A Marrow Match in Berlin

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On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. People who lived within East Berlin were now free to enter and live in West Berlin. One of those people who found freedom of movement was Yvonne, who grew up in East Berlin with the Berlin Wall across the street from her garden. Her now-husband had previously attempted to escape into West Berlin just the year prior, leading to a nine-month jail sentence.

On November 9, 2014, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Yvonne went to a marrow registration event hosted by DKMS at the site of the Berlin Wall. A child in Potsdam, a city on the border of Berlin, had needed a marrow donation, and she—along with over a thousand other people, maybe more—joined the marrow registry in order to see if she’d be match. She was not, but she and three others who registered that day ultimately became marrow donors.

The child in Potsdam ultimately found a match. And so did someone over an ocean away: my brother, Jude.

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I’ve written on here about my brother’s and my family’s journey with cancer. In August 2010, at the age of five, he was first diagnosed with leukemia. By December 23, 2010, I became his marrow donor, when I was only 12 years old. You can read about that first bout with cancer here. About five years later, in April 2015, my brother’s cancer came back. I wasn’t able to be his marrow donor again this time, and we had to search the national marrow registry.

There was a major problem: my brother and I are both mixed-race, Filipino and white. Marrow matches, unlike blood types, are much more specific, based on your tissue type (specifically your human leukocyte antigens, or HLA type). These are genetically passed down, making it much more likely for you to match with someone of the same ethnic background as you—although not always. However, the national marrow registry in the United States is mostly white, making it much harder for people of color and especially mixed-race people to find matches. According to Be The Match, the National Marrow Donor Program, the likelihood for a white person to find a match is 77%, but for black people, the likelihood is only 23%, making it even more urgent for people of color to join the marrow registry.

Miraculously, Yvonne, a German woman from East Germany, was my brother’s match. 

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When she found out that she was a match for an American child, she headed to Cologne (Köln) because marrow donation specialists were there and not in Berlin. (As I write this post, I am currently on a train from Berlin to Cologne—a roughly five-hour journey.) She needed to spend two days there—one for a physical exam and the next for the donation itself—but because Gamescom was happening during the week of her marrow donation, she couldn’t find a single hotel with an open room. She and the friend who accompanied her spent the night in her car, knowing how incredibly important this life-saving procedure would be.

On September 1, 2015, Yvonne donated her marrow. There are two ways to donate: one is a non-surgical procedure much more similar to donating blood, in which peripheral blood stem cells are filtered out of the donor’s blood and the rest of the blood is returned. The second is through an outpatient surgical procedure in which marrow is extracted out of the hip bone. Both Yvonne and I went through the second procedure, which as I understand it is common for when the patient is a child.

On September 2, 2015, the marrow made it to Dallas, Texas, and my brother received his second marrow donation.

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“Many small people who in many small places do many small things that can alter the face of the world.”

Much has happened in between September 2, 2015, and today. What’s often forgotten in stories about cancer is that the marrow donation is not the end of the story; rather, the marrow donation is usually the key to having the chance to fight another day. Between liver complications, graft vs. host disease, and other complications both common and uncommon for post-transplant cancer patients to experience, it was certainly no guarantee that we would get to the position we are in today, where the sky isn’t completely clear but the darkest clouds have certainly parted.

On December 30, 2018, as part of my travels through Europe, I had the opportunity to meet Yvonne and her family. Together, we did a walking tour of the city of Berlin, seeing so many of the major historical sites that make Berlin such an interesting city. With Yvonne, I tried currywurst—my new favorite German comfort food!—and schnitzel for the first time. And at the end of the long, four-hour walking tour, we took a break from the cold to have glühwein—this time a non-alcoholic version: warm blackcurrant juice so that the friend I’m traveling with (who doesn’t drink) and their under-16 year old son could join in.

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Currywurst

Here, holding our cups of glühwein to keep ourselves warm, Yvonne told me the story of her marrow donation. As she told me, when there was a child in need that she could help, she believed she had an obligation to do so. And thank God she did, because if she didn’t, my brother would have likely never found a marrow match. So much of this story was, to me, a miracle. The odds of him finding a match were already not ideal, but Yvonne turned out to be a perfect match—ten out of ten of her HLA markers matched Jude’s. The fall of the Berlin Wall set up the conditions for my brother to find his marrow match, first allowing Yvonne and her husband to enter West Berlin and then bringing her to join the marrow registry a full twenty-five years later.

