This is a post for all the women who put their sweat, blood and tears into work that goes unappreciated, unrecognized, underpaid, and taken for granted. For you who feel you are alone. I see you.
This post is to be read as a self-affirmation.

I am the person who gives chances. I come back again and again to the same place to fight the battle in the hopes of winning.

I am the one who reaches.

I am the one who returns to hope after years.

I am the one who organizes.

I am the one who remembers the good.

I am naive.

I am the one who believes people will change.

I am the one who has hope.

And one day, I will triumph.

I will be the one who triumphs.

I will be the one who succeeds.

I will be victorious in the end.

In the end, there are no sides.

You were mine all along.

In the end, I will triumph.

Thoughts on Indian Matchmaking

Indian mmkingBy now, I’m sure you’re all aware of the show Indian Matchmaking on Netflix. The show is being called “divisive” and is said to show a “skewed perspective” on Indian culture according to reviewers +that I Googled like 10 minutes ago. I guess I’m not surprised, but I think those people are kind of missing the radical potential of this show. As always, this review has got spoilers, so if you want to watch the show, do that first!

The show centers on Seema Taparia, a woman who calls herself “Mumbai’s top matchmaker”. Seema claims her job is “based on good faith,” which is terrifying to hear as a scientist. She’s essentially saying her job depends on human beings not wanting to fuck each other over. This woman’s job is hard, y’all. I would rather be the person who does the mathematics for finding black holes than do her job. So on that level alone, I have great respect and appreciation for this woman.

The show is interesting because like life, it doesn’t have any set starting point or ending point. It offers way less closure and hand-holding than most American reality TV shows about dating. In the first two episodes, we follow the stories of two women, Aparna and Nadia, and one man, Pradhyuman in their process of finding a life partner. As the episodes progress, they add more people to the mix.

So other reviewers are touting Aparna as their feminist savior, but I find her to be at best kind of annoying. I really tried to like her. I want to relate to her because I suspect I’ll be in the same position myself, looking for a life partner at 34 years old, but for very different reasons. To me, she comes off as a workaholic with no chill. The second guy Seema sets her up with, Dilip, literally backs off because Aparna says she doesn’t know what she would do on a 10-day vacation and would prefer 3 days instead. She seems to have drank ALL the assimilated, middle-class Kool-Aid. And yea, I know, that alone probably isn’t a valid reason to not like her (though I’m like, dude, that’s why men won’t stay in your life. Because you’re asking for a robot, not a human being). But I think the point at which I was most disappointed was when she gets annoyed with Shekar because he, get this, has a conversation with one of the waiters at a restaurant. I don’t know about you all, but I think anyone who is kind to service workers is a good person. Apparently, Aparna does not. She gets annoyed because all of his attention is not on her. At that point, I was like, I’m done with this broad. How self-centered can you be?

Nadia was the second person to appear in the eligible singles lineup. I loved listening to her talk about her background. As another Indian who comes from a community nobody has ever heard of, I totally relate to her when she talks about being Guyanese, and how confused Indians from larger communities get about people from underrepresented communities. She also seemed like a sweet, fun person. I love that she’s a dancer. I got so mad at Vinny for abandoning her because I was like, I just want this woman to fall in love and be so happy! So it was really sweet at the end when she was talking to Shekar. They’re both such great people.

Pradhyuman is located in Mumbai and is a jewelry designer. In the United States, the equivalent of Pradhyuman would be one of those white guys with long hair who lives in either LA or Colorado, drinks kombucha all the time and practices Buddhism. In India, you’re still required to have some sense of pragmatism, but Pradhyuman seems like such a brooding-artisty type. He rejects girl after girl claiming that he wants to feel attraction. In the end, he seems to fall for a model from Delhi who Seema set him up with. Someone in the show called him shallow at one point, and I kinda agree.

The next bachelor who appears on the show is one of my favorites–Vyasar. A guidance counselor who lives with his mom, brother, uncle, and grandparents, Vyasar is a gentle giant with a big heart and a great sense of humor. He also has some skeletons in his closet–he reveals later in the season that his parents are divorced and his father was in jail for a lot of his childhood. He feels anxious to share this with his potential wives, claiming at one point that his family had to “throw respectability out of the window”. It breaks my heart that people would judge or reject someone so kind for that reason. Seema encourages him to be honest with his second match and tell her his story.

