Returning Home

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I watched the sunrise from thirty-six thousand feet. The sun painted the sky with streaks of orange and purple before it let all that is above the wisps of cirrus clouds ascend into a deep blue. The cabin of the airplane is exceptionally quiet, maybe because the plane is only half full or because we departed before dawn.

I stretched out into the empty row of seats, my legs still aching from the eleven-hour flight I had just endured. But the soreness was not solely from trying to sit still for far longer than I would have liked. It was from the many tens of thousands of steps I’ve taken over airport terminals, dust and sand, rundown train tracks, and kitchen floors over the past few months. It was from the lack of rest my body has gotten as it would flit across time zones and political borders. It was from my mental exhaustion physically manifesting into that dull aching I feel in my upper thighs.

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The Sea of Galilee

I had embarked on the journey of a lifetime. I had told myself and the world that I was in search of answers: about history, about America, about the world, about people different from me, about people the same as me. But in reality, I was looking for myself, as if I were a tucked-away spirit hidden in the islands of the Venetian Lagoon, in the dusty streets of rural Texas and rural Israel, or in the West Bank wall looming over Palestine. I did not find myself in the end. I built a new self instead, forming myself out of clay.

The sunrise faded away, eventually overtaken by the peaceful blue sky that sat above it. The clouds began to fill, transforming into large, white puffs that I flew above. For a few minutes, the restlessness that set me off on this journey was quelled, and I finally felt my constantly running mind and heart pause and be still. I’m ready to pause and be still, at least for another few minutes. I’ve learned to run on fumes, to convince my body that it can get by without rest. I’ve learned to draw energy from those around me, to transform my curiosity about others and the world into that which propels me forward. But here, on this plane, in this empty row, I was alone. Being without others is nothing new for me. After all, few have the energy to keep up with the lifestyle I emphatically choose to live. But it was striking to wake up this morning on a plane ride across the Middle East, Europe, and the Atlantic Ocean with someone who had become a fast friend directly at my side, only to dart across the airport and jump onto a plane flying from East Coast to West Coast with no one.

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Sunset over Jaffa

A hamsa hangs from my neck, a symbol of defense against evil that’s used by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. As I tried to navigate my way through Newark International Airport, a woman approached me asking for help, thinking I, too, was an Israeli because of my necklace, but while my hamsa necklace has origins in Tel Aviv, I do not. Together, the two of us found our way through the airport before we ultimately separated—for her to get to the train station and for me to hop on yet another plane.

Just minutes before I ran into this Israeli woman, the man at the customs gate told me “welcome home,” the second time I had heard this all-too-comforting phrase this summer when I finally touched down in the United States. And both times, I wanted to hug the customs officer—and I would’ve, if only that wouldn’t be seen as odd and probably threatening. It was true, I was home. I was finally home. Except that I wasn’t. Unless my home was the clouds, I was still not home.

When I embarked to find myself in these odd corners of the Earth, I began to believe that I am someone who does not have a home. Or rather, I have houses and residences and places to stay, but no true home. Maybe Dallas is my home, or Stanford is my home. But maybe these clouds are my home—they were, after all, the most consistent place to which I returned after each and every one of my travels. Maybe I live in these clouds, free of the heart-wrenching pain I’ve had to see and feel within the people below them, from the Israeli descendants of Holocaust survivors trying to fulfill their ancestors’ dreams of safety in a Jewish homeland, to the Palestinians who hold the keys to the old homes they’ll likely never be able to return to. In these clouds, I get to finally breathe and sit still, to recover from the psychological toll that empathy takes on me. The sky may or may not be home, but it seems to be my only site of refuge.

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The Jordan River, the site which the Israelites crossed to enter the Promised Land and where Jesus Christ was baptized by John the Baptist

I return to Stanford today—one of my many homes?—filled with Weltschmerz or world-weariness. I finally return to the institution that gave me the financial and intellectual resources to do this kind of soul-searching. After exiting the “Stanford bubble” in mid-June, I now return to it, reborn and re-centered but still yearning for a better world outside this bubble. I’m not sure how, after having seen what lies in the real world in such an up close and personal way, I can return to a place where everyone stresses far too much about exam scores and club activities and internships, but I believe in my resilience and ability to do so, because I must return.

For the next few weeks, I finally get to sit still. I have come to the conclusion that my mind will never be at rest—and nor do I want it to be—but after twenty-four straight hours of traveling from Tel Aviv to California and over two straight months of being on the road and in the skies, I’m excited to step foot onto my beautiful campus that’s filled with palm trees and perpetually perfect weather, to take a much needed shower, and to finally take the two weeks of time I’ve protected for myself to process, digest my thoughts, and write.

I don’t know where home is anymore. But at least for these next two weeks, I’m going to say that I’m finally home.

There’s Hope in West Virginia

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“I think a lot of us on the coasts—and I would include myself in this—view West Virginia as America’s dumping ground.”

That’s what I told Julie* yesterday as we sat on her balcony, looking over the lush mountains of the Ohio Valley in West Virginia. We were both exhausted. I could feel the jet lag setting in. It was shocking to me to realize that I had only just returned from Italy to New York City two days before, and yet somehow I was already having a quiet morning in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia. I told myself that I didn’t have the time to deal with jet lag—I was on a tight schedule, trying to get from Queens to Manhattan for dinner then a train to Newark for the night, before returning to Manhattan the next morning so that I could take a train to Pittsburgh and drive to West Virginia. Turns out, I’m really good at delaying exhaustion, but at some point sooner or later, it’ll catch up to me.

Julie was also probably dealing with a similar sense of chronic exhaustion. She had just returned from India a few weeks ago, where she was doing education-related research for an NGO called Kakatiya Sandbox and picked up the morning habit of having lemon water and yogurt. In the spring, she was studying abroad in Florence, Italy. And now, she’s been working on an independent research project on barriers to access to higher education among West Virginia high schoolers.

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Education is something that runs in her family. Her paternal grandfather used to be a superintendent, and her mother, who used to be a teacher and worked her way up through the school system, is now the superintendent of the Ohio County school district. Education is what Julie credits to transforming her into who she is today—Stanford, despite all its faults, gave her the opportunities to do things like live in Italy and India, connected her to a research team where she could do the serious, in-depth, and impactful work on education that she’s doing today, and helped expand her worldview. But what she might not realize is that, just as her social environment has created such an impact on her, she’s impacted the world around her just as much, if not more.

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Oglebay Park

Her time in California, Italy, and India have been a source of excitement and intrigue among people in Wheeling, a small city of under 30,000 people that was once a manufacturing center but has since had its population substantially decline as factories disappeared. Pretty soon after getting into West Virginia, Julie had alerted to me to the fact that we’d be going to the radio station for a cooking segment. That afternoon, before we left to the grocery store to pick up ingredients, I saw Julie frantically writing down her pesto recipe on a pink sticky note, double checking other pesto recipes on her phone. “I just need to make sure I know what I’m doing before I get there,” she said, throwing her mini-blender in a tote bag as we ran out the door.