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Now, in Berlin, I have family: my brother and Yvonne very literally have the same blood. The city has since become my favorite in Europe, partially because Berlin on its own is an incredibly unique and exciting city, but also because I will have such fond feelings for the city that gave my brother yet another chance at life.

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As I close out this blog post, I want to end with how you too can make a difference. If you are between the ages of 18 and 44 and in the United States, you can join the marrow registry through Be The Match. If you are outside the United States, other organizations like DKMS operate in Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom, and Chile (as well as the United States). If you are in a different country, you can still join the marrow registry through other organizations. It does not matter through which organization you join the marrow registry, whether Be The Match or DKMS—joining the registry with any organization will make you available to people who need marrow transplants from all over the world.

Additionally, if you are in the Dallas–Fort Worth area, Children’s Health, where my brother was treated and I volunteered & interned for years in high school, hosts their annual marrow drive every February 14, Valentine’s Day.

Lastly, I wanted to share my friend Brooke’s Hero Fund through St. Baldrick’s, a charity that funds research on childhood cancer. Brooke is a Stanford student set to graduate from Stanford at the end of this school year after being diagnosed with cancer in the middle of her college career. Today, she has been accepted to medical school, and her hero fund aims to support research in young adult survivorship and graft vs. host disease; as I mentioned before, marrow transplants and cancer itself aren’t the end of the story, and very few resources have been invested in improving the quality of life for children and young adults who may be experiencing chronic medical issues after their cancer experiences. I asked for donations to her hero fund for my twentieth birthday, and today, to celebrate 2019, I encourage you to do so again.

The Joys of Christmas in Paris

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IMG_1618As I look to my right, I see cute, small houses next to the train tracks. Not long ago, I boarded my train in Basel, a city on the Rhine River in northwest Switzerland, en route to Berlin, Germany, where I’ll be for the next few days. Traveling through Europe by train has been the perfect change of pace to a surprisingly restful week in Europe, a far cry from the hustle-and-bustle of Manhattan and Brooklyn and the exhausting experience that is flying through JFK.

Paris was, in one word, beautiful. I was staying in the southern tip of the Latin Quarter, in Les Gobelins, in a hostel called—and I’m really not kidding—Oops!” Unlike Brooklyn Heights and the DUMBO area, a surprisingly charming neighborhood where the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge can be found that completely surprised me in terms of how much I enjoyed being there, Paris was actually about what I expected—in the most magical ways. I thought it would be much more hectic given that it was Christmas, after all. But after coming from New York City, I don’t know if anywhere can feel as hectic and overpopulated.

Side note about Les Gobelins: there were a bunch of giant teddy bears dotted throughout Les Gobelins—on benches, on the metro, and even in storefront windows! That’s why the featured image at the top of this post is me next to a bunch of bears…

Montmartre

My first full day in Paris was Christmas Day, which began with a short metro ride from Les Gobelins to Montmartre, where the Sacre-Cœur Basilica was. That morning was actually the cutest morning in Paris, bringing me my favorite memories of Paris: Getting off the station, my friend and I began walking our way through Montmartre to look for Sacre-Cœur. Because it was Christmas morning, the streets were quiet. Fat pigeons—and I do really mean fat… the pigeons here are really quite plump—followed us on our walk through the streets, as the basilica began to appear in the distance. I hadn’t eaten yet, and I ended up stumbling upon a small bakery on a random street not too far from the train station; I bought a slice of quiche lorraine and an espresso, as older French women went in to buy baguettes and pastries.

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Even just eating my quiche and drinking my espresso on a bench nearby felt serene. (It helped that the quiche was delicious.) It didn’t totally feel like Christmas, but there was a certain simple magic to it that I hadn’t experienced in a while, especially since being a student at Stanford is just stressful all the time. Christmas Mass at Montmartre started less than an hour later, where one of the cardinals was presiding over it. I haven’t gone to a Catholic Mass in the longest time—maybe since last Christmas?—since I’ve started attending non-denominational Protestant services in the Episocopal style at Memorial Church at Stanford, but even though those church services look nearly the exact same as a Catholic Mass since Anglicanism/Episcopalianism isn’t really all that different, the universal, repetitive nature of Catholic Masses were of comfort since it was in French, a language I don’t understand.

