Where the F**k Am I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the answer isn’t coming any time soon.

* names changed

4 Things I’ve Learned from Traveling (so far)

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Right now, I’m waking up in my bed in Dallas for the first time in a while after making a brief stop in the Pacific Northwest to visit a friend from my freshman year at Stanford. This is now day 13 of my travels across the country—and world, kind of… if you include Italy, Slovenia, Israel, and Palestine as “traveling the world.” But after spending some time in Chicago, Illinois; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Menlo Park, California; San Francisco, California; and Portland, Oregon, for my anthropology fieldwork, there are a few things that I’ve learned about people, travel, and myself already.

1. You have to be open to adventure, even when it’s awkward.

It’s a pretty obvious statement, I know. I’m a very extroverted person to begin with; anyone who knows me is well aware of how much I love getting to know people and just being with others. But one of the hardest things about traveling is the constant feeling of displacement and the lack of grounding that comes with that. When I don’t feel grounded, I have a tendency to feel anxious, and that can make it hard to put myself out there in the same ways that I might be able to without even thinking during the school year.

The way that I managed to quell the shifting earth under my feet was by being very intentional about how I planned my travels. Even parts of my travels that aren’t for the purposes of my fieldwork were built with comfort in mind: I made sure that there was always one person in every city who I knew (keeping an extremely wide social network at Stanford was a key prerequisite for this), and I asked to stay in people’s homes instead of in hotels or Airbnbs (also great for saving money!). Beyond that, face masks, an occasional glass of red wine, a good book (currently reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac), and, if worst comes to worst, some anti-anxiety medications, all help.

Keeping the inherent nervousness that comes with traveling down to a minimum has helped me say yes to all sorts of new experiences. It’s how I ended up at a country concert in Milwaukee even though I don’t really like or know country music. It’s how I ended up watching fireworks at a country club on the Fourth of July. It’s how I ended up making new friends in San Francisco and getting to see a piece of the Mission District that I would’ve never known to explore before. It’s how I got to see downtown Portland by bike. And it’s how I’m going to venture into the Texas Panhandle this weekend for the first time.

2. Books are a love language. Read a lot of them.

This is probably partially a product of the fact that I’ve been hanging out with Stanford students and their families, but books have been such a huge part of my travels so far. I decided that I wanted to be able to read more, and after getting into a brief but ongoing Beat Generation phase, I finally picked up Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—both a great book overall due to its historical importance and a great book to read while traveling the country. It’s the first fiction book—although it barely counts as fiction since it’s a roman à clef—that I’ve read in a while, and oh boy, has it been a journey. I’m about halfway through the book as of right now, and it’s a really genuinely fascinating portrayal of what it’s like to be a straight white man in 1940s/1950s America.

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Dog Eared Books in the Mission District in San Francisco, California

Even more exciting than reading the books themselves is how I’ve realized books connect you to others. Reading may be a solitary activity, but books are a way to share knowledge and the human experience with others. In San Francisco this past weekend, I was surrounded by a group of Stanford students who all love to read. They broke all the stereotypes in my head of what STEM majors do in their free time by waxing poetic about different philosophers they like to read and sharing what’s on their reading lists. We even all went to a bookstore in the Mission together. I can only imagine how awkward that whole experience would’ve been if I didn’t like to read; what would I have done while everyone spent so long roaming through the bookstore, taking books off the shelves, and calling over to each other to recommend things to read? And it definitely helped, too, that one of those people had just finished Kerouac’s On the Road as well!

There’s rich anthropological literature about the importance of giving, receiving, and exchanging gifts in the formation of social bonds. Books, in my opinion, are one of the many ways that people—especially students and their families—facilitate this kind of gift-giving. Right now, I’m borrowing a nonfiction book from a friend called Cannibals and Kings: Origins of Culture after he let me look through all his books while he was packing the night before I left the Bay Area. And just yesterday in Portland, my friend’s family let me borrow a fiction book called Euphoria which they thought I’d really like.

3. Planes can be your friends.

My schedule for this summer is pretty intense. It goes without saying that I’m racking up a ton of miles on Southwest, which I’m super excited to use to fund a free trip later! As a college student, I spend a lot of time on planes because I’m usually flying somewhere over Thanksgiving, winter, spring, and summer breaks, and I usually take about one or two trips each year—this past year I went to both Boston and D.C. in the fall and spring, respectively. With so much air travel, I’ve learned that flying doesn’t have to be the completely miserable experience that so many people think it’ll be. I usually try to book direct flights whenever possible, both because it’s less stressful and because it puts less strain on the environment. But for those times when I do end up flying for a while, either because a direct flight isn’t available or even just because the direct flight is really long, I realized that planes are actually great for either reading, getting rest, or working.

