Finding light after darkness.

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The bottle sprung open, and the little orange pills inside of them flew across my desk and the floor. I tried to scoop up the ones that had survived the explosion and put them back in the bottle, knowing that they made the difference between a day of uncontrollable anxiety and a day of not feeling. And as the former kept becoming unbearable, I frequently found myself opting for the latter. Finally, I forced myself out of my room—my face unwashed, feeling a bit gross, but at least the outside of me matched what I was feeling inside. But as I walked outside, I heard the chirping of birds filling the silence and I knew things would be okay eventually. I made my way to the same place I’ve kept finding myself over the past week: in front of this large, red fountain outside of the library. The water falls from above, creating a circular wall and a crashing sound.

Here, many people congregate, often sitting alone, spending quiet time in front of it: resting, writing, talking, sunbathing. Even as I sat here writing this, a young woman approached the fountain, sat down on the steps in front of it, and lost herself in quiet reflection, watching the water fall. Passing behind the fountain are students, professors, and university staff and workers, making their way between the library, the café outside, and Main Quad nearby. It’s one of the few places on this campus where I can find solitude and mental clarity without actually having to be alone.

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The altar in Stanford’s Memorial Church during weekly University Public Worship

I’ve been finding that same sense of solitude in the weekly church service, University Public Worship, that I’ve been trying to go to most Sundays. A Protestant ecumenical service in our gorgeous Memorial Church, its services resemble the structure of a Catholic Mass. But unlike the Catholic Church, outdated practices—like the refusal to ordain women as priests—are thrown out the window. Each week, I walk in proudly with the rainbow watch band that I’ve started wearing again, and I can finally feel accepted. The people in the room range from all sorts of Christian and non-Christian traditions, and surprisingly, years and years ago, when a census on the congregation was done, a very large number of regular attendees considered themselves atheists or agnostics, even as the various ministers come from Anglican, Episcopal, Methodist, and other Christian traditions. This congregation is fairly private—I don’t know anyone’s names, and they don’t know me—creating a certain sense of anonymity that has been oddly comforting. It’s a similar vibe as sitting in front of the red fountain, a place I can be in solitude without having to truly be alone.

Re-enchantment amidst a Disenchanted World

Holy Wisdom gathers us together with tenderness and care.
With gentleness, She calls us into the dwelling place of God.

Our pain, our fears, and all our unmet longings—they are safe in Her embrace.
In the company of God, we tend honestly to the state of our souls.

In the depths of our being, She dwells with Her healing love.
In due time, God mends the broken heart.

The Beloved One says, “Come.”
Let all who long for restoration bring every ache and ill.

Last spring, I shared that I stopped believing in God after my brother’s cancer relapsed for the second time:

The day after [my brother relapsed], my pastoral tutor told me that it sounded as if I had died many times over, that death seemed cyclical to me. For the last nine years of my life, I feel as though I’ve been brutally murdered and then resurrected, only to be killed yet again. None of this feels like it has come out of nowhere; for the week before, I was constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown with absolutely no idea why. I had been having such horrific nightmares that I couldn’t sleep. I looked so exhausted and weary that other people began telling me that they were worried about me. I even considered going back on antidepressants after months of not needing them. And then I got the news, and it suddenly felt like it all made sense.

It’s been a month since I stopped believing in God. It’s been a whole month and I haven’t been able to find meaning in any of this. If you go back and read any of my previous posts, my outlook has always been, at its core, a spiritual one of hope, one that finds meaning in everything. Today marks yet another day I can’t find that.

Since then, I’ve managed to find meaning again. My brief stint with an “atheism of pain” could not be described in the same ways as the atheism of many of my friends and peers, those who, through rationality and logic, have come to the conclusion that there simply cannot be a God. Instead, my temporary atheism could best be described as a frustration with the random chaos of the world, a desire to believe in something more than the pain that I’m experiencing that I simply couldn’t feel connected to at the time. Meanwhile, I’ve always been a spiritual person, having grown up in the Catholic Church, educated by the Jesuits, and carrying the principles of Catholic social teaching—human dignity, solidarity, charity, distributism, and social justice—with me even as the Catholic Church more or less left me.

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The entrance to Main Quad

German sociologist Max Weber once described this decline in religiosity as “disenchantment.” With the rise of Western science, monotheistic religions were cast aside as irrational, and in this disenchanted world, bureaucratic, secularized Western society reigns supreme. As Weber famously wrote, modernity is characterized by the “progressive disenchantment of the world.” But this isn’t a prescription for the future: Weber’s disenchantment thesis is best understood as a dialectical relationship between disenchantment and re-enchantment, a cyclical process of becoming disenchanted and then finding re-enchantment. The slow death of God, to Weber, has culminated in the return of gods and demons who “strive to gain power over our lives and again … resume their eternal struggle with one another.”

This dialectical relationship between disenchantment and re-enchantment has played out on a personal level in my life, and after, as my pastoral tutor told me, “I had died many times over, that death seemed cyclical to me,” I’ve begun seeing my life become re-enchanted again. While most Christians probably wouldn’t consider me Christian—the belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God who died and rose again for our sins is probably a non-negotiable that I cannot say I’ve honestly believed since about the age of 15—I’ve still found myself to clinging to “spirituality” in the broadest sense, without forcing myself to really have to believe in anything too dogmatically. I’ve found myself in church on Sundays. I find myself looking up at the stars on many nights, tracking their movements like the astrologers of old. I find myself sitting quietly, allowing my breath to match the breath of the Universe. I find myself returning to the cultural traditions I grew up, such as not eating meat on Fridays during Lent even if I no longer fear hellfire for not doing so.

In some ways, really immersing myself in my academics has been a curse. I take a lot of comfort in intellectualization, and it’s the way I come to terms with the mysteries of human understanding. The social world around us, as confusing as it is, is something I believe can be explained with the right tools and methodology, and that’s what has kept me in love with social anthropology (my major) as a discipline. But at the same time, it can be exhausting to constantly peer under the surface of every social interaction and phenomena. And when it comes to things as personal as spirituality, I usually leave the question of “what does this mean” for when I eventually have an existential crisis about how to reconcile my academic life with what I should or should not personally believe. But lately, I’ve found myself feeling more at peace with the inherent contradictions that come with this: I may understand re-enchantment as the social phenomenon it is while also finding myself needing to re-enchant the world in which I live in, even if my actual belief in these things is shallow and not deep. You may wonder what I actually believe. The answer? I believe in both everything and nothing.