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Ironically but unsurprisingly, Sacre-Cœur was much more hectic than the rest of Montmartre that morning, but even as we were leaving the Montmartre area a little past noon, it was clear that people were just beginning to walk around. Even a few stores were beginning to open, which seemed odd to me given that it was both the early afternoon and Christmas Day.

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Angelina

The next stop after Mass was the Tuileries Garden. My friend and I wanted to go to Angelina for lunch, partially because it was one of the places that we knew for sure would be open on Christmas Day. I was surprised that the wait for a table was only about five minutes, and even when we went back the next day to try the full brunch menu there was only a very short wait.

My friend and I had taken a weekly French cooking class at Stanford in the fall before we came to Paris, one of the most sought-after, “must-take” classes at Stanford—behind social dance and wine tasting. (I took social dance my freshman year and absolutely loved it, and wine tasting—along with beer tasting—is on my list of classes I’m planning to fight for a spot for when I return to Stanford in my senior year.) I went in with pretty realistic and achievable goals—I wanted to be able to crack an egg, which I can say that I pretty definitely achieved, especially after making shakshuka in my house’s kitchen with the Israel Fellow at Stanford! But I think more valuable than the recipes was actually just being exposed to different staples of French cuisine: one of those being the croque madame.

The instructor for French cooking was actually another Stanford junior, who himself had spent a good amount of time in France and spent a summer at Le Cordon Bleu. While in New York, I messaged him on Facebook to get restaurant recommendations, and Angelina was on the list! I had actually been there once with my family the last time I went to Paris—when I was about nine years old—and I just remember that the hot chocolate was to die for. This time around, because I hadn’t eaten, I went straight for the croque madame, and luckily the hot chocolate there is so rich that my friend and I were able to just split one serving. There’s more bread and less cheese than I would’ve liked—compare the first picture of the croque madame at Angelina with the second picture of a croque madame that I had on my last evening in Paris to see what I mean. It was a little pricey, but it was good enough to make us want to come back the next day for the full brunch course.

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Croque madame and hot chocolate at Angelina

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Croque madame in the Latin Quarter

Christmas Market & Champs-Élysées

Full from our surprisingly large meal, we wandered into Tuileries Garden, where there was a Christmas market happening. And what better time to go to a Christmas market than on Christmas? I had heard so much about Christmas markets—one of the staff members in my house at Stanford studied abroad in Berlin last year, and he mentioned that I should definitely check out the European Christmas markets—that I didn’t know exactly what to expect. It felt a bit like a bazaar of sorts, with people selling everything from hot fried foods to jewelries and scarves. I decided to treat myself to chaud vin, mildly-spiced hot wine, usually thought to only be for special occassions but I think Christmas in Paris certainly counts. (I didn’t actually like it all that much—I prefer normal-temperature wine, actually—and if I went to a different Christmas market, I think I would’ve preferred just getting a hot cider.)

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Look at the mulled wine cup I’m holding—very festive!

I didn’t realize the Christmas market was really close to the Louvre, too, which was a great surprise. It was closed for Christmas, but that didn’t make the area surrounding it any less pretty. If anything, it was probably even prettier because fewer people were in the area! From the Louvre, we walked down Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe. There were a few notable things: first, there was a Franklin D. Roosevelt Avenue and Station—it used to be named after an Italian king because Italy was an ally of France in World War I, but when fascist Italy (and the king) ended up aligning with Nazi Germany in World War II, the French decided to rename it after Franklin D. Roosevelt, the American president who allied with the French during the Second World War.

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Place de la Concorde

Second was that some of the windows of the storefronts were actually partially shattered. I’m pretty sure this was a result of some of the yellow-jacket protests in Paris that had been taking place in Paris every weekend since the end of November. These demonstrations were because of French dissatisfaction over inequality, as my Uber driver told me, and raising of the gas tax that affects mostly the lower and middle classes. Because these protests connected themselves to the French Revolution—yet another uprising over inequality in French society—yellow-jacket protestors marched down Champs-Élysées and to the Arc de Triomphe, a very clear call-back to the French Revolution itself.

If anything, that was the thing I found most interesting about Paris: its connection to its history. It felt like I was constantly stumbling on sites from the French Revolution—from Notre Dame, which was sacked, pillaged, and transformed into a Temple of Reason during the ban on Catholicism; to the Jardin des Tuilieres, which is what is left of the old Tuileries Palace that was burned down in 1871 and was, back in 1789, the holding place for the Royal Family before they were executed; to the Place de la Concorde, where Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were executed by guillotine.