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The radio station experience itself was unique. I’ve had experiences with local media; my brother, a former two-time cancer patient, has had a good amount of media exposure, and I’ve been on local news channels and our local NPR-affiliate station as well. But there was something different about this one. I’m used to the “liberal elitism” of Dallas, a phrase I genuinely don’t like to use, but I think it’s more prominent in Dallas than anywhere else in Texas… maybe even the rest of the South. At this radio station, the host of the show, an incredibly sweet and funny man, was missing some of his teeth and had a certain politically incorrect humor that occasionally broke out into the airwaves. He made brief mentions of his son who was in Iraq, and he closed off the show with “God bless you,” something that you simply don’t hear in Dallas.

The day we were there was for the weekly food segment that he does to close out the day, probably a more fun and exciting segment to sit in on than their politics or sports segments—in case you’re wondering, Wheeling is strong Steelers territory. Julie had filled in for her mom on a previous radio segment, and when she was asked about her time in Italy, she mentioned the fresh pesto she learned to make with her host family. Hence how I ended up standing behind the desk of a West Virginia radio station, watching Julie pull out her blender and fill it with basil that we had bought just a half hour before. Southern cordiality and friendliness shone through here, too, and I even got a few shoutouts from the radio host on the air. There were some brief mentions of how I was from Dallas—a great place to be from, since its combination of liberal metropolitan environment and conservative Texan surroundings makes me never seem like too much of an outsider, no matter where I am in the country—and also how I love pineapples.

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I don’t know if I’d really call my experience in Wheeling as a culture shock. It was certainly different—it is still West Virginia, after all—but it was much more scenic and urban than I had expected. Whereas Canadian, Texas, which sits in the Texas Panhandle instead of one of the two West Virginian ones, was genuinely small and rural, Wheeling is like a suburb without a city. And that’s a remnant of its once large stature within the area, before globalization led to the fall of American manufacturing. Unlike Canadian, which had a sizable Mexican-American population even if it’s much smaller than urban areas like Dallas, Wheeling was nearly entirely white and aging. Those demographics help explain why long stretches of Wheeling were just Christian churches, law firms that mostly deal with workers compensation and medical malpractice cases, and retirement homes. It’s a site of significant brain drain, in which the best and brightest minds end up abandoning Wheeling—and the state of West Virginia as a whole—due to the significantly fewer opportunities.

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Foggy mornings in Wheeling

“Wheeling has so much potential,” Julie told me as we sat out on her porch, minutes after I had admitted to her that I assumed West Virginia would just be a boring and unsightly place. The morning fog had finally cleared, and with that came a renewed optimism on her end. The tiredness in her voice that had characterized so many of our conversations the day before was replaced with a new sense of vigor as she told me more about the areas that West Virginia needs work. But even more exciting was her plans of how she’d fix it, drawing on her recent experiences in India, her background in economics, and the cultural knowledge and connections she’d built up throughout her time growing up in the state.

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I wasn’t the first person to suggest she should go into politics. So many others had seen her passion for the state, her love of the people, and how she’s a junkie for mountaineers, country roads, moonshine, and coal mining. And there was already precedent for it in her own life—her mother and father keep her grounded in local politics, and she’s close enough with Senator Joe Manchin that she got coffee with him a few weeks ago and worked for him in the Senate last summer. But the issue continues to rest in West Virginia’s lack of jobs for her—her interest is in policy, especially education policy, but there are few opportunities in policy or academia. “I hope to stay connected to [West Virginia] forever,” Julie told me, whether that was through her research, through business, or just in returning home to visit. “Maybe if I’m a fancy rich person someday,” she said, her smile widening as she chuckled, “I’ll get a little cabin somewhere that I can come and have my vacations in and escape from reality to. I don’t know. But I do love it here.”

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And the truth was, I loved it, too. At many points, Julie took so much personal pride when I agreed with her that Wheeling would be a perfect center for leisure tourism. Hell, it was a great place for me to rest in between nine-hour plane rides across the Atlantic and equally long train rides across New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

If you had told me a year ago that I would’ve spent two days in West Virginia with a girl who I had met in a statistics class—and that I’d love it!—I would’ve thought you were crazy. But there’s a certain charm to Wheeling. Especially after enjoying rural Texas so much, I can’t tell if it’s just that, like many Americans, I fetishize Americana to a certain extent and that West Virginia, with its coal mines and its Trump voters, is just a great symbol of the American “heartland” nowadays. To some, that fetishization isn’t the worst thing—at least people are interested in places like West Virginia, right? But there is a certain irony and danger in so many of us from urban, metropolitan areas yearning for “the real America” while still viewing places like West Virginia as—in my own words—a “dumping ground.”

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I said earlier in this post that Julie has already had an impact on the world around her. I’m definitely one of those people who’ve felt her impact and learned so much from her just in the past two days and three nights that I was with her. Especially after I abandoned economics and dove headfirst into anthropology, exhausted by microagressions by my mostly straight, white, and male peers, Julie’s sense of social responsibility to her community and her unrelenting ability to push through setbacks in funding have given me so much hope. Her interest too in policy writing itself, a requirement of Stanford economics majors that few look forward to with as much excitement as she does, leaves me even more confident that I’m watching the development and growth of a future leader and change-maker.

And I’m just genuinely glad to have gotten to see the beginnings of it firsthand.

***

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Entering Pittsburgh this morning

I’m currently on a long train ride to Philadelphia after Julie dropped me off at the Pittsburgh Amtrak Station bright and early this morning—all with enough time to make it back to Wheeling to watch her younger sister go to school. I’ll be home in Dallas for a few days after today before I head off to New England and then to the Holy Land.

This is a topic for a future time—maybe for while I’m at home—but it’s been impossible to disconnect the current political moment that we’re in from the research I’m doing, which should technically be what most people consider apolitical… or at least unconnected to partisan politics. But my very nature and existence is political, as a colleague and classmate of mine who’s a returning student reminded me in Italy. I’ve been thinking a lot about coalition building, what the future of our country can look like for people in places as different as California and West Virginia, and what that means in both the short-term (i.e. 2018 and 2020) and the long-term (i.e. how I proceed from here). And at the recommendation of my friend Whitney, I’ve been listening to a documentary–podcast (The Wilderness) on the train that’s included some emotional speeches by both Barack Obama and Bobby Kennedy.

As I close out this piece of my journey, and come very close to closing out “part three” of my overall travels, I just wanted to very publicly thank Julie, her parents, and her grandparents for taking me in these past few days and showing me a piece of the country that I probably would never have gone to on my own. My time in West Virginia was too short, and there were so many things I’d loved to have gone more in-depth about—from the strength of unions and organized labor to Trump’s support in the state to even just Julie’s mother’s dissertation and wonderful research around education—but I guess I’ll just have to come back. Who knows, maybe I’ll return to West Virginia next year?

