3, 2, 1…2018, You’re Done!

Alright, 2018. As Nicole Byers would say, “ya done!” I think it’s difficult to say whether this year was “good” because there were some direly terrible, awful moments. And, I feel thankful for several people and communities that worked against all odds and supported one another. Despite the heartbreaking news we encounter every day, I do want to shout out the people that made good happen. Think about the activists, writers, teachers, artists, religious leaders, small business owners, athletes, entertainers, and others who took the time to teach and to listen. Especially people of color, women, queer and trans folx, disabled folx, immigrants, and folx whose native language is not English. To everyone who truly learned from their mistakes, that’s awesome.

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I saw so many awesome achievements and fearless actions, including a friend’s recent trip to the border to protest. Two close friends got engaged and another friend took a backpack to travel the world. Another friend finished a masters degree and got a sick job. And another started teaching Spanish and has been asked several times to be a model teacher for others just starting. My students improved their writing and one won a national championship. Scholars I admire wrote books that called out white supremacy, racism and sexism through their work and encouraged me to do the same. I witnessed pain, anger, frustration, loss, and the subsequent fight to find some joy despite it all.

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Before I offer my (partial) list of yays and face palms and resolutions, I want to reflect on one thing. I’ve seen many end of the year messages and posts that suggest we should cut people out of our lives who are toxic, that we must let go of those who are not ready to love us, and that those who cannot appreciate us for our flaws need to go home. I completely agree with these messages, and I wonder how, in this new year, we can hold more accountability for ourselves too. I struggled- I mean STRUGGLED- this year with balancing how to hold space for a friend or colleague or family member who needed to dump their emotions and saying no to holding that space because I didn’t have the capacity. How do we work through our own stuff while utilizing our support networks without emotionally dumping? This year I want to explore accountability of emotions. I think through my own work, I can be a better support and resource for my people.

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Yays:

-Met so many amazing people working to end the suffering of others

-Finished my first year in a PhD program when I said so many times I couldn’t

-Received three grants and launched Golden State Sacred, our project documenting the religious history of California

-Finished a tough mudder

-Presented for the first time at several conferences- and most importantly, lived into the nerves!

-Saw my body as strong and deserving, rather than overweight and lacking

-Got to be on an awesome podcast with one of my academic and activist heroes, and realized that I value a commitment to learning and listening perhaps more than anything

-Published a short story, an article, and a few contributions to publications I really believe in

-Learned so much about my home state through the graciousness of communities and individuals who helped me

-Helped create a public history project that brought scholars, artists and activists together

-Spent time with my family and my best friends, even if it meant I stayed up real late finishing my work to be at the Coliseum or Dodger Stadium

-Took student feedback seriously and improved my teaching (and got really lovely student reviews)

-Asked for help when I needed it (and definitely need to keep working on this one)

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Face Palms (not really. But I think being vulnerable and sharing mistakes is really helpful):

-Exhibited stubborn behavior when I should have listened and acknowledged that my actions were harmful, especially as a white woman

-Stayed silent when I needed to speak out

-Took my frustration out on baristas and other workers when it was entirely not their fault my day was not going the way I wanted

-Failed to tell my therapist a few things right away because I felt shame

-Missed opportunities to communicate with people I don’t get to see or talk to every day (forgetting to text back)

-Let guilt guide my actions instead of letting go and stating my needs

-Lived into the narrative that I am not smart enough or qualified for academia because my path is different

-Allowed the patriarchy to get me down

 

My Resolutions:

-Exhibit ally behavior for indigenous and disabled individuals and communities and appreciate when someone takes the time to teach me.

-Write fearlessly.

-Tell people when I don’t have emotional capacity to hold space (and, recognize my own issues in asking for space).

-Treat my body as a gift that deserves care- instead of working out as punishment, treating working out as a gift of time, stress relief and celebration.

-Communicate more directly (even if it seems mean).

-Put my body and words on the line for the communities that do not hold the privilege I do.

-Build relationships without using English as a medium.

-Keep baking.

-Tell my friends and family when they do something fantastic.

Happy New Year, y’all! May the internet continue to save us in humor and real talk.

 

 

Crazy Rich Representation

Saw Crazy Rich Asians. You need to. Go go go pay the money and go. Maybe eight times.

I’m not great at sitting through movies because sitting still is a challenge for me in general. I did not have a problem sitting through this film for a few reasons, not the least of which is, it’s a great movie! Sure, I do like romantic comedies sometimes. Many of them feel like something to flip on while I cook dinner or clean my shower. Not this romcom. The film itself is light and humorous in several places, which I found entertaining. The fashion tickled my fancy for sure. But the movie actually deals with a dense array of themes and issues that truly held my attention. I should say, the movie is based on a best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan- Kwan deserves the credit for this brilliance in intersecting themes.