Astrology, of which observance has been steadily rising in my generation, is something I find myself turning to more and more—not necessarily as a tool for divination, but as an intellectual exercise that helps me ascribe greater meaning to the celestial bodies in the sky. At the same time, I’m constantly thinking about how astrological belief itself is a unique case study, whose irrationality and lack of scientific basis challenges our notions of the modern and the idea that we have somehow reached modernity. And this isn’t unique to astrology: I’d even argue that the growth of Marxist thought and the rise of democratic socialism in American politics, of which I am an active participant given my unabashed socialist views, should really be understood less as a return of a political ideology and more as a new system of belief that has the possibility to create a sense of re-enchantment in our disenchanted society. (See the tension?)

Casting out the darkness

“He who does not know how to look back at where he came from will never get to his destination.” — Dr. Jose Rizal, Filipino scholar, revolutionary, and national hero of the Filipino people

By this point, it would be reasonable to ask, “What exactly is the darkness that you’ve been trying to find light within?” If you had asked me many months ago, my answer would have been one word: cancer. But now, with my brother being cured of his cancer thanks to the development of CAR T-cell therapy, I can’t simply pin the darkness I’ve been wandering through on a biological disease, as if chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants, or immunotherapy will be the be-all and end-all. What’s often ignored in discussions about cancer is the emotional and psychological pain that comes with it. Even though everything should be getting easier, in some ways I’ve felt like things have been getting harder. I find myself reaching for my anti-anxiety medications more frequently than before. I’ve told the story of my brother’s cancer more times than I can remember to the point where it’s become rehearsed. But it was only when, while having a long conversation with a friend in my room, that when I tried telling the story of his most recent relapse again, I burst into tears—something I don’t do very often.

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Green Library at Stanford University

When I told a friend today that I think I just needed another day off, despite all the academic obligations I have, she told me, “Think of it this way: you’ve had multiple weeks of craziness. Of course you need a day or two.” The truth is, it’s been a crazy past few weeks, a crazy past few months, even a crazy past decade that started in August 2010 when my brother was first diagnosed with cancer and my relationship to the world around me changed forever in irreparable ways. Maybe this is one of the marks that I’ve finally become comfortable in my academic career—now in my senior year at Stanford, I’m not afraid to advocate for myself and all that I need to thrive.

From the clinical depression and anxiety I was diagnosed with sometime between my brother’s second and third bout with cancer, to what I can only describe as Complex PTSD, a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that comes as a response to chronic traumatization over the course of months or years, especially in childhood, these are all just some of the many battles that life has thrown at me at such a young age. Considering that 1 in 4 women newly diagnosed with breast cancer experience PTSD, the constant traumatization and re-traumatization of watching your younger brother be diagnosed with cancer and then relapse and relapse again since 2010, and even having to donate my own bone marrow at the age of 12 for what ended up becoming an unsuccessful bone marrow transplant, seems to have left an indelible mark on my psyche.

It can be frustrating that the “political capital” I’ve built up by being an active participant and critical thinker in my classes must be spent on what can only be described as time needed to manage my disability, a term I chose to intentionally embrace as it gives a medicalized understanding to those who may not understand how debilitating depression, anxiety, and PTSD can be on someone already as emotionally fragile I am. But at the same time, I am proud of the way that I’ve learned to put myself first, and I’m grateful for the kindness and understanding of my instructors who, throughout my college career, have told me to unabashedly protect my health. Because without taking the time to look back on how my past affects me, healing can never come.

When I’m stuck in these ruts, the ones where I feel petrified and lost whose frequency has been increasing, I think back to the words of Dr. Jose Rizal: “He who does not know how to look back at where he came from will never get to his destination.” These past few days, I’ve spent a lot of time looking back at where I’ve come from. And thanks to the help and kindness of those close to me, many have been there to help show me how I’ve turned trauma into something beautiful—how I give my love to so many; how, even if I struggle to connect with my own emotions, I can be so emotionally in tune with others; how the radical honesty and authenticity I’ve been working towards adopting has helped my friends who are underclassmen feel the space and agency to also advocate for their needs.

Tomorrow, I am excited to wake up with the sunrise and head back to the red fountain outside the library with my morning cappuccino in hand, where I can read and write in peace. And then I’ll go to my anthropology class, refreshed and ready to grapple with ideas around asylum and prisons. After, I’ll finally chip away at all the schoolwork that I’ve abandoned during this needed period of introspection. And in the evening, I’m excited to eat teriyaki salmon with a friend I haven’t seen in so long, then go to a fraternity (yes, a frat) with a different friend for their study night with unlimited espresso beverages (much needed), study spaces, and an open mic night (you can tell I go to Stanford!). I look forward to the future, including to the next quarter, when I’ll be stepping outside of my comfort zone and taking a video & film production class where I’ll be producing a documentary: hopefully on pain at Stanford, since there really is so much unique potential for a juxtaposition between stories of suffering here and visual images of palm trees, sunshine, and sunbathing students.

But today, as I continue grappling with it all, I give myself the time and space to rest.

The Spirit sends us from this place with power:
to disrupt cycles of violence,
to practice healing within and around,
and to create bold alternatives to norms that harm and destroy.
With this knowledge and assurance,
may we go and make it so.

With love and power,
Josh

Cancer, take three.

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It’s been a month since I found out that my brother’s cancer relapsed for the second time. This now marks nine years of cancer haunting our lives. That’s nearly half of my life and the majority of my brother’s life.

I’ve considered writing about it on here for a long time, but I just couldn’t put my thoughts into words. So I decided to simply push it away. But after what became a sudden, intense emotional breakdown at 2am last night, I decided that I had to somehow return to what has always been a form of therapeutic, cathartic release for me: writing about it publicly.

When I first started this blog at the age of thirteen, cancer was one of the first handful of topics I wanted to write about. At the time, it was a fairly simple, easily wrapped-up story: my brother was diagnosed with leukemia in his first week of kindergarten, it got worse over the coming months to the point where he needed a bone marrow transplant, and I was his donor. The procedure happened two days before Christmas, he eventually got better after many post-transplant roadblocks, and cancer advocacy became a piece of my family’s life.

