Family Matters

Avoiding political* conversations at family gatherings is commonly joked about, but obviously it stems from what many consider to be good advice. We don’t want to bring up controversial topics with our relatives lest we ruin an otherwise peaceful get-together. This leads to inevitable tongue-biting as your “sweet” great-aunt Lucy makes some borderline (or blatantly) racist remarks and recites sound bytes from her favorite political commentator. In my culture, as in many cultures around the world, respect for our elders is of the utmost importance, so when stuff like this happens we are taught to smile and keep our mouths shut. Does our silence make us complicit in the toxic, and deadly, mentality that continues to plague our world? And if so, when and how do we speak up?

The dining room a completely different battleground from the protests on the streets. No violence to document. No brutality to record. Just people who (allegedly) love each other, but have different ideas about the way the world is.

If we go out guns blazing, waving a flag of righteousness, and throwing out accusations of racism, not only will the conversation escalate very quickly into a senseless argument, you will also likely lose the respect of those you hoped to convince. Getting kicked-out or shunned by your family may feel righteous in the moment, and good for you for standing up for what you believe is right, but how does that help? You just cut-off any potential for having a meaningful conversation.

Self-identity is a simultaneously sensitive and stubborn thing. I guarantee your family members do not identify as racists (that doesn’t mean they are not), and so calling them something they are not only (or that they don’t consider themselves to be) puts them on the defensive right off the bat. They will be too busy defending their character to even consider what you have to say.

Instead, try to find common ground. See where your values align, and from there figure out where you values diverge. If they are family, they likely had a hand in raising you and thus played some role in your moral development. Appeal to that. They believe in equality and equity? Great! They think that murder is bad? Awesome! They don’t believe in institutionalized and systemic racism? Ok, let’s talk about that.

Be humble, but unwavering in your resolve. Keep in mind that however strong your beliefs, they likely have the same fervor (if not more) for their own. If you are unwilling to find value in their argument, how do you expect them to do the same for you? That doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, but it does mean you have to (as hard as it may be) recognize their good intentions.

Talk to them privately. Being called out in front the whole family is embarrassing and will be taken as a sign of disrespect. Be clear with your intentions and why you think what they said it problematic. It takes a lot for someone to admit they are (in the) wrong, even to themselves.

Talking about racism and injustice is hard. Talking about it with family is even harder. There is bound to be a lot of emotion. You’re angry and frustrated, and rightfully so, but you can’t let that get the better of you, because contrary to common practice, anger does not strengthen an argument. In fact, that’s exactly what great-aunt Lucy will be looking for, because from her perspective she is talking to an immature child, no matter how old are. That’s the truth, and she will look for any and every opportunity to label your argument invalid because it’s based on emotion rather than logic.

As such, the success of all of this depends on one crucial factor: knowing your shit. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s probably is better for you to stay quiet for the time being (again different from witnessing injustice on the streets), because if your aunties and uncles are anything like mine, they’ve got Fox news running in the background 24/7 and are full of talking points as to why racism is not an issue in America.

That doesn’t mean you should give up. Educate yourself. Learn about the issues. Come back armed with evidence.

Your family is not evil (hopefully), but their outdated and evil attitudes have been developed over years and years of harmful narratives, galvanized by propaganda and the silence of those too timid to speak up. And those attitudes are zealously safeguarded by the preservation of their personal worldview. So who are you, a mere child with zero life experience (comparatively), to tell them that their life is a lie?

Don’t expect to change their beliefs right then and there. Changing hearts and minds takes time. But give them the facts. Give them new information… something new to think about. In the end there’s a good chance no amount of evidence or passion will change them, and you may decide to agree to disagree for the sake of your relationship. That doesn’t mean you lost, because you have a crucial advantage – the power of youth (a la Might Guy). The fight doesn’t end at the dinner table. You have the opportunity to live your truth and act against injustice in your community for years to come. So use it. Talk your shit. Fight for a better world now and in the future.