The next bachelor to appear on the show is Akshay, who is a fascinating character. He goes through a subtle transformation from when he appears to the last episode. Mostly, I feel sorry for him because his mother wants him to be married by the age of 25. God only knows why this woman thinks 25 is the right age, but she was really hell-bent. We learn that Akshay went to school in Boston. I can imagine it must have been hard to go from having the independence of living alone to being back in your mother’s house.

Akshay gets 70 proposals or something and is not interested in a single one. I feel like in some alternate universe, it would have been interesting to see how he develops if he moved out of his parents’ house, away from such pressure to get married. His mom would probably die just hearing about it. I do think he is a little young and has not quite figured himself out yet, which can cause problems in a marriage. His mom has done so much of his thinking for him. However, it was really cute to watch him fall in love with his fiancee. The second he meets Radhika, he claims “her eyes are so captivating, it’s hard to take my eyes off her”. I was like, we may yet make a romantic out of you, Akshay! In the episodes that follow, we watch him call this girl when he is on business trips and hang on to her every word like a helpless puppy. Eventually, he agrees to get engaged to her. From a cold, reserved young man, he becomes someone whose every thought is about a woman. I think if that’s how this process can change people, maybe it’s not half bad. akshay and radhika

Ankita has by far, the most interesting story to me because of what it says about matchmakers. Ankita comes to Seema looking for proposals, but Seema feels out of her league in this case. Ankita is the owner of a startup clothing company, and she is a far cry from traditional. Her relatives started looking for matches for her when she was 23, and told her she should lose weight to be attractive to men. Though it causes her pain to hear these things, she says no and holds her ground, claiming that if a man does not like her the way she is, then she does not want to be married.

Seema enlists the help of her friend Geeta, another matchmaker, who claims to “better understand this generation”. But from her interactions with Ankita, it seems like Geeta’s idea of being in touch with younger people is to chastise young women into submission so that they say yes to any proposals they are given. In short, it looks like sexism. Geeta forgets to mention the first match she gives Ankita is a divorcee, completely losing Ankita’s trust when she finds out. By contrast, Seema tries to play up the strengths of the people she matches. Sometimes she makes character judgments based on her experience of who is easy to match with others, but that seems like a different approach than telling girls to just give up on their hopes and dreams altogether. Ankita is probably the person on the show I would most likely be friends with. In the end, she decides not to get married, choosing instead to focus on her startup and her friendships. (That scene with the friend honestly gave me subtle queer vibes. A girl can hope! I’m always holding out on y’all to be a bunch of huge gays).

So yea, we get a look into an industry that makes billions of dollars (trillions of rupees?) in India. It’s interesting to see the biodata that Seema puts together. Throughout the show, you get the impression that everyone asks for the same thing in a partner, more or less, and they are usually expecting way too much. Women will say “I want a tall, handsome guy who loves family, communicates clearly, is a good person” vagaira vagaira. Men will say “I want a slim, educated girl who is a little bit traditional but not crazy, and who loves family but also has ambition” vagaira vagaira. And then Seema has to put together this biodata that really sells a person up–it’s almost like a marriage resume. The part I found interesting was the category called “community”–she sometimes includes a phrase or two about what caste or part of India her clients are from. There was plenty from that section that I looked up on Google–what is a Marwari, Maheshwari, Baniya, Khatri. On the one hand, I don’t believe caste signifies anything about a person, but on the other, there are whole sections of humanity I don’t know about because I grew up in the United States.

All in all, I would say for a reality TV show, Indian Matchmaking is a stylish yet human look at the process of finding a life partner. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “best foot forward”. How much pressure is on young adult Desis to look respectable as a potential partner? The sad truth is in the 21st century, there is still a considerable amount.

Love Letter to Every Man I Ever Loved

I can’t remember if it’s Alok Vaid-Menon or Rupi Kaur who said this, but I think I am still in love with every single one of my exes. The thought is terrifying, but it’s a distinct possibility. Even if I hate some of them, I have to have trusted them at one point to feel so betrayed now, right?