Five years later, when my brother’s cancer came back, I wrote a blog post the day that I found out. It was short. It was raw. It was everything that an almost-seventeen-year-old me needed to scream out into the world. And then by this January, I was able to write about meeting my brother’s marrow donor in Berlin while I was traveling before my two terms studying abroad at Oxford. This time around, about four years later, I’ve replaced screaming on my blog with screaming in real life. The day I found out, I spent the entire day loudly weeping. The walls in my house are incredibly thin, so the sounds of me crying hysterically carried from floor to floor in the house. For the first time in a long time, I had been bracing myself for death. At the time, it seemed hopeless—I was told that my brother was probably going to die within the year, and there was likely nothing that could be done. I spent the entire night in grief. I didn’t want to be alive anymore. I didn’t want to literally die, but I did feel like I was already dead.

***

The day after, my pastoral tutor told me that it sounded as if I had died many times over, that death seemed cyclical to me. For the last nine years of my life, I feel as though I’ve been brutally murdered and then resurrected, only to be killed yet again. None of this feels like it has come out of nowhere; for the week before, I was constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown with absolutely no idea why. I had been having such horrific nightmares that I couldn’t sleep. I looked so exhausted and weary that other people began telling me that they were worried about me. I even considered going back on antidepressants after months of not needing them. And then I got the news, and it suddenly felt like it all made sense.

It’s been a month since I stopped believing in God. It’s been a whole month and I haven’t been able to find meaning in any of this. If you go back and read any of my previous posts, my outlook has always been, at its core, a spiritual one of hope, one that finds meaning in everything. Today marks yet another day I can’t find that. Even upon re-reading the previous posts about cancer that I made, I find it so difficult to reconcile the cruelty of chance—in particular, that my brother’s first relapse four years ago would come at the conclusion of a local radio special about my brother that ended with a segment on his life post-cancer—with any sort of grander meaning in the world.

It’s been a month since I’ve craved escape and have done everything I possibly can to do that. I disappeared for a few days to northern France, to Spain, to other parts of England. I considered hopping on a train and taking it as far away as it would take me. For a moment, I had considered not going back to London from France, and instead trying to get a train to Berlin, and that I would call my brother’s second marrow donor, tell her I desperately needed to be away and that I just needed a day to cry—but in Germany instead of in England. Then I decided against it.

***

In the twenty-four hours after my brother’s relapse, all of us were forced to deal with incredibly difficult decisions. There were two options presented to us: we could look for a possible experimental trial or we could try to extend his life for about a year and try to give him a year doing and seeing all that he wanted. Hours after finding this out, some of my Oxford friends had come over with ice cream and snacks to comfort me, and I told them privately that I didn’t know whether I could ever continue on—I didn’t have the energy to exhaust every last option but watch my brother in pain in a hospital room, and I didn’t have the emotional capacity to consider a life where I suddenly no longer had my brother. The deliberations didn’t have to be resolved then; we found out a more conventional treatment option might be available, and on June 10 we will find out whether or not he’s a candidate for it.

Just a week ago, I woke up to a blog post my mom had written entitled, “If I knew what I know now.” It centers around the question that my brother asked my mom while he was getting his chemo: “Mom, would you have had me if you knew I was going to have cancer?” Her answer was a resigned and difficult no. There was a certain level of guilt that came with it—after all, how couldn’t there be? And that to me has been just another piece of what has been so hard about this entire experience: the guilt.

I want to live a normal life. I want to be happy. And I hate that I’m filled with so much guilt throughout this whole time—for having been away from my family for this whole experience, for wanting to escape, for actually being able to escape while the rest of my family can’t, for everything.

***

Being the brother of a cancer patient has always come with its own unique set of challenges. Siblings are often forgotten in the experience, and it can leave long-lasting emotional scars. In my case, I think it wouldn’t be all that shocking for anyone to know that going through these experiences—first at twelve, then at seventeen, and now again at almost twenty-one—has certainly left indelible, traumatic marks on who I am. Years and years of therapy have tried to help me undo some of the most negative pieces of it: an abandonment complex, clinical depression, and anxiety. And now, just as some of those things were beginning to be worked through, it’s incredibly scary to have the wound reopened for yet another time.

I had thought that I could hold out and be strong, that maybe a few added years of life experiences and emotional maturity would make everything less painful than the previous times. But each distinctive cancer experience has taken from me in ways that I know I will never get back, and I can already feel the ways in which this journey has started to take from me.

I remember how, in my freshman year of Stanford, I had switched into a class called “The Cancer Problem” to fill a general education requirement. I had thought that a few years of distance and a certain level of stability within my family would make it easier to get through the class. But what actually happened was that I found myself emotional and hot-headed each time I got into the class, often choking back tears while arguing with my classmates, who were unaware of my family situation. Each class felt like navigating a battlefield, and half the battle was trying to not let on that I was suffering the whole time.

If anger characterized my processing for last time, grief seems to characterize my current experience this time. It’s been difficult to sleep or to fully enjoy my experiences, and quite frequently I found myself hit with random waves of hopelessness and the desire to just burst into tears. So instead, I’ve tried to keep myself as distracted as possible, running myself into the ground because then I’d be too exhausted to think much more about this. Someone once told me that Freud apparently had a list of different ways to handle grief—from avoidance to diving in head first, from deliberately changing your mental state through substances to intellectualizing the experience to give distance, from choosing to exist within an altered reality to pouring yourself into the world as it exists now. It seems that I’ve picked various forms of avoidance as a way to lessen the grief.

But that calculation seems to have been an incorrect one. Instead, it seems that, when I do feel the weight of it all, it feels like I’m being by a truck, compounding with all the other stresses of handling racism, homophobia, anxiety, academic stresses, interpersonal problems, and just general fears that come with being in your early twenties. And now the weight of cancer yet again finds its way back.

***

I wish that I had a better way to end this post. I wish that I could end on a much cheerier note, that I would somehow be able to inspire the people who read this to go and do something or say something or change the way think about something. But I can’t. Instead, I return to what I wrote on April 9, 2015, the day my brother relapsed the first time:

“I don’t know how I’ll get through this” has been my anthem today. And as I write this, I still have absolutely no idea how I’ll be able to cope.

Today, I feel the same way as I did four years ago. But somehow, I did get through it last time. And I got through it the time before that. I’ll get through it this time because I always do. The bigger question is just which piece of me I’ll lose in the process.