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Lately, I’ve been particularly interested in revolutionary histories (of both the left and the right), especially after spending the last quarter at Stanford studying the Spanish Civil War—where fascist dictator Francisco Franco led a coup of the democratically-elected socialist government of Spain—in the Spanish class I was taking. I never took a European history class—only world history was offered in my high school, and I am so glad I took that class seriously (to the point where I did 180 hours of extra credit for it in second semester of senior year), so a lot of my learning about the French Revolution, one of the most foundational moments that set up the world we live in today, has been both drawing from my own history education and researching more about the different places that I’ve been stumbling upon. This connection to history certainly isn’t unique to Paris—tomorrow, I’ll be doing a walking tour of Berlin with my brother’s bone marrow donor, and I’ll be studying at the oldest university in the English-speaking world for the next few months (Oxford).

What’s Next…

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IMG_1464 12.01.44 AMI’m currently off to my third country on this Grand Tour of Europe: Germany. Geneva, Switzerland, was beautiful, and being there made me think really hard about how I would maybe want to work for the United Nations one day, which I think would really fit the global character of my interests—I am an anthropology major, after all. France too was wonderful, and I’ll actually be returning to Paris for a weekend before I head to Oxford; that weekend will be a bit more about R&R and writing since I’ll be mostly alone, although I’ll be meeting a friend or two from Stanford before they officially start their winter quarters in Paris. On the theme of meeting friends, completely by chance, my trip to Paris overlapped with a different friend from Stanford, who lived in my freshman dorm with me! Since she studies classics, she’s here for a Latin program until the school year starts again. (It was actually with her that I had the other croque madame that I posted here!)

IMG_1241I am going to be continuing to eat and drink (more of the former, less of the latter) my way through Europe—in Berlin, London, and Paris (again) before a much longer three-month stint in the United Kingdom… which is still in Europe as much as it seems to not want to be! It turns out that I won’t have completely used my Eurail pass—I’ll have about one or two days left of train travel on it—so you can bet that I’m going to try to escape the United Kingdom at least once in Germany to reach the mainland.

At the same time as I’m gearing up for three months at Oxford, I’ve also been preparing for the following three months in Santiago, between buying plane tickets and having to update my resume to be considered for internships and volunteer opportunities. I recently heard back from the director of the Stanford in Oxford program about the Spanish directed reading I’ll be taking, so now I know who my tutor will be; I’m excited to be seriously devoting myself to language learning again, something I knew has been important to me since high school. As a side note, my time in France and Switzerland has made me even consider the possibilty of studying French on top of Spanish—French, of course, is the other key language of international politics (other than English), so who knows? It’d fit the UN theme, too!

Until next time!

Embarking on My Grand Tour of Europe

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Yet again, I’ve found myself in the place I know best: in the sky, over thirty-seven thousand feet above the ground. As I write this, I’m currently flying over Memphis, Tennessee, en route from Dallas–Love Field to LaGuardia Airport in New York City, which will mark the beginning of one of the most exciting trips I’ve ever been in—and that comes just months after my other “most exciting trips” through parts of the United States; Venice, Italy; Koper, and Piran, Slovenia; and parts of Israel and Palestine, which included both Israeli cities like Tel Aviv and western Jerusalem and Palestinian cities like Ramallah and Bethlehem.

If the summer had no real geographic base—coast to coast in the United States, a bit of Mediterranean Europe, and the Holy Land in the Middle East—this trip is focused in Europe. I start by spending the weekend in New York City, where I’ll be in Manhattan and Brooklyn. On Sunday night, I take an overnight flight to Paris, where I’ll be spending a few days, including Christmas. After that, all of my travel in Europe will be by train, starting with a short train ride to Geneva, Switzerland, followed by a much longer train ride through the German countryside and into Berlin, Germany, where I’ll be ringing in the new year. After that, I go from Berlin to Brussels, Belgium, where I’ll have a one night stop before taking a train to London, England. After spending a few days in London, I return to Paris to spend the weekend with friends who’ll be arriving there before I go back to the United Kingdom—Paris to London to Oxford. And finally, I’ll be spending the next term at the University of Oxford, the oldest English-speaking university in the world, studying social theory in the context of anthropology.