I really hate this whole “I have feelings” thing. I went a good 24 years without any, and I felt so much better then! Everything makes me cry now. Those episodes in Avatar: The Last Airbender where Aang loses Appa make me cry. Stupid little memes about how people show kindness to one another make me cry. The internet is no place for someone with feelings.

Ugh. I hate how badly I want to show this part of myself. I’m supposed to hide it forever. If I put it out here on the internet, humanity is just waiting to eat me alive. I’m like, taking a huge breath just to even type this stuff out.

So this is my love letter to every man I ever loved.

I know half of you are probably in relationships right now, so I’m going to preface this by saying I am not trying to make you break up with her. I’ve got a partner, too. What I’m beginning to discover is that being single or not single are actually not that different…there’s not really a line. But that post is for another day.

I just want you to know I wish I had waited to tell you I love you. I wish I could have told you now instead. If I had waited, then maybe I could have given you my whole heart. It turns out that is something I had to learn. I didn’t know how to give someone my whole heart before now. If I had waited until now, I would have given it to you. Without hesitation.

I just want you to know I think I’m an idiot for not doing that. I think I’m a coward for not putting my whole self, my whole soul, and everything I am capable of into being with you. It took until now for me to understand that every human life is precious. Every moment I get to spend with another human being is precious. Every moment I got to spend with you was precious. Out of thousands of humans, you and I got to spend a little bit of life together. I hope everyone you meet feels so lucky.

I see all the good you are doing, even if you don’t. You bring such joy to people you love. You pursue such big dreams, even when it is risky or when you are uncertain. You show kindness to people. I should have said these things when I was right there next to you. It makes me guilty saying it now. I’ve turned out like my mother. I say sorry long after it’s relevant. I hope I figure out how to say it sooner for the sake of my current partner.

And now that you’re gone, I just miss you. I miss the strangest things. I miss your voice. I miss the way you reach across the table and hold my hand when we are drinking tea together. I miss watching the expressions on your face change. Is that strange? I miss your shoes. Men’s shoes are so not like the ones I wear. So simple and monochromatic. I wonder what it’s like to wear them. I wonder what it’s like to be you, to be told to hide your feelings from a young age, to be told not to show affection to other men, to be told the only way you can ever be close to people is to be in straight, romantic relationships. Will you come back to me? Not, like, to forgive me or with conditions or all that other crap, but will you just be here with me? Just be with me. I don’t need you to forgive me. I don’t need you to be romantic with me, and I definitely don’t need sex. I just remember what it feels like to be connected with you. To be two human beings together.

Oh my love. I’m only 28 now. Imagine what I’ll be like at 48.

Thinking of you makes me cry. I will only remember your face and your body the way I knew it, whatever age you were then. We will not stay like that, though. You and I will age and change, we will grow wrinkly and gain weight or lose weight or lose our hair or our hair will turn gray. That thought makes me laugh, but only a little giggle in the middle of me crying.

I will grieve when you die. I will carry the little mark you made on my heart. If I die before you, then God is good. But I suspect it will not happen that way. I don’t know why. Call it a hunch.

Selfishly, I am not going to tell you I hope all your dreams come true. I mean, I do hope it. Sort of. I hope you live a happy life. But I also want you to remember me. I hope sometimes, when you are rocking your new-born child to sleep for the fourth time in a night, the thought of me creeps into your mind. Or maybe some song will come on the radio, and you will think of me. And there we will be, thinking of each other and not telling each other. Life is long, friend. Neither you nor I know what will happen. After only 200 hours of counseling experience, I can attest it goes rather strangely.

Goodnight for now, then, loved ones. It’s for my past loves, but I know you’ve gained something from it, too.

Thoughts on Staying Connected

20200224_161221This is a sad week, y’all. The Universe has taken both Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor from us within two days. (I am slightly consoled, though, that neither died of Covid). I imagine they would get along with Omar Shariff in the afterlife, if they met.