* names changed

6 Things I Learned in Venice

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What a whirlwind it’s been! I’m currently at a Starbucks near Penn Station in New York City, finally having returned to New York City after spending three weeks in Venice and the surrounding areas, with a short stop in coastal Slovenia. (If you haven’t yet, read my blog post on Slovenia, “The Spirituality of a Slovenian Spa.”) After drinking delicious cappuccinos and espressos every day, I’ve officially switched back to good ol’ American brewed coffee, something I never thought I would’ve missed!

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1. Walking doesn’t stop you from gaining weight.

I’ve definitely gotten a little pudgier since I was last in the United States. Part of that is my fault… I maintained an eight-day streak of getting one to two scoops of gelato each day, and even when the streak broke, I didn’t give up this Italian gift to the world. Eating mostly various pastas and pizzas for three weeks straight, while amazing for my taste buds for the first week and a half, was ultimately less amazing for my physique. And this is all without factoring in the many Aperol spritzes and glasses of wine I’d have before, during, after, or between meals!

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Everyone had assured me that the sheer amount of walking that I’d be doing would stop me from gaining too much weight. I can emphatically report that that’s bullshit. I don’t know what kind of black magic everyone else has been practicing, but I walked so much that my feet blistered, spent three days literally pickaxing the earth, and yet, I still gained a lot of weight.

Did I maybe overdo how much I ate? Sure. Of the seven deadly sins, I most identify with envy. But for these past three weeks, gluttony started a coup d’état and overtook the throne. And let’s be honest: temperance certainly isn’t the most exciting virtue, especially when surrounded by fresh pasta, delicious cheeses, seafood of all types, a sauce for every mood, and delicious desserts. But you know what? Fuck it. This was my vacation. (Yes, I’m a Stanford student, which is why I considered a two-unit summer course in which I had to prepare a presentation and write a paper as “vacation.”) My goal was to treat myself during this unique experience, and if that means gaining some weight, so be it.

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The whole month of September—when I’m on campus working on my thesis and no one will be around—can be devoted to actually getting my diet and exercise habits back on track. Maybe. We’ll see. I might just ban all mirrors and scales instead.

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2. Catholicism is a perpetual piece of my identity.

The Roman Catholic Church has an obsession with perpetuity. In the Catholic tradition, the Mass connects the past, the present, and the future in its pivotal climax: the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the literal Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Mary reigns perpetually as Queen of Heaven, and she remained a perpetual virgin throughout her entire life, despite her marriage to Joseph—a belief not held in Protestant denominations of Christianity.

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I, too, have this same obsession with perpetuity. Once someone has earned and won my trust and respect, they hold it forever. I crave stability, desperately clinging to my family and my closest friends to keep me grounded during my naturally volatile teen years and twenties. And—as much as I often hate to admit it—I am public-facing; I want to make an impact, but a public one. I want my most well-thought-out ideas, my painstakingly detailed solutions, and the inherently political nature of my existence and my resistance to be remembered. I want to inspire. And I want to make change, but without suppressing my identity and agency in the process.

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IMG_4447 2The Sacraments of Initiation bind an individual to the Catholic Church forever. And the culturally hegemonic role that the Church inhabits in places such as Italy, the Philippines, and Latin America continue to bind individuals who received any of these sacraments to it forever. That couldn’t have been clearer here in Venice, a former city-state and maritime empire whose historical tensions with the Papal States and deeply-rooted (but fabricated) cultural ties to the Byzantine Empire didn’t stamp out its Catholicism.

A part of me wanted to roll my eyes with every church I entered, especially in the beginning of these three weeks, when most of the churches I visited were adorned in gold and worldly riches and often charged for entry. But it was in seeing the Franciscan monastery of San Francesco del Deserto that I felt deep stirrings of peace and comfort. I’ve entertained changing religions altogether many times, with Reform Judaism and Western forms of Buddhism being the top contenders. And I’ve considered being confirmed in the Episcopal Church, which is something that I’m more likely to do than not closer to a hypothetical marriage, partially because the idea of a church wedding is deeply important to me and the Catholic Church remains deeply regressive, oppressive, and discriminatory—although moving in the right direction under the current pope!—in the way it treats LGBT people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. But it was here in Italy, in seeing basilica after basilica, small church after small church, and that one, quiet monastery, that I realized how strong Catholicism is as a piece of my identity and cultural heritage.

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3. Archeology is not for me.

I’m an aspiring social/cultural anthropologist, and in many ways, it’s a perfect fit for me: I love people, I love to listen to people’s stories, I want to better understand the social fabric of the world we live in, and I think there’s significant value in qualitative methods of combining social theory and the ethnographic method to do so. But every now and then, I get fixated on other ideas—one of those, weirdly enough, was pivoting to archeology. Maybe, I thought, I could do an archeological methods class in the fall, do archeology in Peru next summer, and pursue a PhD program in sociocultural anthropology that includes strong training in archeology.

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To give you a sense of how ridiculous that is, consider the following facts: I hate bones. Few things bother me more than dirt. My eyes glaze over whenever anyone tries to convince me of how cool a shard of pottery is. When I go to museums, I try to appear cultured by going to the classical art section, but after about five minutes I venture elsewhere. Just like how I’m not meant to be a chemist or an investment banker, archeology isn’t in my future, regardless of how many people assume I’m an archeology major instead of an anthropology major. My course of study is not even remotely like Indiana Jones; if anything, I’m closer to a brooding pseudo-intellectual who lays on his couch reading ethnographies and philosophical works and then hastily writes long essays the morning I have essays due.

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I blame the fact that I have a Gemini Sun sign, an air sign that floats with the wind and is notoriously averse to commitment and personal responsibility. (In that sentence alone, I refused to take personal responsibility for my lack of commitment and instead chose to blame the constellation I was born under!) But hear me out: unlike all the other passing ideas I flitter in and out of, I actually entertained this one!

I did a three-day excavation on the island of Torcello, a relatively uninhabited island in the Venetian Lagoon about thirty to forty minutes away from Venice by boat. The first thing I gravited to? The pickaxe. “I have a lot of anger I need to release,” I told my Italian colleagues and babysitters, who wanted to help me learn but also needed to make sure I didn’t destroy months of hard work. Turns out, pickaxing becomes substantially less fun after each minute of crushing reused Roman bricks in the beating sun. Also, it turns out I’m terrible at actually finding things. My classmates found pottery shards and even an infant skeleton. You know what I found? Dirt. Lots and lots of fucking dirt.

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4. The United States is my home, and it’s where I care most about.

It’s taken a long time for me to truly feel at home in the United States. This country was not built for me, and much of its institutions were built to oppress people like me, from immigration restrictions to anti-miscegenation laws to the outlawing of homosexuality, to name some of the more obvious ones. This country was built on systems of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy, as well as capitalist systems of oppression meant to keep power in the hands of our elite Founding Fathers. But I owe my ability to now consider the United States as my home to the many (mostly black) activists, changemakers, and revolutionaries who have given their lives to fighting and transforming these systems, something which I first began to reckon with and think about more concretely and intentionally this past Fourth of July.

