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

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

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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!