6 Things I Learned in Venice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2. Catholicism is a perpetual piece of my identity.

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

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

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

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

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3. Archeology is not for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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6. I’m powerful beyond belief.

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

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

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

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

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***

So what’s the plan now?

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

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

Until next time!

The Spirituality of a Slovenian Spa

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* Names changed, as usual.

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

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Inside a church in Slovenia

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

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

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

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Piran, Slovenia

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

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Streets of Piran

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The city center in Koper

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Excavating in Torcello

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

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

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

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

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Jackie and me in Pellestrina, Veneto, Italy

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

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Feltre, Italy

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

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

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