Well, life is long, huh? It’s been over a month since COVID-19 precautions were put in place in the United States. It feels like the flavor has gone out of life. I used to think having a lot of down time would be great, but honestly, there is something missing when you have nothing but down time every day. I feel as if some piece of my spirit has gone to sleep. Where there were once sounds and smells and touch, there is only the memory of those things. I feel no desire any more. I used to live to eat, now I feel like I eat to live. Modern psychology would say I’m clearly depressed, to which my response would be duh. People are dying out here.

Sometimes I think to myself, the hardest thing about life is connection to other people. This might not be true for everybody, but for queer South Asian me, it feels like it is. The closer I get to home, the harder it gets. Somehow, in my adult years, I understand what it means to form a healthy connection and what it means for other people to respect who I am. I seek people with better communication skills. I have a solid group of people that I can talk to about my feelings. I have planned my escape routes for when things go wrong. It took a long time, but I’ve figured it out.

It was not like that when I was young. There’s this direction I get from my peer counselors sometimes, where they tell me imagine living as though you prioritize your life as a woman. I wish anybody had told me that even one time in the 18 years I lived at home. On one hand, I am so thankful to my parents for really going after connection with other Indian families. It has helped me resist assimilation in ways that other Indian descendants living in the US have not. On the other hand, I don’t think there was a single woman figure I grew up with that was not subservient to some male counterpart–whether that was her husband, brother, father, or somebody else. So I wholeheartedly believed I was doing the right thing in giving all my power to male friends and being small so they could take up space.

This is not to say I believe all men are bad and should be beaten down for being sexist. I think every human being is good, and the ways they hurt other people only shows the ways they themselves were hurt in the past. I think if we actually want sexism to subside, we need to look at how isolating it is to be a man. We make them be alone in ways we do not force women to be. In addition, men need healthier outlets for the crap they’re carrying around–and that should not include dependence on women to help them unpack emotions. They need to be given the tools to be able to figure it out among themselves.

But I have digressed. How does this relate to connection?

There is something about looking at something ugly and not running away. I think this is the thing young social justice communities accuse elders of all the time, but ironically have not figured out how to do themselves. (Like let’s be real, when we don’t like something, we run away from it. I would know. How do queer communities react when conflict arises? They vilify one another usually until someone can’t show their face in public any more. What do we do when someone points out our mistakes? We try our best to hide, or at least lay low for a little while.) We have inherited policing so well from our elders that now we do it to one another. If you are not 100% on board with OUR politics and OUR perspectives and OUR rhetoric, you are not one of us. You MUST practice our way or we WILL kick you out.

There is something about showing our feelings that we have forsaken. “Community organizing” among young adults has been reduced to an intellectual pursuit, a discussion about ideas where we barely acknowledge the presence of other people, barely connect with the humanity that is right in front of us. We talk some big talk about self-care and feelings and all that, but when it’s down to the wire, when was the last time you cried in front of someone else? There is something that one of the Jewish leaders in my peer counseling region says:

The key to courage is to weep and rage about the despair and hurt we see, never turning away even if it breaks our hearts. After each cry, we are renewed with deeper commitment, can take the next step and consider the next challenge with our full intelligence, flexibility and love. -L. Friedman

I have to remind myself of this frequently. As I reach for my own community again in my (not) old age, I have to let my heart break sometimes to know that nothing has changed. I have to look at these people I so badly want with me on my journey and weep that I might wait for the rest of my life for them to join me. And every time I show heartbreak, I am reminded that showing feelings is an act of courage, even if I am the only person who believes it. If I am really lucky, and if I do not run away, someone might agree with me.

I look forward to communities where we stick with one another even when things get hard. I imagine young people who remember of one another that we are good and that sometimes good people make mistakes. And at my most ambitious, I imagine that when things get hard, we show how it feels. We stay through the awkwardness and discomfort, because that is what it means to be resources to one another. There is nothing shameful about messiness. And there is the added bonus of strengthening our relationships, so that we are no longer living in pretense.

Thoughts on the Tensorate Series

BTOHSo my partner recently handed me the Tensorate series by Jy Yang and…Wow! That was a great decision.