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Even earlier this year, I felt like I was missing an opportunity by choosing to travel the United States for my fieldwork this summer. So many of my peers, both within my discipline and outside of it, took their grant money and left the country, and a part of me had really wished that I was based outside of the United States instead. Funny how actually leaving the United States can really change your perspective on this.

Italy was a tough country to be in. I don’t speak any Italian, so when someone I was talking to didn’t speak English, we had to resort to a difficult and embarrassing game of charades. There are so many things I take for granted in the United States, as small as even just having free water with meals. It’s exhausting to have to constantly think about the whereabouts of my passport, to have a temporary Italian phone number (and to keep getting texts in Italian from my service provider that I couldn’t read!), to not be able to speak about the histories and cultures of Italy with the same depth as I can about places within the United States, and to not know what anyone is saying most of the time.

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I was speaking with my professor on a nighttime boat ride from Torcello after an excavation about this. He’s from Mauritius, attended Cambridge University, and spent much of his time studying in the United Kingdom. I told him that, as much as I love this experience, I realized how clarifying it is to know that the issues within a country like Italy don’t resonate in my heart the same way that issues in the United States do. I have a stake in whatever happens in the U.S., especially within Texas and California. Should I continue down the path of a PhD within anthropology, which I feel better prepared for each and every day, the question of where my fieldwork will be done will inevitably come up, and I know I’m going to stay domestic. Possibly even within Texas, an often misunderstood state that has so much to teach the world about politics, immigration, class status, and the rural vs. urban divide.

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Italy has even clarified what I want to do next summer. It’s certainly too early to be certain, and I’m not even done with my current travels yet—I still have to go to West Virginia, Philadelphia, Boston, Providence, and parts of Israel and Palestine! But originally, I thought that traveling through Japan next summer would be my goal, returning to the country in which I spent the first three years of my life and exploring its cultural homogeneity and how that influences identity formation, especially in my case as a non-Japanese person. Now, I think I’m ready to travel through the United States yet again. We’re in a unique political moment, and there’s so much that anthropological methods can teach us about the country we live in. By next summer, we’ll have a new Speaker of the House (hopefully a Democrat!), and considering the rise of democratic socialism on the left as a response to Donald Trump, we need bright minds in anthropology to examine our world at home.

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5. I’m (probably) a democratic socialist.

Surprise, surprise! My first day in Venice, while walking through Strada Nuova, a large street filled with restaurants and stores near my hostel, there were people passing out communist newspapers. It was a shock to my ingrained American McCarthyism. A communist newspaper? I thought. What is this ridiculousness? But yes, the United States sits far to the right of the developed world’s political spectrum.

I’ve definitely felt myself lurch to the left ever since Donald Trump was elected president. I supported Hillary Clinton’s run for president since even before she announced her candidacy, and I had absolutely no problem with supporting a neoliberal who was deeply socially progressive, especially on gun control and abortion rights. She was a policy wonk, and at the end of the day, I believed—and still believe—that Hillary Clinton would’ve been a far better president than Bernie Sanders ever would’ve been.

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Hillary Clinton’s loss, which I sincerely believe was an inevitable result of decades of sexist attacks from both the right and the left and the left-leaning media’s attempt to appear “non-partisan” by drawing false equivalencies between Trump and Clinton, ushered in new energy within the left. And as someone who is solidly a leftist, it’s exciting to see left-wing ideas become mainstream and be represented more by someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than Bernie Sanders.

Italy helped expand my Overton window, breaking my own beliefs of what I think are reasonable to envision for U.S. politics. I think progressive politics can be bold and unabashed in the Trump era, and like Europeans who’ve been doing this for decades and decades, I’m not afraid to say that my beliefs align pretty strongly with the democratic socialist movement that’s sweeping the Democratic Party. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in compromise or won’t vote for more moderate candidates; I’m still a carefully strategic voter who just wants the people who I think will win and will also do the best job in office. But I’m just not afraid to put forward a boldly progressive vision for what the United States can look like.

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6. I’m powerful beyond belief.

I only began to realize my true power when I managed to take a nap during lunch at our dig site in Torcello. (Thanks, chronic exhaustion!) But I didn’t truly realize how powerful I was until I managed to walk away each evening after excavating looking perfectly clean. Ironically, the day I was dirtiest was when I spent an entire day cleaning off bones and pieces of pottery and organizing them for analysis.

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But beyond that, I’ve realized I’m truly a strong and powerful person. I spent three weeks in Italy (and Slovenia) after already spending weeks traveling the United States on my own. I may have packed my summer with more than most people do in a year, but I’m still filled with energy and vigor—although a nap would be much appreciated! Every time I talk to random passersby who aren’t affiliated with Stanford, I always have so much pride in being able to say this is my project. I have a faculty advisor who helps oversee everything and provides support and advice, but at the end of the day, I put in the heavy lifting of coming up with this research, securing funding in a year in which the grant I applied for fell to its lowest acceptance rate in recent history (37%), identifying interlocutors, building relationships with people, and personally planning the jigsaw puzzle of my summer schedule.

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IMG_4245I realize at every step of the way that my natural kindness and charisma carry me through so much. The students who were supposed to just be “interlocutors” have since become some of my closest friends, whether we started as friends or acquaintances. I made some amazing friends in Venice, including one person, Jackie, who has already become a close confidant and will be a colleague and partner this spring as we work to deal with mental health problems at Stanford.

I’ve managed to receive so many votes of confidence from my peers—being asked to join that Mental Health Coalition, being brought in to oversee outreach for the Cancer Coalition, being recruited to fill a vacancy on the Asian American Activities Center’s Advisory Board, being asked by an editor of our undergraduate anthropology journal to apply for an editor position, and being elected to a third year in a row of leadership within the Pilipino American Student Union. It’s so great to feel like I’ve earned the respect and confidence of my peers and my communities simply by being my most authentic self, all without any posturing, manuevering, or begging for any of it. And having earned that much respect is a wonderful confidence boost to start the second half of my time at Stanford.

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***

So what’s the plan now?

Here’s an overview of everything coming up (this is for you, Mom and Dad!):

  • I finally finished On the Road by Jack Kerouac! The next book on my list is James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, which I picked up at an independent bookstore in Austin due to the recommendation of a trusted friend.
  • Speaking of independent bookstores, I canceled my Amazon Prime account in opposition to the terrible ways that Amazon abuses its workers and in solidarity with Amazon workers who have been striking in Europe. While you’re at it, check out this great article in Jacobin Magazine about the right to strike—and then cancel your Amazon Prime account too.
  • Today, I head to West Virginia, my first time in the state. I’ll be taking a long train ride all the way from New York City to Pittsburgh before my friend picks me up, so I’ll be having a restful and beautiful nine-hour train ride through all of Pennsylvania.
  • I’ll get to go home to Dallas by the end of the week! It’ll only be fore about four days, but it’s better than nothing! After that, I head to Boston, where I’ll be taking day trips to parts of New England and spending time working on this project in the daytime and hanging out with my best friend since preschool in the evenings.
  • I have one more international trip: Israel and Palestine. Stanford’s Hillel graciously reached out to me about participating in a trip to the Holy Land for non-Jewish campus leaders in order to get firsthand experience with the many perspectives and narratives on both sides of the Israel–Palestine conflict. I’ve been grappling with the Israel–Palestine conflict for a while, and I’m excited to continue clarifying my own beliefs and my own strategies for how peace could be achieved.
  • In a little over a month, I become a student yet again! So far, my course schedule looks busy as always, but I’ll be taking anthropology, history, and creative writing courses, including a course about the history and politics of the Spanish-speaking world taught in Spanish.
  • I spend ten weeks studying at Oxford starting this January! I’ll be doing a tutorial in anthropology and a history seminar on Western thought and the origins of semiotics. I’m working on arranging for a Spanish tutor as well so I can stay on track with my Spanish courses.