May Day and another term at Oxford

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When a few friends and I walked out of the house this morning, I was taken aback by how many people had already flooded the street. It was 5:30 in the morning—about three hours too early for me to really feel functional. While some of my Oxford friends (read: the more youthful first-years) had stayed up all night clubbing, I had decided to sleep at about 1am and get up with the other Stanford students… that is, until I left my room to go to the bathroom and realized I locked myself out of my room, which meant passing out for a few hours in the library instead before the May Morning festivities.

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Magdalen Tower

It’s been an Oxford tradition for about the last five hundred years to spend May Morning (on May Day, or May 1) gathered on the Magdalen Bridge, reveling up at Magdalen Tower as the Magdalen College Choir would sing hymns at 6am, followed immediately by street parades and Morris dancing near the Radcliffe Camera. In Europe, May Day’s roots are in ancient agricultural rituals, which were also celebrated by the Greeks and Romans. The Puritans found it too pagan, and they banned its observance, which is partially why May Day has minimal significance in North America. Back at Stanford, many of my friends will be celebrating today’s “red roots” due to its connection to the labor movement. And this’ll be my first May Day in a few years to not be participating in any sort of workers’ rights movements.

It’s been a full four months since I’ve been in Europe. Today marks the beginning of my fifth month as a visiting student at Oxford, much longer than I ever had expected to spend here. When I made the decision back in February to stay here for Trinity (spring term), I was filled with so much nervousness and restlessness. What if things weren’t going to be as good, as comfortable, as exciting, or as fulfilling as last term? Am I overstaying my time here and is life back at Stanford just moving on without me? The real reason I stayed was to continue deepening the relationships I had been building with people here—what if that just doesn’t happen?

***

My friends and I weaved our way through the crowds of people on the Magdalen Bridge. We were just aimlessly wandering, unsure of where exactly to go, only vaguely aware that we were actually walking further and further away from the prime viewing spot of the Magdalen Tower. Thankfully, a friend emerged from the crowd, jumping out and grabbing me and excitedly bringing the other Stanford students and me over to where he and a few others I knew were waiting. And unsurprisingly enough, surrounded by my exhausted friends who had been up all night, I felt at peace. It wasn’t the choir or the tradition or the new experiences that made the morning for me—it was spontaneously running into my friends on this bridge packed with people.

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All of the fears I had written about earlier were not without reason. And because of that, this term has been an excruciating exercise in tempering expectations, learning to take things as they are, and rediscovering my own agency and voice in a place that isn’t immediately familiar and comfortable. This term has certainly come with its own sets of challenges, most brutal of which have been the carry-overs from last term. Being in a disproportionately racially homogenous university has been emotionally taxing, and every day I miss the Asian American Activities Center and the Pilipino American Student Union at Stanford. Already, I’ve spent far too many nights crying myself to sleep, worried sick about the increasing challenges of home life, often jolted awake by nightmares about my parents and brother. Now five months off my antidepressants, I wake up most mornings anxious and embarrassed, but like I’ve had to do for much of my life, I’ve just had to push through the rational and irrational anxieties.

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“Trashing” post-exams

But in spite of the impossible-to-control backdrop of my life, this term has already been filled with excitement. Since arriving back in England in mid-April after a spring break with my mom in Madrid and Morocco, so much has happened: I went to Cornwall, where all the pasties and mining history reminded me of visiting my paternal grandparents in Nevada City, California. I’ve started to make friends in the current Stanford cohort. I took a solo trip to Amsterdam and reveled in the tulips that were in full bloom. I celebrated the end of my friends’ exams and got to participate in the post-exam tradition of “trashing” my college mom.

In many ways, being here for another term has reminded me of how much I don’t know about this place and its student life and traditions. After all, even May Day is something I’ve never celebrated in this context! But over the past three or so weeks since I’ve been back here with the new Stanford cohort, I realized how much being a returning student changes the dynamic. Much like my time at Stanford, I’ve figured out how to be resourceful and persistent within the confines of this university. My case in point: being one of the only Stanford students who knew there was a ball in my college, I’ve been the public face of facilitating the purchase of sold-out ball tickets for as many of the Stanford people as I can. As one person described me, I’m the “mob boss of Brasenose Ball tickets,” although I personally prefer the term “merchant.” (I really should be paid for all the labor I continue to do for people in this program—including working on planning our garden party—but that’s a separate conversation…) But other than the ball tickets, even just knowing what kinds of events to watch out for—from collections’ cocktails immediately before the term began, to May Day, to Ascension Day—has been a godsend for feeling comfortable this term.

***

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Before the festivities began near the Radcliffe Camera

By 6:30, three of my friends and I were enjoying breakfast at Vaults & Garden, a café attached to the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin overlooking the Radcliffe Camera. The sun was up and it wasn’t too cold—surprisingly nice weather for England! You could hear the commotion of Morris dancers in the square across from us, the bells on their shins rhythmically jingling. Eventually, we made our way back to the house, running into more people from both Stanford and Oxford. One of my friends wanted to join the parade and dance in the streets, but despite the energy, the allure of getting back into bed after minimal sleep won out. Although we did stop for tea and croissants on the way back…

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Morris dancers

IMG_3058I’ve been writing this post as a way to avoid the very depressing memoirs I have to read for my class on violence in twentieth century Europe and experiences of displacement—this week’s theme is the Russian Revolution. I’ve been sprawled out on my bed writing this after trying to catch up on sleep, and in thinking about all that’s happened so far this term, I can’t even begin to express my excitement for my final seven and a half weeks here. Right now, in the middle of week one of the term, I’ve spent afternoons sitting on the grass in the quads, experienced random British traditions, and found the courage to just be bold and make plans with as many of my friends as I can.

There’s a lot that I’m excited for in this next term, but I think Shakespeare best puts my hopes for what the rest of this term will look like:

“As full of spirit as the month of May,
And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer”

One Oxford term down, one to go

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I woke up this morning exhausted, still a little bit sick, and unsure if I ever really fell asleep last night. I got up out of my bed and fumbled across the tiny sleeper car to open up the window. Grey skies. Sigh. I wasn’t really sure what I was expecting. Actually, that’s a lie—I had a romantic notion of train travel across Britain, fueled by a bizarre Victorian-era fantasy of afternoon tea while watching the rolling hills of the countryside. But in reality, much of the United Kingdom has been swamped with heavy bouts of rain this week, and it was 6:30 in the morning… far from “afternoon tea.” I blame the National Railway Museum in York for filling me with these romantic notions.