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Chicago from above

It’s pretty obvious, but planes make for a great time to take a nap. I use a charcoal eye mask to help block extra light, and I end up asleep real fast. Supposedly, this charcoal eye mask is supposed to help reduce the swelling and puffiness that are associated with tiredness, sleep debt, and flying; I’m not really sure I believe that, but I’m gonna go ahead and pretend it does. For flights that are about three or more hours or flights that are timed so that I really do need to sleep on the plane to make sure I’m rested enough to take on the city as soon as I land, I sometimes take generic Benadryl. Fun fact: ZzzQuil (a well-known over-the-counter sleep aid) is actually just diphenhydramine, which is the exact same active ingredient in Benadryl, so you can save a good amount of cash if you buy generic Benadryl instead of shelling out the big bucks for brand-name ZzzQuil.

I also like to read and/or blog on flights since planes give me uninterrupted quiet time. I read most of On the Road on a plane, and I actually wrote this blog post on my flight back from Portland to Dallas! I’m really bad about actually finding time to write—have you noticed the lack of posts throughout the school year?—but luckily, plane rides give me the time to actually collect my thoughts and write. My refusal to pay money for Wi-Fi to check Facebook and Twitter definitely help the writing process. I also try to make sure my field notes are all accounted for when I’m on the plane leaving a location; I’m often pretty busy doing interviews and just observing and participating in others’ lives while I’m in various locations, so the long plane rides give me a lot of time to actually make sure I have the notes that I need and some time to reflect on the key themes of each trip.

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Hawthorne Bridge in Portland, Oregon

4. Things always work out.

My trip to Portland wasn’t actually supposed to happen. My original plans to visit in August fell through after my contact in Portland was no longer able to accommodate my visit, but because I really wanted to visit, I very last minute made alternative arrangements to stay with a different friend. I took a leap of faith, booking my flights before I even had a place to stay—thank God that Southwest lets you really easily change your flights! (Dear Southwest Airlines, you should sponsor me and my burgeoning anthropology career!)

My mantra in life lately has been “everything will work out.” It’s something I’ve had to repeat to myself so many times in elementary school, high school, and now college, and I’ve reminded myself that so many times this summer as my travels would get more and more complicated and random things would come up that I would need to plan around and account for. But at the end of the day, I’m confident in myself. I’m confident that I’ve set myself up for success this summer: my parents instilled in me a strong sense of independence and quick thinking that has saved my ass so many times; my coursework has been geared toward both theoretical and practical skills for how to handle this kind of project (thanks, Stanford, for having multiple classes on research methodology and fieldwork preparation!); and I have the monetary resources to get by should anything happen since I built in emergency funds into my grant budget and have emergency stashes of credit both through various credit cards and a personal line of credit from my credit union just in case I’m in desperate need of a bailout.

I was pretty worried that I’d struggle to get the kinds of data that I’d need for this project, too. My biggest fear was that I’d go through this whole summer and then return to campus having nothing at all because I was blindsided by what I ended up experiencing. What if everything ended up completely irrelevant? But my lovely advisor, Sylvia, reminded me that the best part of anthropology research is when you get thrown for a loop. If everything went just as planned and exactly as expected, what’s the point? That’s why I’m rolling with the punches (see #1 on this list) and trying to not stress about the research aspect too much. After all, this summer is as much about my academic and personal growth as it is about writing a kick-ass thesis.

I’ve learned that preparation is key, and while you can’t prepare yourself for everything, you can set yourself up to handle nearly any situation. And at the end of the day, that’s really all you can do.

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Inside City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, California

So what am I up to now?

Right now, I’m ending Part One of my life on the road (yes, that’s a small Jack Kerouac reference)! In true Kerouacian fashion, here’s what my itinerary looks like as of the time of writing, split up into five parts:

Part One (complete!): Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Chicago, Illinois; the Bay Area, California (specifically Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and San Francisco); Portland, Oregon
Part Two (about to begin): Canadian, Texas (a small town in the Texas Panhandle); Austin, Texas; Newark, New Jersey; Venice, Italy; Koper, Slovenia; and probably Florence, Italy, if I can swing a quick daytrip
Part Three: New York City, New York; Wheeling, West Virginia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Part Four: Boston, Massachusetts; Newport, Rhode Island; probably a few other towns in New England where I can do daytrips from Boston; Tel Aviv, Israel; Jerusalem, Israel & Palestine; Bethlehem, Palestine; and possibly a few other parts of both Israel and the West Bank
Part Five: TBD! Strong contenders are Los Angeles, California, and Seattle, Washington, since I’ll be back in the Bay Area to focus on writing.