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Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

Representation matters. Hollywood especially needs to heed this message a thousand times over. It matters that the cast of this film was not centered around white leads (or even supporting roles!) because so often, this centering creates a one-dimensional character that fills a stereotype or perhaps edgily fights against it, yet in the process of fighting still upholds that identity. It matters that the film actually focused on women character development more deeply than the men. It truly matters that this movie deals with class- albeit sometimes in a funny, glamorous way- because here in the United States, we don’t talk about class nearly enough. It also matters that this movie deals with fraught relationships and misogyny.

Without spoilers, intersectionality plays a big part in the conflicts between different characters.  Questions are left for us to answer- what is family, really, and how do we connect and support our own? How does the privilege of resource affect our bias? How can we live out feminism in different ways? The movie isn’t just important because it cast several Asian and Asian-American actors together- it is an essential commentary on how race, gender, class, language, culture, and sexuality define boundaries and sometimes clash within a single person’s identity.

I will not claim to find much commonality with most of the characters in the film because my context and privilege is different (also, I can look literally anywhere to see “me” represented in any field or sector). I spend much of my day immersed in questions of race, religion and class because my job is to interrogate how these concepts affect public life in the United States. One particular element did feel quite close to home. The film helped me begin to question how my family system affects my work in terms of what we “preserve,” what values we continue to uphold. Increasingly, my family and I clash in terms of what we value. My job is not to dismiss their traditions without engagement. Reflecting on the moments of change in our own values matter because we need to recognize the catalysts. Crazy Rich Asians matters because it is itself a catalyst in how Asian and Asian American identities are recognized as relatable but not one-dimensional. Final note- the soundtrack is amazing.

 

30

Yep, 1-8-18 was yesterday. Which is exactly 30 years from 1-8-88 (my birthday). I am now 30.

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Photo by Johannes Wredenmark on Unsplash

My mom suggested I start telling people that I’m 30 about six months ago.”It’ll help you avoid the shock,” she encouraged. She did the same this year…I’ll refrain from revealing her age, though I definitely believe she looks and acts much younger.

I felt sad for a while. My twenties saw tons of changes and growth. And mistakes. At first I feared that turning thirty meant giving up certain arbitrary habits and practices. Admittedly, some things are more difficult. A hangover, I imagine, is much less pleasant than at 21. Perhaps.

As you might know from previous writing, I struggled with my weight this year. After running the Boston Marathon, it felt like my body clung to the extra pounds that it needed to run 26.2 miles. I experienced shame and frustration and in the darkest moments, exasperation and used foods I know are bad for me as an excuse. “It doesn’t matter,” I thought. I’d rather enjoy this than deprive myself for nothing.

I’m on day 10 of the Whole 30 program, a 30-day lifestyle change that focuses on eating only whole foods and thinking differently about dessert as reward, or weight loss as the true goal for achieving health (for example. There’s plenty of useful pillars and ideas of the program). I decided to spend the first month of 2018 saying yes to what I know is nourishing, instead of feeling left out of what I can’t eat or do (like eat cake on my birthday). It sounds really corny, but this mentality brought me some joy as I said goodbye forever to my 20s. There are so many things I CAN do as a 30-year-old. For example:

-I can rock pink pants as well/better than when I was 18. Style never dies.

-I can sing in the shower as loud as I want.

-I can start reflecting on my twenties and realize how far I’ve come.

Thankfully, I don’t feel constrained to a timeline. Five of my friends got engaged in the month of December. More and more of my friends are having children. Some of them have started and built companies. Some have finished graduate school. Some are sitting in uncertainty and that’s totally fine. I’ve been there. I am there! I’m not in a hurry. As hard as it is, comparison only serves to discourage us.

You know what has been a real blessing over the past decade? The amount of fine people I’ve met in a myriad of ways. I was reminded of that yesterday when people actually called (yes- CALLED) and texted and messaged to say they were thinking of me.

I’m still totally confused about my life and what I want to do when I grow up. My life has some surface level certainty for the moment (I know where and when my classes are and what work I need to do each night) but the realization that there is no age in which we “know” life’s structure and methods is liberating. Perhaps I can stop searching. For now, I’ll enjoy some of the delicious fried plantains Jose made yesterday, because I CAN eat them (and now they’re all gone. Yum).

Disobedient

We’re four days away y’all. 2017 is toast and the gyms will be packed, resolution boards populated, and whatever other changes we wish to instill in our lifestyles will roll out. I can believe.