My “Grand Tour”

In some ways, this trip vaguely resembles the classic Grand Tour, extended travels of Western Europe undertaken by wealthy Englishmen in the 17th and 18th centuries when they came of age (about twenty-one). Even Leland Stanford Jr., the namesake of Stanford University, went on a Grand Tour of Europe in the late 19th century with his parents at the age of fifteen, although that journey ended tragically with him catching typhoid in Athens before dying in Florence. In the 19th century, the development of railroads led to the opening of the Grand Tour to the middle class. And thanks to commercial aviation, the Grand Tour was upended yet again, so that by the 1960s, traveling through Europe became popular with college students who’d backpack through the continent.

With my journey, the “Grand Tour” is being turned on its head—no longer is this trip reserved for white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants with considerable wealth and privilege, but instead it’s more reminiscent of the later developments of the Grand Tour: train travel and accessibility for the middle class. I’m shirking backpacking, partly because that doesn’t really appeal to me, and instead I’ll be bouncing between a bunch of hostels, hotels, and Airbnbs. My friend Kendra (another Stanford student) and I will be traveling together, and we’ve spent the last few months planning everything from the sites we want to see to the logistics of making it all work—planning train travel was surprisingly complicated! While most of our friendship has been during our time at Stanford, we actually met by chance in freshman year of high school before bonding over college chemistry and economics classes, all while we were discovering our academic passions—sociocultural anthropology for me and cultural psychology for her.

This trip is happening at a particularly interesting time in the world. As I write this, it’s unclear whether the government will shut down tonight, depending entirely on whether or not Donald Trump decides to sign bipartisan measures to keep the government open. A shutdown shouldn’t affect us too much, although I doubt the unpaid TSA agents will be very happy about having their pay delayed. Paris has been experiencing some of the worst riots in decades, “yellow vest” protests over Emanuel Macron’s hike in the gas tax—which predominantly affects the middle class—and his other economic policies that have favored the rich and the elites in French society. It seems as though the rioting has subsided, and monuments like the Arc de Triomphe have reopened; plus, demonstrations had been scheduled for weekends, so I probably won’t see any of the yellow vest protests themselves. And last of all, the United Kingdom has been in (pretty unsuccessful) negotiations with Brussels over its departure from the European Union, or “Brexit.” Brexit takes effect immediately after I finish Hilary term (winter quarter) at Oxford, making these few the months the last couple months when the United Kingdom will be a part of the European project… barring any sort of revote—which would also probably happen while I’m there.

What’s Next: Oxford and Santiago

In a few hours, I’ll be exploring the Metropolitan Museum of Art and eating pizza by the slice, something that everyone in Venice kept on the lookout for me since it’s one of my favorite quick bites. Then, I’ll be embarking on my European Grand Tour, followed by three months at the University of Oxford, where I’ll be an affiliate of Brasenose College. After that, it’s looking more and more likely like I’ll be spending my spring break in Madrid, Spain, and Marrakech, Morocco. And, as of a few minutes ago, I’m excited to announce that I’ll be spending the spring (April through mid-June) in Santiago, Chile, instead of returning to Stanford! I’m lucky enough to be a year ahead in my coursework, and instead of trying to graduate at the end of this year, I decided it’d be more fruitful to take advantage of another year at Stanford, which itself is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, by using its money and resources in its well-established study abroad programs.

It’s currently not clear where I’ll be spending my summer, but as of right now, it’ll most likely be in Charleston, West Virginia. I was in Wheeling, West Virginia, this summer, and I loved the state so much that I knew I had to return. But more on that later.

So here begins the next six months of my life: traveling through New York City, Europe, and South America. See you soon!

Fifteen Ways I Look at Me

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Today, I struggled to get out of bed. I woke up this morning, my stomach aching, trying desperately to make it to my 9:30am class, an anthropology class titled “Religion and Politics in the Muslim World.” But after spending forty-five minutes in the bathroom, I decided to drop the class right there and then, and I went back to bed. I finally got up around 3:30pm, with some occasional times where I had to force myself to get up because I felt so sick that I had to run to the bathroom next door.

