorating quality of its reviewers (o, it can be personal). This influx of “foodies” seem to take that aversion to new heights, effectively establishing a hierarchy of a sort of authenticity (oh, exploring new foods is a personal hobby, it’s a part of my identity. It’s inherent in my being; I didn’t need an external incentive like a forum of expression.) Well, having your rhetoric memorialized in a publication like New York Magazine closes every inch of that gap – the magazine’s perspective and identity being informed by what everyone else is saying. Plus, the obvious fact here is that your reference to Yelp in that context renders your whole shit reactionary and derivative – as if not being a Yelper is supposed to validate and legitimize you, as if the restaurant owner who replied to my review with: nyt gave us 2 stars, is supposed to render my review invalid. To you I say: who you? Seriously, like who are you to tell me that you know better just because you’re not on Yelp? The problem isn’t “Yelp”, sure it provides a medium for people who delight in an imaginary audience (hi!), but really, you’re both drawn by the same force and your self-branding as a non-foodie food lover who likes what you like follows the same rhetoric. It’s the same whether you use your hands or a toy; you’re still just getting yourself off.
Food is a basic and subjective concept the quality of which anyone can discern (some might choose to be more or less discriminating). That sort of faux denial laced of a self-congratulatory tone (oh, I’m a hipster without the shackles of a label). Spending your money on pickled lambs tongue, because it’s a new frontier and soon to be item du jour is not “liking what you like”, and you, Diane Chang, are a sucker. This is not about the ridiculousness of your chosen lifestyle from my point of view (I mean spending a quarter of an income that’s described as modest is pretty bad finances, but I probably spend more on worse things like dresses I never wear), I could care less about how you spend your money. Buying into a marketed commercial movement all the while coloring yourself as an exceptional instance is delusional, as if a label is your problem.
“Lipsyte, Shteyngart, and Price are, of course, writing about some of the same social conditions that Houellebecq also identifies (and rails against): the decade or two of post-college bachelorhood that has become standard among the educated middle class during which men (and women) continually risk romantic rejection and size themselves up in relation to their peers. And with the possibility of easy divorce, bachelorhood can be revisited at any age”
Long, but great read
“Widespread ignorance bordering on idiocy is our new national goal. It’s no use pretending otherwise and telling us, as Thomas Friedman did in the Times a few days ago, that educated people are the nation’s most valuable resources. Sure, they are, but do we still want them? It doesn’t look to me as if we do. The ideal citizen of a politically corrupt state, such as the one we now have, is a gullible dolt unable to tell truth from bullshit. “- Age of igorance
See also American Hubris, Savior Complex, e.g. NPR Scandal and KONY
(How the current legal framework of IP protection perpetuates the perception of fashion as a vapid status conscious elitist hierarchy)
A working title and subtitle for the note that I will never write, because why would I close the door to such a vast field of future employment opportunities?
Have never read anything by Jhumpa Lahiri, but this was magical and sums up how I feel about books and writing. A good sentence – like a really perfect combination of words – just makes me feel so good, and they can be found anywhere from blogs to judicial opinions. I savor a good sentence as a small piece of wisdom. Also, this should be read with this. (omg, it’s a reading pairing! Like wine and cheese!)JHUMPA LAHIRI
In college, I used to underline sentences that struck me, that made me look up from the page. They were not necessarily the same sentences the professors pointed out, which would turn up for further explication on an exam. I noted them for their clarity, their rhythm, their beauty and their enchantment. For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.
I remember reading a sentence by Joyce, in the short story “Araby.” It appears toward the beginning. “The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” I have never forgotten it. This seems to me as perfect as a sentence can be. It is measured, unguarded, direct and transcendent, all at once. It is full of movement, of imagery. It distills a precise mood. It radiates with meaning and yet its sensibility is discreet.
When I am experiencing a complex story or novel, the broader planes, and also details, tend to fall away. Rereading them, certain sentences are what greet me as familiars. You have visited before, they say when I recognize them. We encounter books at different times in life, often appreciating them, apprehending them, in different ways. But their language is constant. The best sentences orient us, like stars in the sky, like landmarks on a trail.