The Tensorate Series consists of 4 novellas written by Jy Yang. They follow a loose timeline around the lives of the Sanao twins, Akeha and Mokoya. I love the world Yang created as a backdrop to these stories. Yang lives in Singapore, and their surroundings seem to influence their writing. Throughout each novel, we see a country, the Protectorate, that is an actual melting pot: people of various Asian backgrounds, religions, classes, all roiling together in the same stew, rubbing up against one another. There is still stratification in the Protectorate–for instance, the Kuanjin ethnicity seems to be privileged over Kebangilans and Gauris–but there is also an awareness of this in Yang’s writing that I rarely see in fictional novels. If anything, they bring the differences to the forefront to be commented upon. Characters are not shy about noticing one another’s differences and are not frowned upon for bringing it up as much as people would be in the United States. I enjoy hearing the Asian-ness in the writing.

While Yang’s writing style remains impressive throughout the series, I think the soft spot in my heart is always for Akeha’s story, The Black Tides of Heaven. This title comes from a saying that Akeha’s lover says, “The black tides of heaven director the courses of human lives…but as with all waters, one can swim against the tide” (166). Yongcheow says this to Akeha when Akeha claims his mother believes he is a mistake. Akeha is a lovable brute. Perhaps this says more about me than him, but I relate to him greatly. As a child, he is dauntless, reckless. It is interesting to watch him navigate his bond with his sister when they are children. At the time, both Mokoya and Akeha are non-binary. They live in a society that confirms gender later in life than at birth. Mokoya is clearly a controlling factor in Akeha’s life. He seems to put her wishes and desires before his own. I actually felt proud of him when he yanked the reins of his life out of Mokoya’s hands. He confirms his gender as a man (an unexpected move–none of the Protector’s other children were men), and promptly leaves the Protectorate for 18 years. To, you know, grow up and shit.

My heart breaks for him when he leaves Thennjay. Sadly, I don’t have much sympathy for Mokoya in the first book. She seems spoiled and a little ungrateful. Maybe also, it’s queerer for Thennjay to love Akeha than to love Mokoya. (I have no biases here at all, obviously). He gets just one kiss for all those feelings he has. Then he wanders into the woods to become Yongcheow’s honey and a Machinist. All in all, I think Akeha does pretty well for himself. I love a good rebellion, and it seems like a good choice to put our endearingly grumpy murderer twin in its waiting hands.

My heart breaks for him again when his niece dies. The irony of the century is when Akeha finally comes home after she dies. I remember reading that part and thinking, dammit Keha, couldn’t you have stopped being a butt-hurt little shit some time before that moment? There is something about stories that are both beautiful and sad, though. They are always the most memorable to me.

The other three novellas take us on a roller coaster of narrative styles. The Red Threads of Fortune tell us about Mokoya’s perspective after her accident. I like that Yang chose to write her in that way. She becomes a much more approachable character as a slightly broken, grieving mother than as The Prophet Of The Protectorate Married To The Head Abbot. Things I like about this book: Rider does really cool things with the slack. Mokoya fights with Thennjay Sometimes. Good to know. Mokoya and Akeha love each other. Yay. There’s a background thread of how the Machinists, the Monastery, and the Protectorate are kind of all at odds with each other, but it gets a little lost. The plot that I was most interested in was the one of intrigue and betrayal between Rider and Mokoya, and what they find out about Wanbeng.

In the third book, The Descent of Monsters, Yang takes a turn into darker secrets of the Protectorate. Of the four novellas, I thought this was the darkest one. I don’t know if it was meant to be hokey, but there are times when Chuwan Sariman is so oppositional to authority that it’s over-the-top. Granted, she does seem justified. The authorities are kind of gross in this book. They seem totally cool with sweeping the deaths of several people under the rug, not to mention the torture and abuse of several children. Maybe this was one of those Star Wars things: make really hard political themes easier to swallow with goofy and lovable main characters. The narrative style was also great, but presents a few pacing problems. For example, since we gain information through reports, interviews, and journal entries, the big reveal about the prophet-children does not feel as big as it possibly could have been. We only really know it is true at the very end. We spend a lot of time wandering around the lab, but some of it is repetitive. This is fair, since a number of the characters experience the same crime scene, but perhaps it could have been done just once–in Rider’s journal, for example–and the reader would get a feel for why covering up what happened at the lab is so horrific.