I do a lot each day, so it was incredibly difficult to feel myself lose control of my day, not getting to go to classes that mattered to me and not getting to see the friends I had planned to see for lunch. I do so much, that I often run myself into the ground with exhaustion, which is why the first few days I spent at Stanford at the beginning of September were just me napping, reading, writing, and watching Netflix—a much earned break after a summer of travel.

I felt so sick today, and to a lesser extent earlier this week, not because there’s a bug going around… although that’s happening too; college campuses are notorious for being a breeding ground for illness. It’s because, for the first time in a while, I changed the dosage of my antidepressants. Starting this weekend, I took the first step towards getting off of them. Any time I change my medications, I always feel sick to my stomach, apparently a result of the many serotonin receptors in my stomach that, for some reason, are just extremely sensitive to change. (Even just travel put a frustrating stress on my sensitive digestive system.)

I don’t know whether this is something to celebrate. When I first went on antidepressants, I chose to shout my depression and anxiety. I was tired of the stigma against mental health issues that leads to so many people not seeking treatment, whether that’s therapy, wellness programs, or medical treatment. Depression and anxiety are, after all, both biological and social in nature, and as social beings, we can’t get help for them alone.

It’s now been about nine months since I first went on antidepressants, something I was initially resistant to until close friends of mine saw that I hadn’t eaten for days or showed up to classes for almost a week, despite meals and class being some of my favorite things (as nerdy as that sounds). It was because I had kind, loving people who were willing to intervene in my life that I found the courage to find a psychiatrist, start therapy, get on antidepressants, and return to being the person I always knew I was. Almost immediately, I felt a huge shift in my mindset and mood. They weren’t “happy pills,” but they helped me feel more resilient, have more energy, and overall feel like a more functional person.

Today felt like backsliding. It reminded me so much of the many days that I hadn’t gotten out of bed, when I’d block out the sunrise with my sheets and lay there until the sun would set again. But progress isn’t linear, even though, as I was reminded by my psychiatrist this weekend, I’ve made tremendous progress since first getting on antidepressants. And of course, the physical symptoms of depression, anxiety, and the SSRIs meant to treat them, are incredibly real and tangible—how could I really blame myself for not wanting to get out of bed when I was in so much pain due to the change in medication dosage? (And honestly, who knows, I may even have gotten that bug that’s going around on top of everything.)

Eventually, my stomach stopped hurting, and this afternoon, I finally got on with my day. I help TA a queer poetry workshop on Thursdays, and today I was reminded how nourishing the arts are for me. A year ago, I wouldn’t have defined myself as someone who thrives on creativity and art. But today, I’m a creative writing minor who spends so much of my time experimenting with my writing—both privately in my anthropology classes and publicly on this blog—and sharing my stories and the stories of others and engaging with works of poetry and prose.

Today, as part of the workshop, we looked at a poem called “13 Ways to Look at a Black Girl” by Morgan Parker, a response to Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways to Look at a Black Bird,” a beautiful, celebrated poem. But Stevens showed his true colors at a meeting of the National Book Award committee. A few drinks in, he and others were looking at photos of the previous committee judges. Upon seeing Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer, he asked, “Who’s the coon?” Upon seeing everyone’s shock at his comment, he doubled down. “I know you don’t like to hear people call a lady a coon, but who is it?” Morgan Parker then wrote “13 Ways to Look at a Black Girl,” a poem I can’t find on the internet, but you can find it in her book There are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé (which I highly recommend).

The poem was angry and frustrated, an exploration of what society, including Wallace Stevens, views black women as good for—for sex, as just a friend, and most hauntingly, “dead.” But at the same time, it celebrated famous black women, from Toni Morrison to Michelle Obama to bell hooks, juxtaposing the racism black women experience with these lauded, celebrated figures. As a way to engage with this text, we wrote poems that were celebrations of ourselves.

This is the draft of the poem I wrote today, and I thought I’d share it here:

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Fifteen Ways I Look at Me

I.
You were the first one
To make me hate myself.

II.
I was the first to apologize.
But I didn’t apologize for me.
I apologized on behalf of you.

III.
I escaped you by going on a train to the north.
I blanketed myself in City Lights
And began my life On the Road.

IV.
I searched myself in the clouds.
I, a wandering spirit

V.
I woke up one day in Texas
After crying myself to sleep
I realized how much of me there is to love.

VI.
In front of a canal in Venice
I chose to forgive you
To speak my peace
And to show you, the world, and myself
That I am love.