Until next time!

The Spirituality of a Slovenian Spa

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* Names changed, as usual.

For most of the spring and summer, I’d been looking forward to my time in Venice, Italy, as a three-week break from traveling the United States for my independent research project on educational mobility. Or at least, that’s what I told my advisors, my classmates, my family, and my friends when they posited the completely crazy, totally out-of-left-field idea that maybe, just maybe trying to travel to about twelve different states in the span of about six weeks. (That number bumps up to thirteen if you include Oklahoma, which I didn’t stop long in, per se, but drove through on my way to the Texas Panhandle after being re-routed.)

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Inside a church in Slovenia

Turns out, rapid travel is pretty tiring. It’s something I wrote about in my last blog post about Venice and New York, where I found so much magic in the quiet, simple moments in each place. But now, with only about three days left in Italy, I can definitely say that I’ve found peace and rejuvenation.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” — Audre Lorde

Spirituality and travel go together. It’s partially why I’m reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac, a Beat Generation writer whose travels heavily influenced his eventual turn to Buddhism (as chronicled in The Dharma Bums, which takes place after the events of On the Road). My friend Jackie* and I have laughed a lot about how this specific leg of our travels—the Veneto region of Italy—feels an awful lot like the beginning of Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Except that it’s mostly been “Eat Eat Eat” instead. There’s no real time to progress to the third part of that book title—”love”—but there sure has been a lot of time for deep spiritual connection and personal contemplation. It’s just that I didn’t expect so much of that to be in coastal Slovenia.

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Piran, Slovenia

I embarked to the coastal Slovenian cities of Piran and Koper for about three days total at the beginning of this month, which was when I posted my most recent blog post on Venice. The purpose of the trip was to understand how cities outside of Venice were influenced by the Republic of Venice, and after stepping foot in Piran and Koper, it was pretty clear that these two cities on the very small strip of coast that Slovenia has were very Venetian in character.

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Streets of Piran

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The city center in Koper

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Excavating in Torcello

I’m not gonna lie—Slovenia ended up being my favorite piece of these past three weeks altogether. Koper and especially Piran had all the character of Venice, but with more open space, fewer people, places where we could actually swim, and so much less humidity. It was perfectly timed, too; our excavations in Torcello, which is an island near Venice that’s still in the Venetian Lagoon, came right after returning from Koper, and there’s no way I would’ve survived the heat and exhaustion of an archeological site if I didn’t have the time to rest beforehand.

Jackie and I made the single best decision of the entire trip: going to a spa together. We found one in Koper that was about €40 per person for 150 minutes in a private spa room, complete with a hot tub, sauna, shower mister, and a few bottles of Prosecco. Our professor, Krish, had told us about how great Slovenian spas are; apparently, because salt mining was a major piece of industry in Slovenia, the spas are wonderful, although you’d have to be naked (unlike Italian spas). As it turned out, the spa Jackie and I went to in Koper was less Slovenian—the name “Veneziana” should’ve tipped us off on that—but considering we only knew each other for two weeks, avoiding full-frontal nudity was probably for the best.

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Those two-and-a-half hours were some of the most restful, rejuvenating, and reinvigorating hours of this whole last year. Jackie and I had brought our books with us—for her, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (she’s an English minor after all), and for me, On the Road—but the two of us ended up not spending any time reading since we were so busy talking and really getting to know each other at a much deeper level. We spoke about everything: past loves, our aspirations for life, our visions of how we want society to look, and the pains of losing a friend. That hottub became a site of deep spiritual and emotional connections, where two wandering souls were finally able to come together and begin wandering together.

It’s cheesy, but getting to know Jackie here in Europe has been so incredibly special. Our paths probably wouldn’t have converged on campus—she studies psychology while I study anthropology, our social circles are fairly distinct, and the areas that we devote our time and attention to on campus are different. But starting this spring, after she returns from studying abroad in Madrid and I return from studying abroad at Oxford, we’ll be working together on one of our shared priorities: improving mental health and wellness at Stanford’s campus. The way I see it, my time at Stanford is not just about learning material; I’m here to assemble a team around me. And Jackie is someone who I’m so excited to be working with through the future, as well as just having as a friend!

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Jackie and me in Pellestrina, Veneto, Italy

The next day, we left Koper and returned to Venice. But before we left, we made sure to eat well, including having some delicious Thai food made by a woman who served as a cultural food ambassador for Thailand! Since coming to Venice, a lot has happened. We helped out with an excavation for three days in Torcello, where one of us in the group found an infant skull. That was pretty freaky… especially since we didn’t expect to find any actual human remains and had been joking for the past week about our trip not being complete unless we find a human skull (be careful what you wish for!). I spent a morning at a cemetery. And I started working on my final paper for this class: an examination of the exertions of state power and the development of biopolitics in the Republic of Venice, using the Jewish Ghetto as a case study.

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Feltre, Italy

Right now I’m in Feltre, which is closer to the Alps. I’ve been sitting outside at a café, drinking an espresso and letting the cool breeze cleanse me. It’s been a pretty emotionally draining last couple days. I’ve been having trouble shaking the weird realization of my mortality after seeing that human skull. Going to a cemetery the next day didn’t help. I had a painful falling out with someone dearly important to me, and I turned to the friends closest to me for comfort—the time zones don’t help, but the love and support they’ve given me have only solidified my belief that I’m assembling the best possible team around me I could ever have. I’m incredibly proud of how I handled the whole situation with a sense of dignity and grace that was consistent with how I believe people should be treated, even when that same respect and kindness is not reciprocated.

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My brother is in the hospital for pancreatitis. He’s been so kind and loving about trying to make sure that I don’t worry from 5500 miles away, but it’s hard not to be worried about him every waking minute. I’ve been visiting quite a few more churches, and every time I go, I make sure to light a candle and say a prayer for both him and me.

Before I know it, I’ll be back in the United States. I’ll be making a return to New Jersey to visit Whitney again (who made an appearance in my post about New York City). It’s been a whirlwind of a trip, and it’s not even over! Truly, it’s been such a clarifying experience already. But until then, I’ll just continue sitting here, in Feltre, watching the rain and finishing my espresso.

Finding the Magic in Simplicity

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* Names changed.

