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”

Embarking on My Grand Tour of Europe

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

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

My “Grand Tour”

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

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

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

What’s Next: Oxford and Santiago

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

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

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

Halfway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stanford’s Memorial Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time.

Returning Home

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I watched the sunrise from thirty-six thousand feet. The sun painted the sky with streaks of orange and purple before it let all that is above the wisps of cirrus clouds ascend into a deep blue. The cabin of the airplane is exceptionally quiet, maybe because the plane is only half full or because we departed before dawn.

I stretched out into the empty row of seats, my legs still aching from the eleven-hour flight I had just endured. But the soreness was not solely from trying to sit still for far longer than I would have liked. It was from the many tens of thousands of steps I’ve taken over airport terminals, dust and sand, rundown train tracks, and kitchen floors over the past few months. It was from the lack of rest my body has gotten as it would flit across time zones and political borders. It was from my mental exhaustion physically manifesting into that dull aching I feel in my upper thighs.

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The Sea of Galilee

I had embarked on the journey of a lifetime. I had told myself and the world that I was in search of answers: about history, about America, about the world, about people different from me, about people the same as me. But in reality, I was looking for myself, as if I were a tucked-away spirit hidden in the islands of the Venetian Lagoon, in the dusty streets of rural Texas and rural Israel, or in the West Bank wall looming over Palestine. I did not find myself in the end. I built a new self instead, forming myself out of clay.

The sunrise faded away, eventually overtaken by the peaceful blue sky that sat above it. The clouds began to fill, transforming into large, white puffs that I flew above. For a few minutes, the restlessness that set me off on this journey was quelled, and I finally felt my constantly running mind and heart pause and be still. I’m ready to pause and be still, at least for another few minutes. I’ve learned to run on fumes, to convince my body that it can get by without rest. I’ve learned to draw energy from those around me, to transform my curiosity about others and the world into that which propels me forward. But here, on this plane, in this empty row, I was alone. Being without others is nothing new for me. After all, few have the energy to keep up with the lifestyle I emphatically choose to live. But it was striking to wake up this morning on a plane ride across the Middle East, Europe, and the Atlantic Ocean with someone who had become a fast friend directly at my side, only to dart across the airport and jump onto a plane flying from East Coast to West Coast with no one.

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Sunset over Jaffa

A hamsa hangs from my neck, a symbol of defense against evil that’s used by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. As I tried to navigate my way through Newark International Airport, a woman approached me asking for help, thinking I, too, was an Israeli because of my necklace, but while my hamsa necklace has origins in Tel Aviv, I do not. Together, the two of us found our way through the airport before we ultimately separated—for her to get to the train station and for me to hop on yet another plane.

Just minutes before I ran into this Israeli woman, the man at the customs gate told me “welcome home,” the second time I had heard this all-too-comforting phrase this summer when I finally touched down in the United States. And both times, I wanted to hug the customs officer—and I would’ve, if only that wouldn’t be seen as odd and probably threatening. It was true, I was home. I was finally home. Except that I wasn’t. Unless my home was the clouds, I was still not home.

When I embarked to find myself in these odd corners of the Earth, I began to believe that I am someone who does not have a home. Or rather, I have houses and residences and places to stay, but no true home. Maybe Dallas is my home, or Stanford is my home. But maybe these clouds are my home—they were, after all, the most consistent place to which I returned after each and every one of my travels. Maybe I live in these clouds, free of the heart-wrenching pain I’ve had to see and feel within the people below them, from the Israeli descendants of Holocaust survivors trying to fulfill their ancestors’ dreams of safety in a Jewish homeland, to the Palestinians who hold the keys to the old homes they’ll likely never be able to return to. In these clouds, I get to finally breathe and sit still, to recover from the psychological toll that empathy takes on me. The sky may or may not be home, but it seems to be my only site of refuge.

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The Jordan River, the site which the Israelites crossed to enter the Promised Land and where Jesus Christ was baptized by John the Baptist

I return to Stanford today—one of my many homes?—filled with Weltschmerz or world-weariness. I finally return to the institution that gave me the financial and intellectual resources to do this kind of soul-searching. After exiting the “Stanford bubble” in mid-June, I now return to it, reborn and re-centered but still yearning for a better world outside this bubble. I’m not sure how, after having seen what lies in the real world in such an up close and personal way, I can return to a place where everyone stresses far too much about exam scores and club activities and internships, but I believe in my resilience and ability to do so, because I must return.

For the next few weeks, I finally get to sit still. I have come to the conclusion that my mind will never be at rest—and nor do I want it to be—but after twenty-four straight hours of traveling from Tel Aviv to California and over two straight months of being on the road and in the skies, I’m excited to step foot onto my beautiful campus that’s filled with palm trees and perpetually perfect weather, to take a much needed shower, and to finally take the two weeks of time I’ve protected for myself to process, digest my thoughts, and write.