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A dining car at the National Railway Museum in York

A knock came at the door. Breakfast was delivered to my room—a smoothie bowl, orange juice, and English breakfast tea. As I slumped back in my bed, sipping my tea, I couldn’t help but watch the remarkable contrast between the bright green hills and the depressingly grey clouds. It was, after all, the only thing to do for that last hour of the journey. But then finally—a break in the clouds. For just a brief few minutes, the bright rays of the sun shone upon the Scottish countryside, lighting up the small homes on the hills. It was a brief but beautiful sight as the landscape quickly changed from rural Scotland to the Glasgow cityscape.

This is my third month living in England as a visiting student at the University of Oxford. I’ve been affiliated with Brasenose College, one of the thirty-eight colleges that compose the university, and it has a reputation as “the happiest college at Oxford.” Some fun facts: Brasenose was founded in 1509; that’s before Ferdinand Magellan tried to circumnavigate the globe. The most famous alum: probably David Cameron (don’t worry, everyone I’ve met is much more pleasant than the former prime minister).

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Hertford Bridge, also called “the Bridge of Sighs” after the one in Venice (although it’s actually much more similar to the Rialto—which I can confirm after spending a month crossing the Rialto every day)

It’s been a journey—mostly good, a bit funny, and at times just ridiculous. I think I’ve acclimated pretty well: I add milk and sugar in my tea, I spend many nights a week at my college bar, I’ve learned how to pronounce cities like “Edinburgh” and “Slough” almost correctly, I’ve grown used to asking about dress codes for events, and I’ve figured out which piece of silverware to use in a formal dinner setting. My phone, much to my frustration, has started to autocorrect words, such as “realize,” to match its British spelling (‘realise’). It’s stupid, and it makes me want to throw my phone against the wall.

This term, I did a tutorial in anthropology theory; tutorials are a style of learning unique to Oxford and Cambridge, where I had a one-on-one, once-a-week meeting with my tutor (mine was a fellow at All Souls College since Brasenose doesn’t actually have anthropology) to discuss my weekly essays and go over the material. Tutorials are a bit of an antiquated system, and there’s no real reason they continue to exist beyond just tradition. But it’s one I really prefer; the individual attention and frequent writing and personalized feedback has really helped me improve my ability to write and more critically understand social theorists. It’s even come to the point where I’ve been able to trick a few people into thinking I understand late nineteenth-century philosophy!

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Formal hall at Magdalen College during my first week at Oxford. Magdalen, along with Brasenose and Corpus Christi, is one of the colleges that Stanford students can be affiliated with.

While my anthropology tutorial—as well as the Spanish tutorial I’ve been doing—is taught through Oxford, I’ve been doing a Stanford seminar with about six other students taught by the faculty-in-residence this quarter, an experimental course on arts in prisons in the United Kingdom. It’s not my favorite thing in the world, but it’s been an eye-opening look at the criminal justice system in England and Wales, complete with a visit to a youth prison facility and a prison for sex offenders.

The “arts” piece of it has been a bit more whimsical to me since I’m personally more interested in the “prisons” aspect, but now with just a week of the class left, I’m really grateful I took it, mostly because I got to meet someone—a Stanford Law School graduate, actually!—who does amazing work in advocating for youth in prisons. Instead of trying to recap her life story, I’ll share this, which is available publicly online:

When she was 16-years-old, Christa’s best friend was raped, and she became determined to be a district attorney. But when she got to law school, she signed up to teach the Fourth Amendment at juvenile hall, and her life path changed. She saw something powerful happen as the group of Chicago kids she taught developed into a community where even gang loyalties relaxed. She was personally transformed by the experience of hearing them long for something better than what they saw ahead of them. Christa transferred to Stanford Law School after her first year but took her juvenile hall experience with her. She started a Street Law program at Stanford, similar to the program in Chicago, to teach incarcerated and other at-risk youth about the law. But this time, Christa built her own curriculum and was soon being asked to speak about it at national conferences.

In one of my more embarrassing moments here, I actually started bawling at the end of her final day with us. I was trying to thank her for how much of an impact she had on me, and then I broke down crying. Stupid, right? The next afternoon, I called my parents, told them I wanted to stay at Oxford for another term, and that I was staying so I could study human rights law. Both my parents were initially not pleased—I was supposed to go to Santiago in the spring, which was already a very last minute decision, and just days before the withdrawal deadline, I wanted to back out. But when my parents heard I wanted to study law, my mom was immediately in favor of me staying.

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A reflection I shared on Facebook about two and a half weeks later, after visiting my second prison

My sudden realization that I want to pursue a human rights career is by no means the only reason I wanted to stay. I’ve made such amazing friends here, something I didn’t expect to do since it’s notoriously difficult for Stanford students to really feel integrated during their time here. But thanks to a perfect storm of being a little bit pushy, forcing myself to be more extroverted than I’ve been since my first month at Stanford, a stroke of good fortune, and running into some incredibly warm and inviting Oxford students, I can say pretty confidently that I’ve made at least a few friends. It’s truly such an experience to walk down into the Brasenose bar and realize that, on any given day, I know enough people to feel comfortable.

I’ve only just started becoming comfortable enough with people to really get to know their fuller personalities and their stories. I’ve been criss-crossing the United Kingdom, spending time in southern England cities like London, Windsor, and Bath, heading further north to Birmingham and much further north up to York, as well as to pretty random places, like Swansea in Wales. As you might have guessed, this week I’m in Scotland—I’ll be in Glasgow to visit some Oxford friends for the next few days, and then I’m off to Edinburgh to join the other Stanford students on the trip we take every term. (Next term, the trip will be in Cornwall, the weekend before Easter.)

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A rare occurrence: snow at Oxford! Truly a magical time.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve done a good job of meeting a variety of people and seeing as much of this country as I can, even if that’s meant a few long nights because I always choose new experiences with Oxford friends over regular study times and travel within Britain over travel across continental Europe. And yet, right now, I feel like if I left, I’d be closing a chapter of my life that I’m nowhere near finished reading. How convenient is it, then, that I have until the end of June?

Come mid-April, I’ll be surrounded by a new crop of Stanford students. They’ll come in with the same sense of magic and excitement that I did, and with luck, the magic will never disappear—even if it becomes shaped by the contours of reality. The week after Easter, I’ll be cheering on a few of my Oxford friends who will just be finishing exams. I’ll be spending my time reading and writing about international human rights law and social class in Britain, as I pivot to studying a mix of law and sociology. I’ll be spending my free time sitting on the grass to celebrate what the British call “summer” but I call “an exceptionally warm winter,” And of course, I’ll still be exploring the random nooks and crannies of the United Kingdom.