They remain the test, whether or not to read something. The most compelling narrative, expressed in sentences with which I have no chemical reaction, or an adverse one, leaves me cold. In fiction, plenty do the job of conveying information, rousing suspense, painting characters, enabling them to speak. But only certain sentences breathe and shift about, like live matter in soil. The first sentence of a book is a handshake, perhaps an embrace. Style and personality are irrelevant. They can be formal or casual. They can be tall or short or fat or thin. They can obey the rules or break them. But they need to contain a charge. A live current, which shocks and illuminates.
Knowing — and learning to read in — a foreign tongue heightens and complicates my relationship to sentences. For some time now, I have been reading predominantly in Italian. I experience these novels and stories differently. I take no sentence for granted. I am more conscious of them. I work harder to know them. I pause to look something up, I puzzle over syntax I am still assimilating. Each sentence yields a twin, translated version of itself. When the filter of a second language falls away, my connection to these sentences, though more basic, feels purer, at times more intimate, than when I read in English.
The urge to convert experience into a group of words that are in a grammatical relation to one another is the most basic, ongoing impulse of my life. It is a habit of antiphony: of call and response. Most days begin with sentences that are typed into a journal no one has ever seen. There is a freedom to this; freedom to write what I will not proceed to wrestle with. The entries are mostly quotidian, a warming up of the fingers and brain. On days when I am troubled, when I am grieved, when I am at a loss for words, the mechanics of formulating sentences, and of stockpiling them in a vault, is the only thing that centers me again.
Constructing a sentence is the equivalent of taking a Polaroid snapshot: pressing the button, and watching something emerge. To write one is to document and to develop at the same time. Not all sentences end up in novels or stories. But novels and stories consist of nothing but. Sentences are the bricks as well as the mortar, the motor as well as the fuel. They are the cells, the individual stitches. Their nature is at once solitary and social. Sentences establish tone, and set the pace. One in front of the other marks the way.
My work accrues sentence by sentence. After an initial phase of sitting patiently, not so patiently, struggling to locate them, to pin them down, they begin arriving, fully formed in my brain. I tend to hear them as I am drifting off to sleep. They are spoken to me, I’m not sure by whom. By myself, I know, though the source feels independent, recondite, especially at the start. The light will be turned on, a sentence or two will be hastily scribbled on a scrap of paper, carried upstairs to the manuscript in the morning. I hear sentences as I’m staring out the window, or chopping vegetables, or waiting on a subway platform alone. They are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, handed to me in no particular order, with no discernible logic. I only sense that they are part of the thing.
Over time, virtually each sentence I receive and record in this haphazard manner will be sorted, picked over, organized, changed. Most will be dispensed with. All the revision I do — and this process begins immediately, accompanying the gestation — occurs on a sentence level. It is by fussing with sentences that a character becomes clear to me, that a plot unfolds. To work on them so compulsively, perhaps prematurely, is to see the trees before the forest. And yet I am incapable of conceiving the forest any other way.
As a book or story nears completion, I grow acutely, obsessively conscious of each sentence in the text. They enter into the blood. They seem to replace it, for a while. When something is in proofs I sit in solitary confinement with them. Each is confronted, inspected, turned inside out. Each is sentenced, literally, to be part of the text, or not. Such close scrutiny can lead to blindness. At times — and these times terrify — they cease to make sense. When a book is finally out of my hands I feel bereft. It is the absence of all those sentences that had circulated through me for a period of my life. A complex root system, extracted.
Even printed, on pages that are bound, sentences remain unsettled organisms. Years later, I can always reach out to smooth a stray hair. And yet, at a certain point, I must walk away, trusting them to do their work. I am left looking over my shoulder, wondering if I might have structured one more effectively. This is why I avoid reading the books I’ve written. Why, when I must, I approach the book as a stranger, and pretend the sentences were written by someone else.
Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of “Unaccustomed Earth,” “The Namesake” and “Interpreter of Maladies.”
“Daisey’s fiction was predicated on the notion that China is essentially unknowable, that reporters never go to factory gates, that highways exit to nowhere.” – Evan Osnos
And that is the state of America’s xenophobia. It goes beyond a mea culpa that cripples any interactions with China. The most dangerous aspect of ignorance is the strength of the conviction. It’s a conviction that drove Daisey to contrive a story to corroborate his assumptions. The most disheartening aspect of the story is that so many of us fell for it. It’s like the moment in French class when I realized that Diderot’s Bougainville doesn’t tell us about any “real” exoticisms of the island people, but that it does tell everything about the distorted prejudices of the very French narrator.