VII.
I learned I am capable
Of connecting to others’ hearts
No matter who they are

VIII.
I covered myself in the mud of the Dead Sea
Let the salt cleanse me
I emerged free of scars.

IX.
Once, I thought of you.
But I realized how loved I was by others
And I stopped longing for your approval.

X.
I sat on the balcony we used to sit on
And released the ghosts of our past
And I realized how much I had grown since you.

XI.
I am kind.
I am loving.
I am patient.
I am forgiving.

XII.
I am open.
I am caring.
I am inclusive.
I am forgiving.

XIII.
I give to everyone
Who is willing to receive me.
I am forgiving.

XIV.
I don’t let anyone
Stop me from loving the world and myself.
I am forgiving.

XV.
For the first time,
I love myself unapologetically.
I am forgiving.

Halfway.

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I’m back on a plane again. Surprise, surprise. Today, I’m forty-thousand feet above the world, currently passing over Arizona on my early morning flight back to Stanford after going home for the weekend. Tomorrow, I officially start the second half of my Stanford career, beginning junior year with a sense of uneasy excitement.

My constant restlessness makes it hard to stay in one place for very long. That’s why I traveled through five different countries this summer, which included a ton of cities throughout the United States. It’s why I hopped on a plane to go home the weekend before classes started, even though it didn’t really make all that much sense to do so. It’s why I’ll be traveling through parts of Europe this December, studying at Oxford University in England in the winter, and then returning to the Middle East for a week in March. My mind always wanders, and only recently has my body been able to follow.

It probably comes as no surprise then that home presents its own challenges for me. Other than the fact that my time at home is often me staying in one place—Dallas—for however long I’m back, there’s also the fact that there’s so much happening around me. Just yesterday, I was hit with the weird realization that my younger brother is growing up. He’s only thirteen, but he turns fourteen next month. He has all the teen angst that comes with his age that I, quite surprisingly, outgrew. (My teen angst has been replaced with a different angst more characteristic of one’s twenties.) He’s beginning to grapple with difficult truths about the world—most of all questioning why the often cruel world we live in doesn’t match the values of kindness and love that have been instilled within him.

Yesterday, he came to me telling me he didn’t think he wanted to be confirmed in the Catholic Church, a rite of passage in which, according to Catholic belief, seals the recipient of the Sacrament with the Holy Spirit. I asked him why, and he said that he didn’t believe in most of the things that the Catholic Church taught in regards to moral teachings—already, at the age of thirteen, he supported reproductive rights and he supports equal rights and dignity for gay people.

There’s a certain irony that I was the one tasked with convincing him that he should go through with his Confirmation. After all, I’m his openly gay brother who unapologetically criticizes the Catholic Church for its dangerous moral stances, especially on reproductive justice and marriage equality. I’ve written on this blog about how it’s not a matter of if I abandon Catholicism officially, but when, thanks to the Church’s anti-gay stances, which include a belief that I shouldn’t be allowed to get married and that all romantic love that I could feel for someone is inherently sinful. Not to mention the Church’s frequent fights against equal rights ordinances that would prevent me from being fired from my job or kicked out of my home just for being gay. Even the seemingly simple question of “do you believe in God” gives me so much anxiety that I usually answer with some combination of “God is love” and something about how if God didn’t exist, it wouldn’t change anything about my belief in treating people with dignity and respect.

So what did I tell him? Other than me trying to be the good child who was trying to convince him to not rock the boat too much, I told him that it doesn’t really matter what you believe about Catholicism—your Catholic identity is cultural so this is a cultural responsibility; there are good Catholic priests, nuns, and laity who uphold Catholic social teaching and understandably disagree with Church hierarchy these moral teachings, and you should align yourself with them; Catholicism is what brought us the preferential option for the poor, and its social doctrines are radical and about the fight against the oppression and marginalization of the poor; and oh God, please don’t make a scene that leads to you not getting confirmed because I really don’t want to be blamed for it just because I’ve helped nurture your ability to think critically, to dissent, and to call out injustice as you see it. I’m not really sure if I convinced him or if he was just momentarily sympathetic.