Lastly, The Ascent to Godhood takes us on a more intimate, sentimental journey. In this novella, we learn about Lady Han’s relationship with the Protector. After reading this book, my thoughts were that the Protectorate has seen some shit! Also, the Protector’s family is a riot. I’m not sure why, but I felt like pacing was again slightly off. Granted, it is a drunken monologue by Lady Han. Perhaps questionable pacing is the point. I feel the story could be improved if pacing was done more intentionally. For example, if Lady Han kept going back and forth in time, then the lurches might make sense. Again, Yang seems to skip over the parts that are truly revealing. A lot of groundwork was laid for Hemana’s betrayal of Hekate, but there didn’t seem to be as much for Hekate’s betrayal of Han. The reason is there and justified, but it comes as a small revelation, followed swiftly by the arrival of Xiuqing and Han’s escape. The end is actually more interesting to me than the beginning–and in other stories about rebellion leaders, such as Lawrence of Arabia or even The Empire Strikes Back, we get to see more of a before-and-after turning point that makes a rebellion leader. Then again, a novella is a rather different art form than a feature-length film. Perhaps the beginning–Lady Han and Hekate as young women–was all Yang wanted to get across.

In short, Yang has done some stunning work with this series. There are deep insights about gender, resistance, and being human embedded in each novella, and Yang does a great job of not hitting you over the head with some tired message. The characters in the series experience development and honest emotions like grief, fear, resentment, jealousy, and triumph. They also get to have secrets, which I feel makes them even more human and engaging. I deeply appreciate the world Yang created. Even with magic, it’s a reflection of a world that feels more real to me than that of most other books.

Thoughts on Wordslut

wordslutSo I recently read Wordslut (2019) by Amanda Montell. I have mixed feelings about the book. On the one hand, the writing is very good. Montell has a great sense of humor and keeps my attention throughout the entire book. This is an impressive feat–my attention span is pretty short and my next blog post would have been 6 months from now if it had not been interesting. But after reading through the whole thing, I think it also has some glaring shortcomings.

I do appreciate that Montell is a Millenial who really has her generation’s back. It’s refreshing to find a non-fiction, academic book that is written by someone who was born after 1985. It is rare for someone that young to write non-fiction that is significant enough that it’s on the New Non-Fiction shelf in the library. Montell’s tone is prosaic, which I think is a strength; she really isn’t trying to impress academia by showing how much linguistics jargon she knows. Her writing is accessible, and that’s really fucking important. It can reach a wider audience because it is not trying to be a textbook. In addition, she is very affirming of young women (111), queers (229) and Black folks (95) and how they all use language. Indeed, the claim could be made that these are the people who invent new language all the time. This is a notable quality–all of these populations have a significant impact on our country. Just look at how much Democrats start crying when they don’t show up to vote.

One of the more important points made is that men and women fundamentally use language differently. Men mostly seem to use it to put forth ideas, or request or exchange information. Women seem to use it for SO much more. Women use language to create trust, to enforce relationships, to reach consensus, and to navigate a myriad of fluctuating social dynamics (125). On a sarcastic note, this makes me wonder why we allow men to speak at all. Their use of language is so limited. Though I also realize, this is probably what we condition both genders to do. Women have access to the fullness and richness of language, while men are encouraged to eschew it. This would account for why women, and not men, are adept at communicating feelings. To me, this is sad. We systematically set men up to fail at the things that bring people closer together. Their violence betrays the isolation society conditions them into.

One of the shortcomings of Wordslut is that it is so English-centric. Montell does use examples from other languages to explain certain things about English, like how people who speak Yoruba explain siblings (143) or how in the Native language Kwak’wala, you can’t pronounce certain words without vocal fry (117). But much of the book focuses on English-speaking media and how non-mobile, older, rural men (NORMs) (127) treat young (white?) women. I feel like the feminism of the book could have really been strengthened if there was any information in it about folks who are bilingual, multilingual or people for whom English is a second language. How do those populations conceptualize gender and sex using the English language? In what ways are their accents and butcherings of English actually radical? I realize that since linguistics is still so young a field, this information might not exist yet. But diluting the whiteness of any non-fiction work is definitely something I encourage by any means possible, and it feels like it could have been possible in this case.