I don’t know where home is anymore. But at least for these next two weeks, I’m going to say that I’m finally home.

There’s Hope in West Virginia

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“I think a lot of us on the coasts—and I would include myself in this—view West Virginia as America’s dumping ground.”

That’s what I told Julie* yesterday as we sat on her balcony, looking over the lush mountains of the Ohio Valley in West Virginia. We were both exhausted. I could feel the jet lag setting in. It was shocking to me to realize that I had only just returned from Italy to New York City two days before, and yet somehow I was already having a quiet morning in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia. I told myself that I didn’t have the time to deal with jet lag—I was on a tight schedule, trying to get from Queens to Manhattan for dinner then a train to Newark for the night, before returning to Manhattan the next morning so that I could take a train to Pittsburgh and drive to West Virginia. Turns out, I’m really good at delaying exhaustion, but at some point sooner or later, it’ll catch up to me.

Julie was also probably dealing with a similar sense of chronic exhaustion. She had just returned from India a few weeks ago, where she was doing education-related research for an NGO called Kakatiya Sandbox and picked up the morning habit of having lemon water and yogurt. In the spring, she was studying abroad in Florence, Italy. And now, she’s been working on an independent research project on barriers to access to higher education among West Virginia high schoolers.

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Education is something that runs in her family. Her paternal grandfather used to be a superintendent, and her mother, who used to be a teacher and worked her way up through the school system, is now the superintendent of the Ohio County school district. Education is what Julie credits to transforming her into who she is today—Stanford, despite all its faults, gave her the opportunities to do things like live in Italy and India, connected her to a research team where she could do the serious, in-depth, and impactful work on education that she’s doing today, and helped expand her worldview. But what she might not realize is that, just as her social environment has created such an impact on her, she’s impacted the world around her just as much, if not more.

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Oglebay Park

Her time in California, Italy, and India have been a source of excitement and intrigue among people in Wheeling, a small city of under 30,000 people that was once a manufacturing center but has since had its population substantially decline as factories disappeared. Pretty soon after getting into West Virginia, Julie had alerted to me to the fact that we’d be going to the radio station for a cooking segment. That afternoon, before we left to the grocery store to pick up ingredients, I saw Julie frantically writing down her pesto recipe on a pink sticky note, double checking other pesto recipes on her phone. “I just need to make sure I know what I’m doing before I get there,” she said, throwing her mini-blender in a tote bag as we ran out the door.

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The radio station experience itself was unique. I’ve had experiences with local media; my brother, a former two-time cancer patient, has had a good amount of media exposure, and I’ve been on local news channels and our local NPR-affiliate station as well. But there was something different about this one. I’m used to the “liberal elitism” of Dallas, a phrase I genuinely don’t like to use, but I think it’s more prominent in Dallas than anywhere else in Texas… maybe even the rest of the South. At this radio station, the host of the show, an incredibly sweet and funny man, was missing some of his teeth and had a certain politically incorrect humor that occasionally broke out into the airwaves. He made brief mentions of his son who was in Iraq, and he closed off the show with “God bless you,” something that you simply don’t hear in Dallas.

The day we were there was for the weekly food segment that he does to close out the day, probably a more fun and exciting segment to sit in on than their politics or sports segments—in case you’re wondering, Wheeling is strong Steelers territory. Julie had filled in for her mom on a previous radio segment, and when she was asked about her time in Italy, she mentioned the fresh pesto she learned to make with her host family. Hence how I ended up standing behind the desk of a West Virginia radio station, watching Julie pull out her blender and fill it with basil that we had bought just a half hour before. Southern cordiality and friendliness shone through here, too, and I even got a few shoutouts from the radio host on the air. There were some brief mentions of how I was from Dallas—a great place to be from, since its combination of liberal metropolitan environment and conservative Texan surroundings makes me never seem like too much of an outsider, no matter where I am in the country—and also how I love pineapples.

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I don’t know if I’d really call my experience in Wheeling as a culture shock. It was certainly different—it is still West Virginia, after all—but it was much more scenic and urban than I had expected. Whereas Canadian, Texas, which sits in the Texas Panhandle instead of one of the two West Virginian ones, was genuinely small and rural, Wheeling is like a suburb without a city. And that’s a remnant of its once large stature within the area, before globalization led to the fall of American manufacturing. Unlike Canadian, which had a sizable Mexican-American population even if it’s much smaller than urban areas like Dallas, Wheeling was nearly entirely white and aging. Those demographics help explain why long stretches of Wheeling were just Christian churches, law firms that mostly deal with workers compensation and medical malpractice cases, and retirement homes. It’s a site of significant brain drain, in which the best and brightest minds end up abandoning Wheeling—and the state of West Virginia as a whole—due to the significantly fewer opportunities.