Last week, I got to witness something truly magical. It was an early day for me, not by choice—I had just flown from New York City to Venice, Italy, the day before, and the jet lag had really affected me. I had trouble falling back asleep, so around 5:30am, I pulled myself out of my bed, threw on some clothes, and wandered out the front of the remodeled, twelfth-century monastery where I was staying. Venice was still asleep, so it was just me on the streets and a few workboats on the water.

And that’s when I saw it: the sun rising over the lagoon. I sat on the dock, my feet hanging over the dirty lagoon water as I watched the sun’s hues change from red to orange to yellow before its light diffused into the clouds.

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I can’t remember the last time I saw the sunrise. I’m an early riser for a college student, but I’m never up by dawn. And that made this sunrise even more magical—it was probably the first one I’d seen in years, and I probably won’t see another one for a really long time.

I’ve been in Venice for over a week now, and I have a little less than two weeks here. It’s been such a wonderful trip so far, although it’s been far less glamorous than I would’ve expected. I didn’t think I’d miss the United States as much as I do. Italy is wonderful, but especially as someone whose Italian only goes as far as “posso avere una pallina di gelato” (“can I have one scoop of gelato,” probably the most important phrase), I miss being in a country where I speak the same language as everyone and where people share the same cultural values as me. My feet have been swollen from so much walking, the heat and humidity of this time of year is killer, and I don’t have the academic background in art history and European history to truly appreciate all of the lectures and cultural sites I’ve been visiting. Travel is hard. I miss home, and I miss my country.

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At the same time, I’m so genuinely glad that I’m here. The Veneto region is beautiful. I commute throughout the island by vaporetto (water bus). I’m seeing beautiful basilicas, churches, synagogues, and museums every day. I eat my fill of pasta, pizza, and gelato every day. And because I’m here through Stanford, I have the help and support of the university in terms of affording meals (which includes a meal stipend for lunches and dinners), knowing where to go (the program has a busy but eventful itinerary), and just generally having peace of mind. I’ve met such wonderful Stanford students here from a variety of disciplines, I’ve gotten to learn a lot about the history of Venice, and I’m getting a pretty cool crash course in archeology—this weekend, we’ll be at our excavation site in Torcello Island, which will be hot and grueling but also such a unique experience.

I’m surrounded by such extreme beauty here, but in reflecting on this past week, the most meaningful pieces of my time in Venice—and even in New York City the week before I arrived—have been the moments where I’ve found the most peace and simplicity.

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On Friday, I took a wooden boat to San Francesco del Deserto, a small island within the Venetian Lagoon where a small monastery sits. Saint Francis of Assisi came here after returning from the Holy Land during the Fifth Crusade—during that crusade, Saint Francis spent time with the Sultan of Egypt, either to attempt to convert the sultan to Christianity or to bridge religious divides, depending on who’s telling the story. (It’s theorized that Pope Francis even took Saint Francis’ name as a way to outreach to Muslims.) According to legend, Saint Francis of Assisi told the birds around him to be quiet while he prayed, and for the entirety of the time he was praying, the birds remained silent. Saint Francis then stuck his wooden staff into the ground, and miraculously, it grew into a large oak tree. The Franciscan monks who now live in the monastery have kept the stump of the oak tree near one of their altars as a reminder of God’s miracles.

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I’ve written on this blog about my own difficult relationship with organized religion and the Catholic Church in particular, but there was something especially soothing about being in this quiet monastery, surrounded by natural beauty and a handful of praying Franciscans. The Franciscans in particular have always given me much hope, and their focus on protecting the environment and the most vulnerable in our society have always been in line with what I believe that religious groups should care most about. Apparently, this monastery used to be open to tourists so that they could stay there for very low prices, but as tourism to Venice rose, the monks decided to end that practice in order to retain their sense of isolation. Even as someone who cares deeply about globalism and wants to see the world become more interconnected, even though the world’s political headwinds seem to be drifting toward isolationism in this period of time, I can see why these Franciscan monks would want to separate themselves from the rest of the Venetian Lagoon and hold onto the peace and quiet of San Francesco del Deserto.

Unfortunately, these kinds of monasteries are in danger of disappearing completely. The number of people who run the monastery is in the single digits, and because they and other monastic groups often don’t have any real source of income or financial support, the costs of keeping the monastery open can sometimes be too much. The other trip participants and I were encouraged by our professor leading the trip to buy something if we were able so that it could help support them. Even though I don’t really pray, I bought a small wooden rosary as a keepsake, a reminder of this short but impactful stop.

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These moments of peace and simplicity are usually pretty hard to come by in my daily life. I’m someone who tends to move toward hustle and bustle: I’m a Stanford student, and competitiveness weighs so heavily in the air sometimes that it can be hard to move without it suffocating me. My fieldwork this summer is a dizzying schedule in which I will have crossed the country and the Atlantic Ocean far too many times for just ten weeks. And my time in the Veneto region of Italy and the Slovenian coastal cities of Piran and Koper is busy and fairly exhausting, and even though the academic work load is dramatically lighter than what I’m used to, a five-page paper isn’t exactly what I would define as a vacation.

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Tea time at Ladurée in SoHo

Before I left for Italy, I found a rare moment of peace and simplicity… in Manhattan of all places. New York City is probably the best example of hustle and bustle, where one of the fastest ways to tell whether someone is a tourist is by looking to see whether they’re looking at their phones/straight ahead or whether they’re taking in the sights of the city. I had been staying with my friend Whitney* for the past couple days, and in our first of two excursions into New York City from Newark, New Jersey, we were definitely the latter; having been thrown off track by a late train from Newark, we ended up taking the ferry across the Hudson River and then walking through SoHo, taking in all the energy of New York City as if it were either of our first times there.

From a lovely lunch and tea time in Ladurée—when I unsuccessfully attempted to get Whitney into tea—to rapid-fire visits with some of Whitney’s friends from when she was studying abroad in South America in the spring, the day felt very characteristic of the hustle and bustle of New York City. All of that was amazing—when else do you get to explore SoHo with a friend, meet a bunch of other students filled to the brim with stories of their adventures across Latin America, and even get to visit Squarespace? But the most meaningful moment for me was when it was all over.

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Whitney and I met up with another friend from Stanford who was living in Brooklyn for the summer; she, a sociology major, had just started working on an independent research project—funded by the same grant that’s been funding my travels, so we’re part of the same grant cohort—on Bosnian Muslim identity. She was still adjusting to life in New York City, so she didn’t want to be in Manhattan too long after dark. Whitney and I met her in Battery Park, about as close to Brooklyn as you could get within Manhattan without actually crossing over into another borough. After catching up for a few minutes and taking pictures at golden hour, we sat down on a bench and watched the sun set over the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty looming large in the distance.

For those couple hours that the three of us were together, we talked about the state of the world, our differing approaches and praxes, and gave each other insight into how our specific social sciences—political science, sociology, and anthropology—approach societal issues. We spoke at length about the struggles that intelligent leftist discourse has on campus, often squeezed out by a vocal right-wing minority and reactionary left-wing responses to that majority, and we talked about our hopes and plans for the future—academically and personally. And every now and then, we’d all just stop and take in the beautiful sights in front of us.