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Oxford in Feburary, LGBT History Month in the United Kingdom

Exactly three months ago on January 13, I had just finished my first week in Oxford, nervously wondering whether I would enjoy being here, whether I would make any friends, and whether I would want to stay. If you would have told me that I’d actually be here until the end of June, I would have been in disbelief. But I don’t know why I’m so surprised. From the week I turned twenty years old, just nine months ago, I’ve chosen to chase after adventure after adventure, taking great leaps of faith that have led me doing everything from a cross-country trip across the United States, three weeks of studying the Venetian Republic in Venice with a brief stop in coastal Slovenia (complete with a brief archeological dig!), a week-and-a-half in Israel and Palestine meeting with people from both sides of the Green Line, and traveling through Western Europe where I did everything from stumbling upon the yellow vest protests in Paris to meeting my brother’s bone marrow donor in Berlin.

Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” And now, the adventure continues, against all odds.

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.

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.

The Summer of a Lifetime

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The butterflies in my stomach were flapping faster and faster. I sprinted up the escalator at Dallas Love Field Airport, just barely making it through security in time for my flight’s boarding call. As I sat down in my seat, I pulled out my Kindle, and took a deep breath. And at 6:05 in the morning, the plane took off, and my journey officially began.

“I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon.” — Jack Kerouac, On the Road

This summer, I’m traveling across the country—and a bit outside of it as well. Right now, as I write this, I’m sitting in a house in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, having just arrived in Chicago yesterday morning. By Monday, I’ll be on my way back to the Bay Area. In the West, I’ll be in Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and the Bay Area, California. In the Midwest, I’ll be in Chicago, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In the South, I’ll be in Austin, Texas, and Wheeling, West Virginia. In the Mid-Atlantic, I’ll be in New York City, New York; Newark, New Jersey; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And in New England, I’ll be in Boston, Massachusetts; Newport, Rhode Island; and possibly some parts of southern New Hampshire.

IMG_2893.jpgOutside of my Great American Adventure, I’ll also be in Venice, Italy, for three weeks starting at the end of July, with a two-day stop in Koper, Slovenia. And at the very end of August and beginning of September, I’ll be in various parts of Israel and Palestine for about ten days, crossing the Green Line that divides both the State of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
So what am I doing all this traveling for? Ethnographic research. Since the beginning of April, I’ve been working on an extended independent research project that’ll eventually become my thesis. Broadly, I’m exploring perceptions and experiences of social mobility among Stanford students. More specifically, how do Stanford students conceptualize of and experience social mobility within their undergraduate careers? How do practices involved in students’ personal, social, academic, and romantic lives signal their understandings of the possibility of social mobility beyond the university? And how do identity factors such as race, class, and gender affect the types of social connections that students form with each other?

IMG_2892.jpgIn the spring, I did a series of interviews with a variety of Stanford students who I got to know through my dorm, through my classes, and through a variety of other places. And now, this summer, I’m visiting as many of them as I can, seeing them in their home environments—or at least, somewhere outside of Stanford—to better understand the kinds of cultural background and baggage that students carry with them. Overall, I’m interested in questions of the social, understanding in greater detail the blackbox that often is the elite university and shining light on the types of interactions that happen in these spaces, especially as they continue to diversify and people of “high pedigrees” now mix with the rest of us.

Not every location I listed is for my research; some places are some fun stops on the way—Boston being the most notable example of that for my domestic journeys. In Venice and Koper, I’ll be doing a three-week seminar on the Republic of Venice, doing an archeo-historic tour of the Serenissima, replete with a few days of archeological excavation. (I am doing my best to plan a day-trip to Florence too, but I’ll have to work out the details of that in Venice!) And then in Israel and Palestine, I’ll be exploring narratives of both Israelis and Palestinians, understanding their firsthand view of the Israel–Palestine conflict and moving beyond simple reductive ideas of “the Israeli view” and “the Palestinian view.”

Most of all, this is my first opportunity to travel in so long. I’ve never done any sort of independent travel for the most part, and unfortunate life circumstances were responsible for my inability to travel with my family in my teen years. Honestly, I think there’s no better way for me to be kicking off my twenties, and I’m beyond excited.

See you soon.

I guess I’m 20 now?

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As I sit in my bed, curled up with my laptop, admitting to myself that I have no chance of falling back asleep, I’m overcome with a strange, deep anxiety. I’ve been alive for two whole decades now. In many ways, this strange fear of growing up is probably a sign that I’m still young. But at the same time, has it really been twenty years since I was born?

It’s been a wild ride thus far, probably far more than most people really need to experience by this age. But looking back, I can confidently say I’m really proud of all that I’ve managed to do up to this point and all I’m about to do, at least in the near future.

This past year alone, I feel like I’ve finally become comfortable enough to be myself. About a full year ago, I came out on this blog after nearly another full year of being out to my parents, close friends from home, and everyone I knew at Stanford. I’m still learning to get rid of the internalized self-hate that was instilled in me from over a decade of Catholic education—the education was great, but can we do that without teaching our children that there’s something wrong with them for being who they are?—but that coming out post was one of the biggest, scariest things I’ve done.

On the note of religion, I began to pay more attention to my own spiritual needs. I found a spiritual home at Stanford’s Memorial Church and their University Public Worship, a non-denominational Protestant ecumenical service whose services have included beautiful sermons by our deans of religious life, who hail from Anglican, Episcopal, Reform Jewish, and Muslim traditions. And lately, I’ve been finding an interesting and accepting home within the Jewish community at Stanford, mostly thanks to a close friend who I took an anti-Semitism class with in the fall.

I rekindled my love of writing. After spending the past year writing small pieces of prose poetry and flash fiction, partially as a form of self-therapy, I wrote a 50,000-word novel draft in the month of November. It was pretty bad, but I did it. And then I wrote a full-length short story this spring that I’m incredibly proud of called who made the sun rise. And then I declared a minor in creative writing!

My academic life has never been better. I finished spring quarter happy and fulfilled, having learned so much more than I could have ever expected to learn. I finally feel in control of my academic life. I spent most of my time in small seminar-style classes—my largest class was eleven people!—and then I would sit outside in the California sunshine reading and writing for my classes. Grades are imperfect measures of success, learning, and fulfillment, but the contentment with my academic life translated to a 4.0 for spring quarter, bringing up my overall GPA to a place where I’m actually happy with. I’ve never felt more validated in my decision to study anthropology, and if the future permits, I’d like to keep going—ideally even getting my PhD in social/cultural anthropology within this next decade of my life.