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Foggy mornings in Wheeling

“Wheeling has so much potential,” Julie told me as we sat out on her porch, minutes after I had admitted to her that I assumed West Virginia would just be a boring and unsightly place. The morning fog had finally cleared, and with that came a renewed optimism on her end. The tiredness in her voice that had characterized so many of our conversations the day before was replaced with a new sense of vigor as she told me more about the areas that West Virginia needs work. But even more exciting was her plans of how she’d fix it, drawing on her recent experiences in India, her background in economics, and the cultural knowledge and connections she’d built up throughout her time growing up in the state.

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I wasn’t the first person to suggest she should go into politics. So many others had seen her passion for the state, her love of the people, and how she’s a junkie for mountaineers, country roads, moonshine, and coal mining. And there was already precedent for it in her own life—her mother and father keep her grounded in local politics, and she’s close enough with Senator Joe Manchin that she got coffee with him a few weeks ago and worked for him in the Senate last summer. But the issue continues to rest in West Virginia’s lack of jobs for her—her interest is in policy, especially education policy, but there are few opportunities in policy or academia. “I hope to stay connected to [West Virginia] forever,” Julie told me, whether that was through her research, through business, or just in returning home to visit. “Maybe if I’m a fancy rich person someday,” she said, her smile widening as she chuckled, “I’ll get a little cabin somewhere that I can come and have my vacations in and escape from reality to. I don’t know. But I do love it here.”

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And the truth was, I loved it, too. At many points, Julie took so much personal pride when I agreed with her that Wheeling would be a perfect center for leisure tourism. Hell, it was a great place for me to rest in between nine-hour plane rides across the Atlantic and equally long train rides across New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

If you had told me a year ago that I would’ve spent two days in West Virginia with a girl who I had met in a statistics class—and that I’d love it!—I would’ve thought you were crazy. But there’s a certain charm to Wheeling. Especially after enjoying rural Texas so much, I can’t tell if it’s just that, like many Americans, I fetishize Americana to a certain extent and that West Virginia, with its coal mines and its Trump voters, is just a great symbol of the American “heartland” nowadays. To some, that fetishization isn’t the worst thing—at least people are interested in places like West Virginia, right? But there is a certain irony and danger in so many of us from urban, metropolitan areas yearning for “the real America” while still viewing places like West Virginia as—in my own words—a “dumping ground.”

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I said earlier in this post that Julie has already had an impact on the world around her. I’m definitely one of those people who’ve felt her impact and learned so much from her just in the past two days and three nights that I was with her. Especially after I abandoned economics and dove headfirst into anthropology, exhausted by microagressions by my mostly straight, white, and male peers, Julie’s sense of social responsibility to her community and her unrelenting ability to push through setbacks in funding have given me so much hope. Her interest too in policy writing itself, a requirement of Stanford economics majors that few look forward to with as much excitement as she does, leaves me even more confident that I’m watching the development and growth of a future leader and change-maker.

And I’m just genuinely glad to have gotten to see the beginnings of it firsthand.

***

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Entering Pittsburgh this morning

I’m currently on a long train ride to Philadelphia after Julie dropped me off at the Pittsburgh Amtrak Station bright and early this morning—all with enough time to make it back to Wheeling to watch her younger sister go to school. I’ll be home in Dallas for a few days after today before I head off to New England and then to the Holy Land.

This is a topic for a future time—maybe for while I’m at home—but it’s been impossible to disconnect the current political moment that we’re in from the research I’m doing, which should technically be what most people consider apolitical… or at least unconnected to partisan politics. But my very nature and existence is political, as a colleague and classmate of mine who’s a returning student reminded me in Italy. I’ve been thinking a lot about coalition building, what the future of our country can look like for people in places as different as California and West Virginia, and what that means in both the short-term (i.e. 2018 and 2020) and the long-term (i.e. how I proceed from here). And at the recommendation of my friend Whitney, I’ve been listening to a documentary–podcast (The Wilderness) on the train that’s included some emotional speeches by both Barack Obama and Bobby Kennedy.

As I close out this piece of my journey, and come very close to closing out “part three” of my overall travels, I just wanted to very publicly thank Julie, her parents, and her grandparents for taking me in these past few days and showing me a piece of the country that I probably would never have gone to on my own. My time in West Virginia was too short, and there were so many things I’d loved to have gone more in-depth about—from the strength of unions and organized labor to Trump’s support in the state to even just Julie’s mother’s dissertation and wonderful research around education—but I guess I’ll just have to come back. Who knows, maybe I’ll return to West Virginia next year?

* names changed

6 Things I Learned in Venice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2. Catholicism is a perpetual piece of my identity.

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

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

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

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

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3. Archeology is not for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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6. I’m powerful beyond belief.

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

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

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

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

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***

So what’s the plan now?

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

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

Until next time!