I can’t help but draw a parallel between the Daisey story and Steven of “Seeking Asian Female” (or, Single Asian Females’ worst nightmare). Stereotypes do not waver in the face of actual interactions; however unsubstantiated those stereotypes end up being – it could always be written off as an exception. As if reality can always make concessions to fit a picture painted in broad strokes.
It is particularly disheartening, because this kind of noise and theatrics will almost always drown out sincere attempts at dialogue and truth seeking. The sources for that are out there, but Americans love propaganda more than any socialist do. You’d better believe that shit.
So I’m not sure what I was expecting when I queued up for the J. Crew sample sale today – what the hell was I doing at a J. Crew sample sale period? [need for sweaters, lured by the promise of cashmere for cheap] But let me tell you, the scene was wholly unsavory. Racks of nubbing cashmere sweaters. Inventory so picked over that I thought I was digging through Salvation Army. No hyperbole. Shoes tied with rubber bands. Even with discounts being only modest, shoppers were walking away with garbage bags worth of said items. Two things that are evident at a sample sale: you can get away with a lot if you slap a “sample sale” at the end; merchandising is money.
All of a sudden bargain shopping is the new thing. But it’s not as smart as people like to make it seem since there is an inevitable sample sale google effect. I am not exempt from the occasional shopper’s fervor caused by a blind zeal for particular brands. Oh, a pair of Herchicovitch pants two sizes too large that looks more awkward than hot, a clunky and utterly unremarkable bag purchase on account of it being Chloe and a bunch of utterly regrettable purchases come to mind. But my god, I love laughing at women snatching up nubby sweaters when you can get better and newer versions for the same price.
I’ve finally settled back into the routine, though I chose to abstain from shenanigans this weekend, which came as a surprise to even myself. During my last week in China, I had a major emo moment with Janelle [via bbm thankgod] re: my experiment with running away from humanity [ok, don’t take it literally, I’m not making a subversive comment on Chinese and Korean people and their exclusion from humanity.]. Yet after a handful of the requisite “I’ve missed you so and tell me all about your trips” mini reunions, I am looking for a break again. So I took the night off to write and watch “Up in the Air” for the 3rd time in as many months [yes, really]. The movie touches me in so many places; I don’t even know where to start.
I’ve been feeling uneasy all week, for a number of reasons, not all of which can be divulged here. But the mixture of jetlag and lingering cold is doing nothing for my insomniac tendencies. Tossing and turning until the wee hours of the morning makes me more neurotic than usual.
The thing is, I’m not sure what I need right now. I guess it’s just a weird time in life? I just paid my deposit for a seat at L-School, which means this blog may soon turn into a giant snoozefest. I had all these grand epiphanies when I was away – a combination of being on my own a lot and having too much time to think and being in a new place always makes me all introspective about where I am and shit [figuratively and literally]. Whenever I visit a city, I get all curious about history on a much more significant way than I would ever think about New York. I don’t ever think about the fact that I am in New York, like how I think about my place in this other city
So, maybe a brief recap?
I’m a champ at frontin’. Between me and my circle of bitchin’ friends, you’d think females have gotten past that pathetic thing called feelings, attachment, and hurtin’ [wanna check into the heartbreak hotel, sorry we’re closed]. Posing is an art, damn. Sometimes even I’m shocked when one of my friends starts a minor breakdown [except for JY, obvs, because let’s be serious, that act only fools fluffy haired music nerds who dangle their legs over the L train platform at Bedford Ave.]. Obviously, we also totally judge those girls who are constant MESSES over their emotional melodrama.
Is there a medium to this? Since I think both extremes are kinda taboo. How does one strike a balance between exploding with emotions left and right and burying all skeletons beneath a pristine cover of charm and wit?
I remember maybe four years ago, this dude that I was dating told me that he didn’t think I’d be phased by anything. Of course, at the time, I was all like, you damn skippy, son. You ain’t shit, now rub my belly. And then of course I was phased when we stopped talkin’ and whatnot. Actually, I was major upset; admitting this years later is the maturation of Jaezeezy.