*wanting to end racism and murder should not be matters of politics

When Compassion Fails

I talk a lot about the importance of having compassion and using a compassionate approach in all things, especially when dealing with people who think differently than you. But compassion is easily misunderstood as empathy and respect. Just because I am trying to understand the feelings of another person and I respect them doesn’t mean I sympathize with their beliefs. Compassion involves recognizing and trying to understand the suffering of others and then doing something to eliminate that suffering. Based on that definition, you cannot have compassion for those who inflict suffering. You can (try to) empathize with them and respect them as human beings, but you need not have compassion for them.

Except what I saw in the George Floyd video and what we have been witnessing around the country for since (and before) its inception is not human. The complete disregard for black lives that is occurring even up to now is sickening. It’s hard to imagine the amount poison a single person must have in their mind and in their heart to unflinchingly extinguish an innocent human life, and that poison is strong enough to contaminate the surrounding community.

As an Asian American, have I faced discrimination? Not really. My dad certainly did, and so did my ancestors. But from what they’ve described to me what they experienced is nothing compared to what black people face to this day all across this country and around the world. The violence, the looting, that’s what happens when change doesn’t happen fast enough (or at all). The question is why are people more outraged by the destruction of buildings and the loss of inventory than they are about the fact that people are dying at the hand of the police and “vigilantes” solely based on the color of their skin. I’m not saying the violence right, but peaceful approaches in support of the black community and protests against the police murdering of black people have been widely ignored and rebuked. Contrast that to just a few weeks ago when our federal governments scrambled to reopen the country as white people with assault rifles stood on the steps of government buildings demanding haircuts.

My least favorite phrase in all of this is “all lives matter.” What an useless and ignorant thing to say. Of course all lives matter. The problems is a good portion of the country doesn’t believe black lives matter. This is not some narrative spun up by the black community, or the media, or by liberals. If you are a black man in America you are around twice as likely to get killed by “law enforcement” than if you were any other race, whereas white man’s risk is less that of the average man (this already taking into account population sizes).1,2

Lastly, I also want to take a second to step back a detach any type of preconceived notions of morality. Imagine (if you don’t already believe) there is no absolute moral code. No right and wrong. Beliefs in morality come from background and experiences, but in the scope of the universe, there is no good and evil….there just is. Humans having been killing each other (and among other things) for all sorts of reason since the beginning of humankind. Does that make killing morally good? Certainly not. Does that make not killing morally good? Equally so. But we as humans evolved with unparalleled capacity for empathy, compassion, and cooperation that makes us in some ways objectively different from all other life on this planet.

It’s that capacity that compels some people to fight for those who are suffering; because something in their biology tells them that its right. For other’s, that same biology compels them to do hateful acts and makes them indifferent to the suffering of certain groups of people. But if we stand up for each other and if we fight for what we believe is right, I’m confident the compassion of the former will win out in the end…. and that would just be natures way.

  1. Edwards F, Esposito MH, Lee H. Risk of police-involved death by race/ethnicity and place, United States, 2012–2018. American journal of public health. 2018 Sep;108(9):1241-8.
  2. Edwards F, Lee H, Esposito M. Risk of being killed by police use-of-force in the US by age, race/ethnicity, and sex. PNAS 2019 Aug;116(34):16793-16798

27 May 2020

I had the same dream again. Almost exactly. I even woke up at the same times. Only this time, after waking up at 2 am and staring into empty doorway, I swear for a brief moment I could make out what looked like a face before it receded into the darkness. I don’t know how to describe it. It looked like no one and everyone at the same time. Just a shadowy, nondescript visage.

Then at 5, after again feeling it lie next to me, I turned over to check, and saw light indentations on the other pillow and in my sheets, as if someone had been there.

It’s got to be all in my head. My brain giving meaning to otherwise unremarkable things.

I ran my hands over the linens to flatten them out, closed my eyes, and tried to go back to sleep. It feels closer than ever.

26 May 2020

Last night was different that usual. It was pretty much dreamless. At one point I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming or just lying in bed awake with my eyes closed. Though somehow I could tell it was still dark in my room. There was a knock at my door and I grunted in acknowledgement as I usually do expecting the familiar voice of someone in my family.

But there was only silence. Then I heard the doorknob click and the door creek open. I cracked my eyes open to see a shadowing figure in my doorway. The figure was more or less the shape of a person, but something was off. That’s when I felt the now familiar chill of its presence. Now conscious as if woken from a nightmare, I opened my eyes fully to get a better look. It was gone and the doorway was empty, but the door itself was open. Maybe I just left it open last night, I thought.