I’ll be blogging throughout the summer about specific locations and experiences I have, as well as my general thoughts on travel and the world through posts similar to this one. I expect the commentary to get a little bit more cutting since I actually have a pretty sarcastic personality that usually doesn’t come across in my writing… that, and I think I was a little afraid to be brutally honest on this blog while in my teen years, but now that I hit twenty all bets are off. It should still be entertaining, though… the anthropology department’s student services officer told me she thought I should start a blog about my life at Stanford since my reactions to things are usually pretty funny.

If you’d like to keep up with me, you can be notified via email every time I post if you subscribe in the sidebar. My day-to-day adventures are captured via Instagram stories, so if you have Instagram (or Facebook, since my Facebook friends can automatically see my Instagram stories), feel free to check that out. Yes, you too, Mom and Dad. The frequent posts that probably annoy my friends and classmates should at least indicate to you all that I’m alive. And then of course I’ll be sharing each post on Twitter and my personal Facebook profile, but I’m thinking of restarting the Facebook Page for this blog so that anyone can follow along even if we aren’t actually Facebook friends (yes, you, random stranger, friends of my parents who might feel weird about adding their son on Facebook, and/or current/previous classmates who just want to read my travel posts without being subjected to my political Facebook statuses!).

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.

Why I Love Harvard

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They say if you rub the foot of the John Harvard statue, you’ll have good luck.

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The foot of the statue is cleaned daily because of the many tourists that touch it every day! (And other things…)

And for good reason! Harvard University has an admissions rate of less than 6 percent, a number that makes it one of the most difficult colleges in the country to get into.

I first visited the crimson-colored campus in November of 2013. It was my first time seeing the warmly-colored Boston leaves—the only “warm” thing in the city, aside from the Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts on every street corner.

I’d always imagined that, if I visited, I’d see Ivy-coated walls and lots of people wearing glasses (because that’s obviously a sign of smartness). I didn’t end up seeing any Ivy-covered walls and most people didn’t wear glasses. But I did find something else instead.

I found a university that I would love to be a part of one day, someday. Continue reading

Top of the Rock: The New York City Skyline

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All of these photos were taken on July 23, 2014 at the Top of the Rock in Manhattan. After fighting my way to some of the more optimal spots and waiting around for hours and even getting rained on, I was able to get these pictures of Manhattan at dusk, during sunset, and after dark.

New York City truly is one of the most beautiful, interesting, and breathtaking cities in the world—a city ripe with dreams and opportunities. Hopefully you can get a glimpse of it through these photos.

For my photo blog of Times Square (that includes a short video panorama), click here.

Continue reading

The Boy Who Lived: Adventures from Harry Potter World

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I’ve actually never been much of a Harry Potter kid. By the time I was really old enough to start reading the books, the Harry Potter movies were already in to the fourth or fifth one, so I felt like I missed the boat on that one. Plus, I’ve never been much of a “magic” kind of person—unless you’re talking about Disney magic—and my mom didn’t like the first movie because it was boring (the first movie is probably the worst).

In eighth grade, I decided to read the first Harry Potter book, just because. I secretly enjoyed it, even though the unicorn blood stuff at the end weirded me out. When my brother was forced to wanted to read a new book series, I made him recommended for him to read the Harry Potter series in all its magical goodness.

Because my brother read 4 out of the 7 books, his prize was a trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (a.k.a. Harry Potter World), located in the Islands of Adventure—one of the parks at Universal Orlando. Continue reading

Falling in Love with Columbia University

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I’d like to mention that this post definitely goes over key parts of Columbia University, partly because I want to share what I learned with all of you AND so I can actually remember everything when college admissions season rolls around.

I’ll be honest, I think I fell in love with Columbia University.

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And how can you not fall in love with this Ivy League school in New York City? When I was in New York in July, Columbia University was my second stop—after Times Square the night before. Since college is on the horizon (sort of) and most people my age aren’t thinking about it yet, I might as well get a jump on it, right? Most people don’t realize this, but I’m going into my sophomore year of high school in about one week.

So there I was, sitting in Low Library and listening to people from the admissions department talk about Columbia University—their different programs, their engineering school, stories, and anecdotes—while surrounded by people who were actually going to start the application process this year! Um, whoa, just whoa. Continue reading