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Photo by 贝莉儿 NG on Unsplash

I’m planning on starting a Whole 30 on January 1st because I’d really like to give myself the gift of health. And I figure eating Whole 30 when I actually turn 30 sounds like a good idea. But something else has been gnawing at me and I don’t exactly know how to explain it, except that my New Year’s Resolution is to disrupt and shake stuff up. I have a few examples.

Here is a simple one. For Christmas Eve dinner, my mom and I cooked all day before we piled into the kitchen. On the menu: my famous lasagne, Southwestern cornbread, creamed spinach, and a chopped salad. My grandpa commented on the “eclectic” mix of foods- meaning, they don’t really go together.

I’m committed to challenging “what doesn’t go together” this year. It’s time to rethink norms and values and why we do things a certain way. Once I got over buying “men’s” clothing, a whole new set of possibilities opened up. Sure, there’s something to be said for practicing and honing skills, for certain traditions to be upheld. But honestly, I think nothing should come without criticism.

I think about challenging the field of academia and how we write and research. That seems very daunting, but if I look back at my work so far, I’ve already committed myself to this path of innovation and improvisation. I’m studying a field that is building itself at this moment. The builders are young people who see real potential for disrupting, especially when the process of tearing things apart births new ways of building foundations.

I remember feeling most inspired at the Women’s March by the artists and creators because it seemed like they would be the ones to lead us into uncharted territory. So far I believe this to be true. To say this year has been trying is an understatement, especially for non-white, non-male, non-cis, non-straight, non-wealthy, non-citizen, non-able-bodied folx. There’s a radicalism in the air that might lead to some “wtf” ideas, but seriously- it might be what saves us.

Disobedience is coming. Religious leaders are ready to march, to sit-in, to block, to chant, to pray and sing and center, and to undefine what it means to do things the way they should be done. I’m going to try that in my own life. Creation can only come out of questioning our methods and even our beliefs. Let’s tear it all down, swirl it around, and put something new together.

First Day

The first day of a doctoral program feels just like the first day of third grade. It’s been three years since I had a first day of school, so I felt particularly nervous. Starting a new routine is always both stressful and empowering. This morning I woke up before dawn and went to yoga, except it wasn’t already intense Vinyasa, it was this workout that I can’t even begin to explain. I don’t think I stood on both feet for more than 5 minutes. After surviving that, I came home and indulged in delicious pumpkin pie flavored coffee and a gluten free bagel that Jose made, smothered in onion and chive cream cheese. Finally, I rode my bike without harming anyone to the main quad on campus, found my classroom with minimal issue, and made it through Arabic. After lunch and more coffee, my Theories and Methods in Religious Studies class met for less than two hours, in which we discussed antics of philosophers and psychologists. I came home and made some delicious enchiladas and read for tomorrow’s class.

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Photo by Bryce Evans on Unsplash

The thing about first days, besides being exhausting, is that heighten my awareness of what changes are to come. Have you ever looked back on a semester, or even a year, and realized how much transformation has taken place? You have several new relationships- classmates, teachers, teammates, fellow organization members. As each day brings the familiar back, we grow more and more complacent, forgetting that first day and all it’s intricacies. Now that I know where my classes are, I won’t experience the few moments of tense searching for the right building, realizing there was a much closer place to park my bike, or that forgetting cough drops was a giant mistake. This isn’t a negative, it means we can begin to thrive in our environment because the “housekeeping” is finished.

First days have never been a good experience for me. Overwhelmed and without a confident routine, my first days have consisted of spilled coffee mugs in a new backpack, waiting way too long in line at the bookstore only to realize I am one notebook shy, or missing a key line on the syllabus and thus already slacking on the homework. I once sat through an entire Advanced Mandarin class on a first day because I was too embarrassed to leave. Not to mention, I feel lost without solidifying the communities that are some of the most important to me- the classrooms. Part of the reason I love living in an academic environment so much is the ability it gives me to meet fellow linguists and theologians and historians and ethicists. First days remind us to trust the process that these dynamic communities will build themselves as we learn together.

Today was the best first day I remember. Perhaps that it because I have missed this environment so much. After three years, the search for the classrooms, finding a parking space, even learning I bought the wrong book didn’t overwhelm me as much as it made me feel joy at the notion that this will be my routine for a long time. Many days from today, I may look back and feel silly about this, but for now, I’ll enjoy the unknown.

 

Staying in the Room

This blog is non-fiction, in as much as we can argue that real life is not fiction but “true.” I prefer to write non-fiction. I prefer to read it too.

Sometimes it’s good for us to step out of our comfort zones (it’s usually always good and often necessary to learn and grow) so in preparation for the writing retreat I will attend next week in Taos, New Mexico, I read a book about writing fiction and decided to try it. The book gave me just enough food for thought mixed with inclinations to panic and run that I decided to give it a try. It seems a little meta to be writing about writing about something that didn’t actually happen.