I opened my phone to check the time: 2:00 am. I eased back into sheets and closed my eyes, trying to fall back asleep. Moments later, in the uncertainty between dream and reality, I could feel a soft shift in pressure, as if someone…or something was climbing into my bed and then laid down opposite me. It was back. Conscious once again, I opened my eyes and turned to the other side of the bed, not sure what I was expecting to see. Empty.

I checked the time again: it was 5:00 am.

25 May 2020

It seems to be getting even more comfortable now. At first, the moment I would notice its presence it would suddenly disappear. Now it seems to linger a little longer after drawing my attention….unless I’m just becoming more sensitive to it. But I swear it’s not only in my dreams anymore. Just closing my eyes, any time of day, I can feel its eager gaze fixate on me from just beyond the corner of the darkness.

It almost feels lonely, yet it doesn’t want me to know it’s there. I’m not sure what it wants, but if I can find out, maybe it’ll go away.

24 May 2020

I’ve been having some pretty vivid dreams lately. All of them have been distinct from each other; different settings, different people, different stories, everything different….except one small thing. In every one, there’s this figure….or presence rather (I’ve never actually seen it) that watches me from a distance, and it’s been going on for a while so I thought I’d keep a record of it.

At first I thought it was a one-time thing, but soon it was every week. Then it was every other night, and now every night. I thought I could just ignore it. Ignore it and it’ll go away, I’d tell myself. But it’s still there and starting to become familiar. The thing is, it doesn’t feel particularly threatening. In fact, its presence is almost gentle, yet unsettling at the same time.

Now I’m not a huge believer in ghost or supernatural beings, but this experience makes me understand how people can believe in such things. Though I’m sure there’s reason for it. Probably just this whole quarantine thing messing with my brain chemistry.

An End to Care-Shaming

I always found it interesting how we often praise and admire people who “don’t care about what other people think.” It always seemed like a very selfish mindset to me.

While the intention of the ideal is to promote self-service, that doesn’t have to include being inconsiderate. Yet some people act like it does and I think we are seeing a lot of that in some public spaces right now.

I’ll be honest, caring less about what other people think is something I’ve aspired to because I think at times I care too much. But every time I see a “motivating” social media that tells people to ignore other people, I cringe a little because the people who don’t care enough probably see that as an affirmation of their indifference. And the people who care too much may feel like they need to step on everyone else around them to be successful and happy.

It’s ok to care. Just because you care what other people think does not mean you have to be dependent on what they think. Don’t be disappointed in yourself if you crave the validation of others. We are hardwired to seek connection and affirmation.

There are some people you are never going to get approval from, that’s the reality, so sure discount their opinions, but don’t discount their humanity and don’t let them harden your heart. The capacity for compassion and for empathy is a gift, if you let anyone take that from you then the bad guys win.

Compassion First

Chances are you’ve heard of the wild protests against the stay-at-home orders, business closures, etc. And so you’ve likely seen the footage of all these crazed people congregating in the street and on the steps on government buildings, often with zero PPE in sight. For most people with a shred of common sense, this sight in infuriating.

Before we get angry at these people, we should take a second and try to think why they are out there. Okay, a good number of them are probably upset that their beaches, bars, and hangout spots are closed, but I’m sure there are also those out there who want to get back to work because they lost their jobs and simply can’t afford to live of their current saving and government assistance.

I’m fortunate that I worked from home even prior to the onset of the pandemic and that I am currently writing this from my childhood home where I really have no expenses. However, not everybody is so lucky. Granted places like Huntington Beach are filled with affluent, privileged people who have no good reason to be protesting, but what about people who depend on their patronage?

If you thought that the $1200 “stimulus” payment was pitiful then you should be able to understand why some people want to get back to work.

Let me be clear though, I think the protests are misguided and dangerous, as are the people who participate. The question is how do we reach these people? Through yelling at them through our computer screens? What’s the purpose of getting angry?