I’ve acknowledged my role as a mentor for others, which has been the weirdest thing to wrap my mind around. It shouldn’t be all that weird; after all, some of my friends who are now rising seniors have been people who I’ve leaned on for support and mentorship in trying to navigate the often confusing, overwhelming, and difficult place that is Stanford University. And I guess for some of my friends who just finished their freshman years, I was able to provide at least a little bit of that same help and support. Beyond that, I’ve continued to take up positions of leadership within the communities that are important to me, such as the Pilipino American Student Union. And starting this next year, I start a two-year position on the Asian American Activities Center’s Advisory Board, in which I’ll deepen my commitment to supporting the Asian American community at Stanford by working directly with Stanford administration to advocate for our community’s needs.

Most excitingly of all, I’ll be spending the summer traveling… nearly entirely on Stanford’s dime since this is all part of my anthropology fieldwork. At the end of this month, I leave for Chicago. Other places I’ll be this summer: Seattle, Philadelphia, New York City, West Virginia, and more. Oh, and also Venice, Italy; Koper, Slovenia; and various parts of Israel and Palestine. And then by January, I’ll be studying abroad at Oxford University (yes, the one in England). I’ve been denied the opportunity to travel for so long due to difficult life circumstances, so I’m excited to take the world by storm. What better way to kick off my twenties?

And just as I’m planning on spending some time to feed the wanderlust that I have, my commitment to others and to social justice remains just as strong—I guess that really was a carryover from my Jesuit education! The purpose of my travels is to investigate experiences and perceptions of social mobility among Stanford students, a micro look at a much wider issue of educational inequities and the barriers that certain types of students face, even after getting into an extremely selective academic institution such as Stanford. I used to think that I had to make a hard choice at some point between helping myself live the life I want and personally working toward creating a more just and equal work. But as time progresses, I’ve been finding that this dichotomy is false—I can do both, and I will.

I’ve always considered myself someone who makes things happen. It was why I loved Scandal so much when it came out; I identified so strongly with Kerry Washington’s character, whose early catchphrase was “it’s handled.” In many ways, that’s the way that I’ve lived and approached my life up to this point, especially at Stanford—tell me what needs to be done, and it’s handled. I honestly thought I would’ve burned myself out by now with this attitude, but I feel like my flame has only gotten stronger. And for that reason, I’m even more excited to see what the next decade holds—what social problems will I work toward fixing? Where will I devote my time and energy toward? Maybe this feeling in my stomach isn’t anxiety after all. Maybe it’s actually excitement for all that the future holds.

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For my twentieth birthday this year, I’m asking for everyone to donate $20+ to my friend Brooke’s fundraiser through St. Baldrick’s. Three years ago from tomorrow, she was diagnosed with leukemia and had a bone marrow transplant in the same month that my younger brother Jude had one (September 2015). Today, she’s been accepted to medical school at Mount Sinai in New York City, and she’s raising money to support young adult cancer survivorship and research around graft vs. host disease.

Even if you’re unable to donate $20, every dollar counts. She needs to raise $10,000 to set up a Hero Fund (and she’s making great progress so far!), so please support this life-saving research. And if you donate, please let me know! I’d love to thank you personally.

Donate here!

Thank you for your support!

Pride.

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As I looked out the window of the car after spending the day at a Filipino Community Center in San Francisco, I was greeted with a sea of rainbow flags, a sight I had never actually seen before. To be fair, there is probably no other city in the United States as LGBT-friendly as San Francisco—although I hear Portland and Austin are close behind—but regardless it was almost shocking to see a city that so openly supported LGBT pride.

What a weird dichotomy it was to be there for a day during LGBT Pride Month and then to return to Texas just weeks later. What a weird, uncomfortable change I felt when I went from being open about who I am to going back to a life where I haven’t been open.

For some of you, especially those of you who I haven’t seen or heard from in a while, it might come as a shock to hear that I am in fact gay and always have been. For others, you may have always assumed or guessed but never actually heard with certainty from me. And then for those of you who I’ve only come to know through Stanford, it may also be surprising that I even have to write this post at all, especially since I’ve been so open and honest about my sexuality (in all that word entails) from day one of New Student Orientation.

This is more than just a coming out post. This post is an acknowledgment of where I began and a celebration of where I am today. This is a post about pride in myself and everything that I am and have come to be.

A painful past

As early as preschool, I remember having “crushes” on boys. At the time, I didn’t understand what that meant—I thought everyone felt the same way. In middle school, questions started to arise about whether or not I was gay—something to this day I still find genuinely ridiculous because I was literally twelve years old. At that point, my parents had already begun to tell me to act certain ways, to break down any hint of flamboyance I carried out of fear that other children would bully me. I ended up internalizing all of these comments, and it didn’t help that years of conservative Catholic schooling taught me to hate myself—one of my teachers was very clear in saying that homosexuality was a choice and that being gay would lead you to hell. I was fervently anti-marriage equality (who knew internalized homophobia could lead to a thirteen-year-old having such strong opinions on the subject!), and I found myself actually trying to “pray the gay away” a countless number of times. But middle school wasn’t the real problem; it was high school that was.

In high school, my sexual orientation was something I carried with me in secret. In my freshman year, I held my head low and tried to attract as little attention as possible, mostly out of fear that people would treat me differently because of what they (correctly) perceived my sexual orientation was. I was afraid of being associated with anything even remotely related to homosexuality, but the most I was willing to do was to change my profile picture to a red equal sign when the Supreme Court was hearing arguments about Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that made same-sex marriage illegal in California. The most unfortunate thing about it all was that all the fear I had of other people finding out was justified.

A rough high school experience

By my junior year of high school, I was already a very political person, having spent the summer before doing a policy debate camp in Austin and campaign work for the Wendy Davis campaign. I reached my apex of peak notoriety that October when I published an editorial in the school newspaper writing in support of her candidacy for governor, and while the comment section on that article blew up entirely over the issue of abortion, the repercussions I faced were not because of my political opinions but because of who I was.

For months, I felt fear walking down the halls of my school. I was targeted on Twitter for weeks, facing the brunt of it on Election Day 2014 but still getting messages into January. During our homecoming football game, I was even yelled at from the stands, completely unable to see who the group of people were that were harassing me. The friend I went with had to immediately bring me off campus, and I spent an hour that night crying on the phone to my debate coach.