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Photo by Don Ross III on Unsplash

First, I sat down and reflected about a recent experience I had with selling a textbook on Amazon and the post office. Let’s just say my seller account is now suspended even though I sent the book on time. I followed the process laid out in the book and heeded the most important advice: stay in the room. It was helpful to read that because admittedly, when I try to write and don’t know what to say next, the coffee maker calls to me. Then the vacuum. Then that new book on my reading list. Then my bed…a little nap…I tell myself it will come later, and close my laptop. Sometimes this does feel necessary, especially writing pieces or passages that involve shame, guilt, or something humiliating. Yet I wondered what it might be like to stay in the room when emotion gets the best of me. In some Buddhist practices, we do this through meditation. Sitting alone with yourself brings terror to the mind if it is full of anxious thoughts, but we remain in stillness even with tears rolling down our cheeks. There is no common outcome for this practice, but by facing the pain we take a step toward allowing ourselves to heal.

I felt embarrassed and angry about this Amazon situation. I sent the book on time, why should I be blamed that it never arrived? And then I lost money! My frustration caused wild thoughts to coarse through me. The person probably did receive the book and was now sitting on her couch counting my money like Scrooge. Or, took friends out to lunch as they all laughed at the scam successfully executed.  Worse, now it looked like I had tried to cheat someone, and it felt like I should go sit in the corner, facing the wall, and endure my timeout. I knew this was the situation I had to write in my story.

My character left the post office feeling just as I did- angry and embarrassed. The post office couldn’t find any record of the package. As I wrote, taking inventory of the scene around my character, her quirks and spontaneous inclinations, the characters she meets along the way, I realized this exercise is nothing more than active listening. I stayed in the room, listened to my character, and reflected her feelings back through the next actions. I finished the story after a few hours. There were definitely moments when the coffee pot called out, or it took everything not to check a Facebook notification. In the end, I’m glad I attempted fiction, because it helped me realize what’s true for me in this moment.

Ramadan Sunset

This post appears on the Parliament of the World’s Religions’ blog in the series “Interfaith Ramadan.”

 

I’m watching the sunset over Teddy Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota and thinking about my Grandmother on this first night of Ramadan. She passed away a few years ago, but growing up, my family would visit her in Lake Isabella just above Bakersfield in Central California. This view before me, a vast scatter of pink, purple, blue, red and yellow, also reminds me of the many evenings I spent as an archaeologist in Antalya, Turkey overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, watching the sun kiss the warm salty water before it disappeared behind a nearby mountain range. I remember these nights during Ramadan, in July or August, when we would fast for more than 16 hours and eat our iftar meal, the time to break fast, outside overlooking the coast.

As far as I know, there is no mosque here in Medora, North Dakota, population 132. Minneapolis, the city I drove from this morning, is about 550 miles away, but feels so much further. Compared to Boston and Chicago, my two previous home cities, Minneapolis is a small city, but boasts everything a metropolis would- art museums, fancy coffee shops, skyscrapers, and of course religious diversity. I’ve been on the road now for almost a week across the Northern United States, westbound eventually for Los Angeles, and have used the long drives to reflect on leaving Boston, a place I celebrated Ramadan with a sizeable number of my students and colleagues who were Muslim, and others who have grown to cherish this time and tradition, just as I have. As the landscape has subtly shifted every day on the road- from forest to plains to badlands- I can’t help but think about Ramadan as a time to notice subtle threads of particularities- the things that make us all different- meeting in the middle, finding a common center, flourishing in the most sacred part of the year.

Our world right now feels pretty scattered, just like this sunset in front of me. Driving this road has also exposed me to ways of living I have never encountered, growing up in one of the most physically vast cities in the world, Los Angeles. And yet, if I step back for a moment, while the colors in the sky remain distinct, they each meet and blend slightly. All over the world, Muslims practice in distinct ways during Ramadan- from eating particular foods at Iftar to feeling anxiety about celebrating publicly in places where Muslims are marginalized and under threat. From breaking fast under big city lights to listening for the call to prayer in small villages, Ramadan differs greatly from place to place, people to people. Nonetheless, the common knot in the center is stronger than the particular strands of thread. Ramadan always reminds me that no matter how divided and far we feel from those with whom we disagree or those whom we do not understand, there is something that binds us together- to recognize this is sacred. For me tonight, this connection is with the spirit of my grandmother who would be admiring the same sunset 1700 miles away if she were still with us. The valley seems to carry on endlessly in front of me, and at the furthest point where the sky meets the land, I wonder if there is a family breaking fast at this moment.