You might be mad because that’s just your knee jerk reaction to seeing people do stupid stuff. But who is that for? Certainly not yourself, most people don’t like feeling angry. Maybe you’re angry so that the people you’re angry at will realize what their doing is bad, but that severely overestimates the empathic capabilities of people with a cause, especially zealots. Perhaps most reasonably, you are mad for the people that this harmful behavior is hurting; the healthcare workers, other essential service providers, the vulnerable but how does your anger and outrage help them? Anger may strengthen your resolve and your passion internally, but externally it cheapens them.

If you want people to see things from your point of view you have to appeal to things they care about. Fortunately as humans, we often share common values, at least when if comes to the most basic core values. Where we differ is how we live out/ achieve/ prioritize those values.

Get angry. Just don’t let them see it. When you see those angry protesters, do you think, “These people must be educated, knowledgeable, and conscientious!” Don’t stoop to their level. Throw a fit. But then think critically and try to solve more problems than your create. Physical distancing and isolation are currently the most effective way to reduce the number of preventable deaths, but it’s not a perfect system. Be humble, stay informed, and act accordingly.

Borderless

It’s been another one of those months where there seems to be a theme that keeps popping up in my daily life seemingly unintentionally, but consistently. I’ve thought about how technology connects us to the rest of the world in unprecedented ways before, but usually in terms of digital technology (likely because of my generational bias); the internet, computers, cell phones, smart phones, etc. In finishing off the The Sixth Extinction and watching Tiger King on Netflix and in light of this global pandemic, I’ve been thinking more and more about the physical borderlessness of our modernity.

Today a person, animal, or plant (or virus) can be on the other side of the world in less than a day. Animals use to evolve in ways that best suited them to their environment, and now we alter environments to best suit humans. Rivers, mountains, oceans, are mere inconveniences to modern man.

In The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert describes her conversations and experiences with some of the top experts on human history, one of which is trying to complete the Neanderthal genome in order to see what makes us, Homo sapiens, so special. The  expert talks about the potential existence of a “madness” gene(s); something that compelled Homo sapiens to look at a mountain range and decide to climb over it, to look at the ocean and try to cross it. And to not only try those things, but to believe something worthwhile would be on the other side. The same “madness” that compels man to explore the depths of the ocean and the endlessness of space–to be borderless.

Countless species, human and non-human, have existed on this planet for lengths of time that make humanity look like the smallest dot of Jackson Pollock painting, and yet none have single-handedly altered this planet as quickly as we have. This impact is largely to our complete disregard for the natural barriers (for whatever reasons) that have controlled the spread of so many species before us. Even now with the world at our fingertips via the internet, during the present shelter-in-place situation, we have this itching to escape the confines of our homes.

This isn’t meant to be an indictment against man or to condemn those idiots who disregard social distancing guidelines, because our “destiny” to change this planet and to explore is etched into our DNA. There’s no “going back” to living with nature because that was never (at least according to current evidence) how humans lived. Plants and animals across the world were going extinct due to human influence (likely unbeknownst to the humans of that time) long before we started burning fossil fuels. The damage is done. The world is now pretty much borderless, a “New Pangea as some like to say, and many of the effects are irreversible for one reason or another.

You can’t really blame us though. Humans, like all living things (and some non-living ones) do what they know. In the absence of limiting forces, all species on this planet would take over the entire world. The only difference is humans were actually able to overcome most of our limits, and as a consequence we have been responsible for the destruction of many unique and irreplaceable organisms that the world may never see the likes of again. In the absence of absolutist morality its hard to say if that’s for better or worse–it just is (as was the case in the previous 5 mass extinction events). In all likelihood, any other species would do the same if given the opportunity. Though unlike any other species, we may be able to actively do something about it (again for better or worse).

Humans are amazing creatures. The command we now have over the physical world is impressive, and at times scary. We have been able to send man into space, to directly engineer new life forms, and uncover secrets about the very fabric of existence. In our infancy we lacked the foresight and knowledge to know how our actions would effect our future and the future of this planet. Now all we lack, generally, is the foresight. Living in a state of equilibrium with our environment is humanity’s oldest problem, and we are finally able to fully recognize that.

We are at turning point in the history of this planet, and I would love to be a historian/ paleontologist equivalent (maybe even extraterrestrial) hundreds of thousands of years from now trying to figure out, based on what humans know at this point in time, what we will choose to do and how that plays out for us in our now borderless world.