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New York City from the Hudson River

***

Today, I’m in Koper, Slovenia. It’s on the very small strip of coastline that Slovenia has, and it’s incredibly beautiful. Tomorrow morning, I return to Venice. It’s been a dizzying past week or so, but I’ve been really enjoying it! I spent some time studying medieval anti-Semitism, so getting to see the Jewish Ghetto here—which is actually where the term “ghetto” was coined—was especially exciting. And by the end of the week, I’ll be excavating. But until then, the goal of today is to rest—much needed after all the traveling!

Finding God in Texas

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This is a continuation of my previous post on Canadian, Texas. The first part can be found here. *Names in this blog post were changed.

I struggled to sleep last night thinking about how I would write about my time in Canadian, Texas, and then Austin, Texas. The original title of this blog post was supposed to be “Making the Lone Star State a Little Less Lonely,” or some similar play on the state’s nickname. I was going to write about how much fun I had watching my friends Thomas* and Paul* film, how after hours and hours of watching them set up lights the first day, the second day where we drove around Canadian and got shots of everything from the town to Paul’s family’s orchard was really fucking cool. And while all of that is true, the more and more I’ve thought about my time in Texas, the more and more I’ve realized that it’s left me haunted—not even by existential questions, per se, but rather existential feelings and discomfort that’s difficult for me to put my finger on.

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Beekeeping

Canadian is a small town filled with dust and trees and kind people and Christians and an overwhelming sense of community. But that’s to be expected of a Panhandle town with a population of 2649, although the trees are maybe a bit of an anomaly from the rest of the Texas Panhandle. Time seemed to pass slower here. On Sunday, their heavy filming day, lots of local restaurants were closed through the morning and early afternoon. As we searched for breakfast around 8am, already finished with that morning’s shoot, I realized that place after place was closed, regardless of their posted hours. One bakery had a sign that read “Abrimos a las 3:30,” but shockingly, the one next door was open despite their posted hours indicating they’d be closed for at least another few hours. I was surprised to use my very broken Spanish there for the first time in many months—worse Spanish than either of my friends can speak—and the pan dulce and coffee was deeply comforting despite that not being a typical breakfast for me.

I had assumed that Canadian would be an ultra-white town, a fairly reasonable assumption on my part that made me incredibly nervous. I’m a pretty fearless person, but at the same time, I’m acutely aware of my own identity as a brown, gay researcher, and I wasn’t sure how that’d play out in rural Texas. Especially coming from the incredibly diverse Dallas suburbs and then the even more diverse and queer-friendly San Francisco Bay Area, a place like Canadian wasn’t somewhere I had any cultural context for. Those concerns about looking and feeling out of place ultimately ended up being more psychological than anything grounded in my physical experience, and as it turned out, there was a pretty large Latino population within Canadian. But eating pan dulce and coffee and seeing other brown people was still deeply comforting.

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After breakfast, I watched Thomas and Paul film interviews with Paul’s dad, a hilarious man who indulged me in all sorts of stories about his family history and the history of capital within Canadian (incredibly interesting for me as a student of sociocultural anthropology). We spent time in Paul’s family’s orchard, where I became a feeding ground for mosquitos—but on the bright side, I can now say that I’ve collected bug bites from Wisconsin, Illinois, California, Oregon, and Texas. And then we drove around Canadian collecting B-roll of the town while Paul lost his hat into the wind far too many times. His love of always wearing a hat confused me since he had such beautiful hair, which is something I told him probably so many times that it became weird; I repeat it again here knowing that the odds of him reading this are pretty good, and if it wasn’t weird before, it’s probably at least a little weird now that I’ve pointed it out. (Did I mention he has really nice hair?)

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But it was in these many hours of filming B-roll—watching the sun set over Canadian and seeing the stars light up the dim night sky—where I began to realize this trip was a far more spiritual experience than I had expected.

It was such a weirdly formative experience that when we made it to Austin the next evening and we all had tacos with a different friend, he asked me what the most exciting place I had visited so far was. “It definitely can’t just be Canadian,” he joked as we all ordered our food. But I didn’t know what to say, still processing the many moments, experiences, and conversations I had that made the trip so special. Thomas quickly stepped in and asserted “Portland” on my behalf, which so many times in this past month I’ve said is my favorite West Coast city.

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I’m not a particularly religious person. I was baptized in the Catholic Church as a baby and I was confirmed at the end of the eighth grade, a standard process in my Catholic middle school, even though I find it pretty funny that anyone expects a thirteen-year-old to express any sort of true spiritual maturity or profession of personal commitment to anything at that age. Since about the age of fourteen, I had always been pretty comfortable with dissenting from Catholic moral teachings, and my Jesuit education encouraged doubt and struggle as a means toward a deeper, more meaningful spirituality. By the end of high school, I essentially abandoned Catholicism without regret—or more accurately, the Catholic Church abandoned me—for a mix of reasons, but mostly due to justified frustration with the Church’s lack of true acceptance of gay people. Pope Francis is doing a lot better, but I don’t think I can ever go back to a church that believes the love I feel is sinful and disordered.

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

 1 John 4:7-8, NRSV

Religion was a surprising topic that came up within this journey of three 20-year-old guys. Entertaining conversations about dating, love, and sex were to be expected, and those definitely filled up long stretches of our workdays in Canadian, the way-too-long car ride through Dallas and Austin, and our time lounging around in Austin the day after we came back. But it was interesting to hear about how religion affected our sexual morality and our dating and sex lives since Paul and I grew up within Christianity and Thomas grew up in a culturally Protestant environment, especially since such a big anthropological interest of mine is sex, sexuality, and sexual behavior. Thomas made it clear to me a couple times that he finds this academic obsession with theorizing about sex pretty weird—he doesn’t understand the appeal, which is honestly pretty fair—but as someone who felt fairly repressed and ashamed by being gay in a Catholic school, sex is super interesting to me. As Michel Foucault once wrote, “sex is boring”—it’s everything surrounding sex that’s interesting, such as how sex and religion play together. (As an aside, Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this, the healthiest thing you can do for Jude that didn’t happen for me is radically open and honest conversations around love and sex so that he doesn’t end up with the same feelings of repression and pain that I did.)

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Sunsets over Canadian

In the long car ride back to Austin, while Paul slept in the backseat, Thomas and I spoke pretty frankly and honestly about our personal beliefs, stemming from a conversation we were having around Calvinism and predestination. He and I approach the world pretty differently: he’s a deeply logical thinker, I’m an incredibly emotional feeler, but I think our core values are fairly similar. As he explained his own religious philosophy around God, which stems out of quantum physics and ontological debates around time, I had to articulate my own religious beliefs for the first time in a long time.

I’m fairly certain that my parents and brother think I’m an atheist, but—as Thomas correctly posited—it’s probably more accurate to say that I’m spiritual but not religious. At my core, I believe so deeply that God is love. It’s something that, in many ways, I believe both literally and intuitively. I’m motivated by a desire for social justice, which is what I think is at the core of Christianity and many other religions. I don’t have any proof or evidence for this belief that I have—that God is love—but it’s a deeply intuitive feeling, something that I feel within my bones.