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Stanford’s Memorial Church

After trying to put out the fires that I may have accidentally started at home, I’m now returning to campus to both put out some existing fires and to most likely start some new ones. My penchant for starting fires continues to be ironic because I’m really not that radical of a person, and I think the ways in which I’ve embedded myself within Stanford institutions makes that clear. I’m a quiet radical who, in some ways, has created a personal brand of my own, unafraid to critique people from both the left and the right and to simultaneously point out the realities of the world while also encouraging others to dream big. I use my writing, my creative art, my academic career, and the strength of my personality to get people to listen to me—often a difficult task that comes with varying levels of success.

Like I’ve done throughout most of my life, I’ve probably overcommitted myself to trying to build my vision for the world. I’m taking a full load of classes this quarter (again): my anthropology postfield seminar, an anthropology seminar on religion and politics within the Muslim world, a second-year Spanish course with a focus on immigration and the Spanish Civil War, a course on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a philosophy course on justice, and French cooking. I’m still involved in the Pilipino American Student Union, this year as one of the three social co-chairs. I stepped up into the role of the co-president of the Stanford Cancer Coalition after being somewhat desperately asked to take up the role. And beyond that, I’ll be an editor for the anthropology department’s undergraduate journal, a teaching assistant for a weekly queer poetry workshop, running the Alumni Reunion Homecoming’s twentieth reunion, and a member of the Asian American Activities Center’s Advisory Board—but at least I get paid for some of these things!

And of course, I’m slogging away at my thesis: an examination of the formations of class identity among Stanford students with strong attention paid to the idea of “class shame.” My goal is to tie together queer theory, affect theory (which is about socially experienced feelings), and anthropological understandings of class as an identity in order to dig deeper into the somewhat surprising phenomenon of students from wealthier backgrounds feeling ashamed of the wealth and class privilege that they grew up with.

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So yes, I’m going to be busy. Again. Actually, in writing all this out again, I’m not really sure why I’m doing so much. But like I said, I’m incapable of sitting still. And the way I see it is that considering I managed to do most of these things in my sophomore year and still have an incredibly active social life and average about seven to eight hours of sleep a night, I can do it all again—with the bonus of getting paid for some of the work that I already did. Whether that was a sustainable lifestyle or just a fluke remains to be seen.

When I was on my way to Yom Kippur services on Tuesday (how’s that for religious pluralism?), a friend of mine who I ran into said that this summer it seemed like I was having a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Except, not just one—it was more like one every few days. She’s not wrong—I’ve done so much in the past few months alone that I haven’t even had the time to process all of it and write about it here. All my friends seem to want to know all the stories of my summer, but so much happened that they’re going to have to handle hearing small stories about my experiences randomly throughout the next year as I remember each of them.

But during the incredibly beautiful Yom Kippur service I attended, the rabbi told us a parable of another rabbi who was on his deathbed. The rabbi said that he was filled with regret, and the people surrounding him asked, how can that be? You’ve always been kind, you’ve always shown love, and you’ve always been careful to never say anything that would upset anyone. The rabbi responded, “But that’s the thing. I fear that, in the next world, I will be judged for not having said or done enough to fight for justice. Maybe if I had spoken up more, I could’ve helped change the world.” I constantly find myself asking that question—when I die, will I be able to say I’ve done enough to create a just world? And on a smaller scale, when I leave Stanford, will I be able to say that I’ve done enough to make my community a better place? Will I be able to say that I’ve used Stanford’s resources to the fullest—not just to help myself, but to help others?

I’m halfway through my time at Stanford. I have two more years. I’ve decided pretty definitively that I’m not going to shell out money to get a master’s in a fifth year, mostly because I just don’t have the financial resources to do so. I still think I’d really like to pursue a PhD program in anthropology, and my goal is to get into a good, fully-funded program so that my graduate education won’t cause any financial strain. I’m still trying to figure out my life’s “mission statement,” and I’m hoping that years from now I’ll be able to look back at this post specifically and laugh about how filled with uncertainty I was, in the same way that I look back at all the worry and dread I felt in the college admissions process, not knowing that I’d end up with an abundance of resources and opportunities at Stanford. So many, in fact, that I’m still trying to figure out how to take as much as I can from this university while it’s throwing more opportunities at me than I can feasibly take advantage of.

Lastly, I wanted to leave y’all with a poem and a prayer that a friend of mine shared with me last week when we were catching up. They’re a pretty cool, amazing person who’s coming into their own in terms of organizing and activism, and in the spirit of Catholic social teaching that I wrote about earlier in this post, I thought I’d post it here.

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Until next time.

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