As far as I had seen, no one was targeted and sought out in the way that I was, even though there were other students who openly supported that campaign. The only thing that made different from those other students was that I was brown and gay.

My senior year was the first time I heard someone refer to me as a “fag.” The person who said it didn’t realize I was behind him—or at least, I hope he didn’t realize he was behind me—but he said it with the same group of people who had been harassing me since my junior year. The most ironic part of it was that it was said on the way to a school Mass. After immediately reporting the incident to the assistant principal of student affairs, I spent the day away from classes, horrified, hurt, and afraid. It’s important to remember too that much of this coincided with me dealing with the fact that my brother was a cancer patient, so as I was juggling one form of trauma, another one was being created.

My senior year counselor and freshman year English teacher had tried to help me not feel so helpless and hurt that day, but he mentioned that he was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to do anything if some of those same people came for me online after graduation. I didn’t think that was an issue, but lo and behold, right after the election of Donald Trump, I was targeted yet again. A slew of anti-gay slurs were used against me by someone I went on a medical mission trip to Guatemala with, someone I had viewed as my friend, and others told me “good luck” in the Trump era, because I’d “need it.”

It was something I had never expected, that people would actually implicitly and explicitly wish for harm against me. On the night of the 2016 election itself, I was denied the opportunity to come out to my parents on my own terms when my mom had called me, expressing fears for my physical safety now that Donald Trump had been elected. I thought she was just being overly worried, but considering that there were people who truly hated me so much just for being gay, she had turned out to be right. It’s for that reason that I’m truly thankful to be at Stanford and in the Bay Area, places where I’m more likely to be safe from anti-gay hate crimes.

Being open at Stanford, but still struggling

Coming to Stanford, I chose to do the only thing that felt natural to me: not hiding my sexual orientation in the prison-like closet that I kept it in high school. It was a new experience to make friends who, for the most part, wouldn’t treat you differently because you liked boys and not girls, to be around people who weren’t (at least openly) weirded out by the idea of me going on a date with a boy.

The only thing was that there seemed to be an inverse correlation between people’s initial tolerance levels and their actual understanding of the struggles I had gone through to get to the point where I was. Some friends were shocked that I hadn’t come out to my parents before I left, especially since I knew they’d be loving and accepting, but no one really understood how difficult it was to actually do that. Others questioned how I could hold on to any of my religious beliefs (of which I still consider myself nominally and culturally Catholic, even though I staunchly disagree with many of the Catholic Church’s moral positions), never really understanding—and sometimes even invalidating—the solace that I found within the social justice aspects of Catholicism, as well as more liberal interpretations of Catholic theology I had been exposed to through my high school’s theology department. Not many understood the pain of not being able to come out to your family on your own terms and instead having an election take that away from you, and few really knew the pain I carried each and every day from having slurs hurled at me by people I knew in high school.

To this day, I still struggle when people—often friends and classmates who I like and care deeply about—make innocent-seeming but still problematic comments implicitly associating homosexuality with physical and emotional weakness, even though—after all I have been through throughout my entire life—I am the furthest thing from weakness. Other times it’ll be comments that make being gay sound like a choice when that’s the furthest thing from the truth. Rarely do I have the mental energy to call them out, for fear of being seen as overly aggressive or that I’m just trying to be “politically correct.”

I know and have seen firsthand that implicit bias factors into the way people treat me. I’ve felt the emotional barriers placed between me and others solely due to my sexual orientation, and I’ve seen noticed how some people would be uncomfortable with physical touch around me. And likewise, I’ve noticed how my own internalized homophobia—self-hatred stemming from the involuntary belief that all the homophobic lies, myths, and stereotypes that society says about me are true—has led me to keep people physically and emotionally distant, out of fear that I’d be seen as “coming on” to them even when all I had wanted was a deeper emotional connection in our friendship.

Pride.

Even though being gay can often feel like it makes dating and building deeper friendships more difficult at Stanford (partly because it does), I’ve never felt this much pride in who I am than now.

I’m proud of how I had the courage to begin coming out by the end of my senior year of high school, even if that was only to two or three people.

I’m proud of how I wasn’t too afraid to be myself the second I came to college.

I’m proud of how I’ve stayed resilient even in the face of personal anti-gay attacks and others—whether those were teachers, classmates, churches, or society—telling me there’s something wrong with me.

And I’m proud of how I’ve finally written this blog post, having put it off for over a year now knowing full well that the second I post this, some people will choose to view me negatively, even though nothing about me has changed.

Today, I’m happy to be spending my very first LGBT Pride Month feeling what I should’ve always felt about myself: pride.

Notes from Stanford: Looking back on my freshman fall quarter

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Well, I did it. I managed to survive my very first quarter as a college student at Stanford—and I really do mean survive. I always knew freshman fall was going to be a struggle because I’d be trying to adjust to living on my own, meeting new people and making new friends, taking my first college-level classes, and generally trying to make the most of my Stanford experience. But I really didn’t expect the sheer amount of “struggles” I ended up facing over these ten weeks!

In a nutshell, the whole quarter can be summed up in one sentence: this quarter, I learned a lot about myself. Yes, I learned a lot in my classes, and I learned a lot from the many new people I met, but at the end of the day, the most valuable thing I took from this quarter was all that I learned about me.

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Outside the Caltrain station in San Francisco

Coming into my own skin

I walked into my first day at Stanford pretty sure of who I was, what my values are, and what I wanted from my college experience. But it was only a matter of days before all of that broke down, and I found myself spending much of the quarter just trying to pick up the pieces and rebuild.

It’s actually a little shocking to look back and see how much I’ve changed since high school, but at the end of the day the thing I wanted the most from my Stanford experience was personal growth, so in another sense it’s comforting to see how much I’ve grown in just the past quarter.

In high school, I considered myself a pretty strong introvert. I was definitely able to speak to people and to make friends, but I wasn’t particularly social—if anything, the thought of long periods of social interaction just sounded completely and utterly draining, which sometimes comes as a shock to people who know me (because I really do love to talk). But just this past summer while I was doing an internship at a Dallas children’s hospital, my boss (who’s known me for the past six years) said that I’d probably stop considering myself an introvert once I went to college. I didn’t believe her, but she ended up being completely right.

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Dorm trip to San Francisco

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