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Leaving Canadian

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A Buc-ee’s on the way from Dallas to Austin

I believe in God, and believe that God is love, because that’s what I experience. And while most—maybe all—experiences are socially constructed and meaning is given to them by us, it’s something that feels authentically true to me. I’ve felt God every day that I’ve been traveling. I felt God the second my friend and I saw each other in Chicago, right before we began driving up to Milwaukee and catching each other up on the past couple weeks of our lives. I felt God as I biked behind my friend through downtown Portland, stopping every now and then to take pictures of each other in front of the water. I felt God the night that Thomas and I stayed up talking about what’s been weighing on our minds for the past couple months, verbally working through the hurt and confusion that comes from moments where we didn’t feel valued by people who were important to us. I felt God as I watched Paul lean out the passenger-seat window and take video after video of the Canadian sunset, the wind blowing his hat right off his head and into the street. I felt God as I took that first bite of pan dulce. I felt God in every thank you letter I left for my friends before I went to my next destination, in every handshake hello and hug goodbye, and in every warm, fuzzy feeling that overwhelmed me as I would get on the plane and think of all the great memories I’d made and all the new memories to come.

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A Vietnamese food truck in Austin

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The philosophy section of Book People in Austin

***

Right now, I’m currently spending the day in New York City, New York, hanging out with my friend from New Jersey. (I’m actually posting this from Ladurée in SoHo.) This Sunday, I leave for Venice, Italy. If you’d like to keep up with my journeys, I post all my day-to-day adventures on Instagram and I try to write up more of my thoughts here on this blog once or twice a week.

Where the F**k Am I?

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I jolted awake this morning, opened my eyes, and saw a deer head mounted above my head. I turned to my left and realized one of my friends from school was still asleep in the bed next to me. Only one thought went through my head: where the fuck am I?

You’d be surprised how many times this has been happening over the last two weeks. I’ve been sleeping in many different places for the last two weeks straight—Milwaukee, Chicago, Menlo Park, Stanford, Portland, Dallas, now Canadian, TX—with a brief respite from the constant moving by getting to spend four nights in the same bed in Menlo Park. But since then, I’ve essentially been a nomad, traveling across the country with my one travel bag. (Bold, right?) Many days, I wake up in a different city or state, and today, I woke up in rural Texas.

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A sign in downtown Dallas near my last meal in the city for a while

One of my friends from Stanford, Thomas*, and his friend who’s also a Stanford student, Paul*, picked me up yesterday from downtown Dallas after they drove up from Austin, where they’re based this summer. The two of them are filming a short documentary on the Texas judicial system, and since Thomas was one of the students who I was following for my research project, I was planning on coming down to Austin to visit him for a few days, and then I’d get to meet Paul there.

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But Thomas threw me for a complete loop at the beginning of July, telling me that they would be going up to Canadian, Texas, in the Panhandle to get some filming done this weekend. And I was invited. I’m not gonna lie—I thought Thomas meant Canada, as in, the country north of the United States, which didn’t make sense at first because I knew the documentary was about Texas. But after a few quick Google searches, I found out that there is indeed a Canadian, Texas.

Today and tomorrow, I’m here in Canadian, a small town of under 3000 people in the Texas Panhandle, about six hours northwest of Dallas. It’s a cute town. Very flat. It has a saloon, which is pretty cool. There was live music there last night, but the second that I saw a man walk in with cowboy boots, a giant belt, and a big cowboy hat, I knew I was a little—okay, a lot—out of my element. We’re not in Dallas anymore! But that was okay, because it was all part of the experience. There is no Starbucks in Canadian (please send me a grande blonde vanilla latte ASAP), but there is a local coffee place where I can feed my caffeine addiction. Last night we had dinner at the Stumblin’ Goat Saloon and this morning we had breakfast tacos elsewhere. Tomorrow, many (most?) places will be closed because it’s Sunday.

I was pretty excited to watch Thomas and Paul set up a location today for filming, but it turns out that setting up to film is actually way less glamorous than I expected. It usually consists of me being their test dummy person as they figure out where to position the camera and the lights. I love attention so that was pretty cool at first, but then I realized I had nothing to contribute in terms of how to actually storyboard or film anything. Oops. Hence me writing this blog post while they brainstorm directions for the documentary.

On another note, this is pretty cool. I’ll be getting to see more of Canadian later as they shoot B-roll in the town, which is pretty genuinely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And this is an especially exciting start to my third year at Stanford, where my friends have now finally figured out their interests and are getting to do super cool things here at this institution. For example, filming a documentary in my home state!

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As I’ve been traveling, I’ve been thinking a lot about the end product of my research. Classical ethnographies from the early twentieth century stemming from the structural-functionalist tradition, such as The Nuer by E. E. Evans Pritchard, tended to be monographs that tried to explain how a society is structured and how it functions, hence the name structural-functionalism. But sociocultural anthropology has moved away from that, for the better, and by the 1970s, the discipline moved towards postmodernism. It began studying concepts, such as gender or the state, instead of trying to create essentializing maps of different groups of people. Ethnography became more reflexive, acknowledging the disruptive role of the anthropologist himself. One of my professors who I adore, Angela Garcia, is a medical anthropologist who taught a class I took on the anthropology of drugs. She pays special attention to ethnography writing and writes beautifully, and her book The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession along the Rio Grande is written in a way that reads more like a story than anything else, mixing in the stories of her fieldwork with her own academic theorizing.

I’m postmodern to my core, and I genuinely don’t believe that the goal is to create a defining, universal work explaining why Stanford students do what they do or how (some) Stanford students get ahead. At the end of the day, I want to highlight the narratives of others. I want to go beyond the ivory tower of academia and write something that anyone can read. Throughout these past two weeks, I’ve been gripped by people’s stories and experiences, I’ve felt engaged with people’s lives, and I think I’ve gotten more insight into the inner workings of the university that I attend and have been existing within for the past two years. I want people to be similarly gripped by the stories of others, to feel engaged, to follow this journey through my eyes as both ethnographer and subject, and to come away feeling like I gave them deep insight into the blackbox of the Stanford University undergraduate experience, especially as that relates to perceptions of social mobility. It’s a tough task, I know; I’m only a twenty-year-old undergraduate embarking on his first fieldwork experience.

When I spoke to two recent Stanford students who just earned their PhDs in anthropology, they told me that the creative nonfiction that I’m inclined towards is inherently political and inherently academic and theoretical. It’s something that I’ll have to continue wrestling with through the end of this summer and throughout the next year as I focus on writing, both while I’m at Stanford in the fall and spring and while I’m at Oxford in the winter. In many ways, the “where the fuck am I” question that I ask myself each day isn’t so much about where geographically I am throughout the country, but about where I am in my thought process as a young writer within anthropology.

And the answer isn’t coming any time soon.

* names changed