Where the F**k Am I?

Comments 5 Standard

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

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

IMG_3175

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

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

IMG_3184

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

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

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

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

IMG_3197

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

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

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

And the answer isn’t coming any time soon.

* names changed

I still believe in America

Leave a comment Standard

A friend of mine (a woman of color) told me today that she struggled with figuring out how to be patriotic on the Fourth of July. And the truth is, I struggled with the same. We live in a country that was built on the backs of Native Americans and Africans. The state that I currently go to school in, California, is the result of Manifest Destiny, a combination of the hubris that the United States was destined by God to stretch from coast to coast and the racist belief that white Americans were inherently superior to the Native American and Mexican people who resided in the lands that American colonists were “destined” to take over. This country was not built for me, a queer brown person. Only about fifty years ago—literally on the birthdate of my mother—the Supreme Court decided that anti-miscegenation laws, laws that ban mixed race marriages, violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, a landmark Supreme Court case that let my parents marry. Only about three years ago did the Supreme Court narrowly decide that I, too, have a right to marry, although that right is in danger now.

The United States of America isn’t perfect. We have a long legacy of racism and discrimination. We fought a war amongst ourselves, mostly over the right to own black Americans as property, only about 150 years ago. We turned away Jewish children who were seeking refuge from the Holocaust. We interned Japanese Americans during World War II because we considered them a “security risk.” That was only deemed unconstitutional about a week ago, in the same Supreme Court case that argued it’s acceptable for the president to prevent entry into the United States from Muslim countries because Muslims are also supposedly a security risk. And we’ve separated children from their families and put them in literal cages after they fled from Central America in order to seek asylum here. Reunification of families has still yet to happen. It’s not that we’ve strayed from our values as a nation. The reality of it is that, in many ways, we never lived up to our values.

But at the same time, I’m not ready to give up on this country. The American Dream may be dead—or maybe it never truly existed for everyone?—but that doesn’t have to be the case. We can still be a country of compassion, a beacon of hope, a true leader for human rights. We can fix the social ills that plague us: unequal access to education, health disparities and lack of access to affordable healthcare, our discriminatory criminal justice policy, income inequality, our unjust immigration laws, and even structural oppression that creates so many barriers to success for women and trans people, people of color, queer people, low-income people, and people living in rural areas. We can work toward a society that we can truly be proud of, one that doesn’t simply worship wealth and the accumulation of capital but rather one that gives everyone a chance to succeed, regardless of who you are, where you came from, or what your background is.

All of this is so much easier said than done. I’m fully aware of the blissful naiveté that jumps off the screen as you read this blog post. All these social ills probably won’t be fixed in my lifetime, but the answer isn’t to give up or grow jaded. We have to keep fighting for a just and equal world.

Frankly, it doesn’t mean a whole lot to me that a bunch of wealthy white men who owned slaves signed a document declaring their freedom from the British Empire, which they believed was now trying to exert too much control over them. I don’t really care about the American “Revolution,” which wasn’t really all that revolutionary—it was a conservative movement by and for the elites, not a radical one. But what I do care about is the many people who have come before me trying to make this country a better place; I think of people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who was hated by about two-thirds of Americans, who literally died so that, one day, someone like me could have equal rights.

As the fireworks went off last night, I sat in awe. For a few minutes, I forgot about the research I was doing (on educational inequality and social mobility), and I was able to soak in the beauty in front of me. As someone who always tries to fight for what’s right, someone who is committed to social justice, it was nice to take a breath. But immediately after it was over, I couldn’t help but think about where I was watching the fireworks: a country club, a location that I only had access to because of a friend of a friend and an institution that has a long history of only accepting very wealthy white men. I wanted to just let myself think of the fireworks and turn this whole research project into an extended vacation of travel instead of actively thinking about inequality every step of the way. But at the same time, if we all did that, who would fight for justice?

I’m a big believer that every single one of us—yes, you included—should be working towards creating a better world. There are so many ways to do that, and each of us have skills and/or resources that we could devote to such aims. Probably unsurprising to most people reading this, I believe very strongly in the power of government and the political process to create change. It’s through government that we can be bold and create a country in which everyone has access to education, healthcare, and housing. We could very easily create a country in which no one lives in poverty—universal basic income, anyone? But at the same time, we have a government that no longer works for us. We have politicians—both Republicans and Democrats—who are beholden to corporate money and special interests instead of you and me, the people who have the power to decide whether that politician should even have a job in government.

I was inspired when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young twenty-something Latina from the Bronx, ousted one of the top Democrats in the House. I’m not even a democratic socialist like she is, but the way that she knocked on doors, made individual connections with people in her district, and seemed to actually genuinely care about making this country better was truly inspiring. And seeing people like her engaging in David vs. Goliath battles—and winning—gives me so much hope for the future… and so much hope for my future. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a career in politics, which has been dominated by wealthy straight white men since July 4, 1776. But what I do know is that I want to help make this country and this world a better place, in whatever capacity I can do that.

At this point in time, I think a PhD in anthropology is likely in my future. It’s still too early to be completely certain, but the more that I learn about the world, the more and more that I’m convinced that we need people who intentionally seek to understand others. Economists and political scientists hold a lot of political power in terms of creating policy solutions, but when you’re too focused on the numbers and the quantitative data, you can easily forget about the real human impact that policy has. And that’s where anthropologists (such as myself one day) need to be able to step in. Qualitative research and ethnographic data are so valuable for fixing our society, and I do believe that I’m morally obligated to use these skills that I’m currently being trained in through my undergraduate degree in anthropology (and hopefully a future doctoral degree in the same) to create this change. At the same time, I’m doing everything I can to try to get into a one-year master’s program in public policy here at Stanford and find a way to pay for it—I want to be able to both point out problems with depth and complexity and then be able to present possible ways to actually fix these problems.

I believe that I can help make a difference. And I believe that there are so many other people—including many of my friends—who will have the skills and the heart to help create positive change as well, to create a society in which all are valued and all have the opportunity to succeed and live their lives to the fullest.

And that’s why I’m not ready to give up on the United States. I love what we tell ourselves we are: a country of compassion, a country of freedom, a country where anyone can succeed. Maybe I’ve never truly believed in this country and all the ways that it has betrayed the world and ourselves in terms of our lack of compassion for the most vulnerable and our inability to be a society where anyone can rise above the circumstances of one’s birth. But I always have and always will believe in the possibility of who and what we can be: as a country, as a society, and as a world. And that’s what I’ll always continue fighting for.

The Summer of a Lifetime

Comments 4 Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you soon.