I also feel like a weakness of the book is that it does not talk about how English has been a colonizing force in the world. What does colonization have to do with feminism, you say? Well, it played a huge role in subjugating women, frequently forcing them to become even more objectified since they were able to give birth and thereby produce a labor force. Colonizers like their labor forces because their lazy asses don’t like doing work themselves. What contributions have those years of colonization (and it’s like, a good 500 years) had on the language? We know language changes in as short a time as 50 years. Surely this process has affected the English language, the language spoken by what was once one of the largest colonizing nations on the planet? Yet nothing is said on this subject.

All in all, Wordslut is a fun book that scratches the surface of what feminism in the English language could look like. However, I find the premise on which it is written to be a little naive. The truth of becoming a gender-equal society requires looking at the ugly history of what English has been used for. Should the dominant language of the world be one that came to dominate through unparalleled violence? Should we expect we will gain gender equality by continuing to speak this language? Sure, these were not the questions Montell set out to answer. But in the world right now, where the governments of large and powerful populations are leaning far enough to the right to be called fascist, can we afford to ignore these truths? Can we afford to think that we should focus only on our own (very wealthy and very powerful) country? I think the spirit of optimism is important to carry out our hopes for a better world, but not without looking critically at the English language.

Thoughts on 9 1/2 Weeks

9.5 weeksWow, so I watched 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) yesterday after this friend suggested it. Sometimes I question this person’s sense of normal, so I was hesitant to watch the movie at first. The description on Google contains some hints of kink and that alone puts me on edge. But I found the movie easily enough on Netflix and I had nothing to do on a Tuesday night, so I figured why not?

The movie stars Mickey Rourke as John, a Wall Street trader, and Kim Basinger as Elizabeth, an art gallery assistant. It is set in the 80’s. Admittedly, I kinda both hate and love the 80’s. I hate that nearly every male protag of that era is a white Wall Street guy. I also hate that it is around the time when being worryingly skinny becomes quite stylish for women. In all the scenes where Elizabeth is in her underwear, you can totally see her hip bones. Basinger wears preteen-sized panties in which my South Asian thighs would probably tear a hole. But also, it’s a great decade for fashion. Basinger is often dressed to the nines in lacy tops, translucent camis, flowy skirts, garter straps, high heels, lipstick, heavy gray eye shadow, and heavy dark eye liner. Then on top of that, she’ll wear a giant shaggy man-sized coat, or something with shoulder pads the size of the Empire State Building. It’s fantastic. In one scene, she’s literally in men’s clothes. I love the androgyny, and also the extreme dissonance of masculine and feminine aesthetic in the same outfit.

I also love the music choices in this crazy movie. The brilliance of using a Eurythmics song, a band that conjures images of disillusionment about love, to a scene where Elizabeth is masturbating. I think the opening song is “I do What I Do” by John Taylor–another great choice. Those haunting questions–“Do I touch the way you want to be touched? Have you heard the words you wanted to hear?” And I think “Bread and Butter” for a kinky food scene was really funny.

I love the gorgeous long scenes that focus on the female lead. The masturbation scene comes to mind (holy shit, the fact that they put a masturbation scene in this movie. A person with a female body giving herself pleasure in major motion picture?! Even by 2019 standards, that is groundbreaking). I really liked the dance scene, too.  Basinger is fantastic in this sexy dance number. She isn’t touching Rourke at all–in fact, while you can tell she’s doing this for him, she also seems to be enjoying herself, doing something that she thinks is funny. It’s as much about her. In fact, if we pretend he isn’t watching, Basinger almost just looks like she’s had slightly too much to drink and is letting loose for a bit. It’s so much less contrived than music videos of this decade, and the focus is not on women giving pleasure to men. To me, it’s more about how a woman chooses what she wants to do with her body–if she wants a man to enjoy it, that’s her choice. If she wants to show it to the whole world, that’s also her choice. But this other human doesn’t have a say in what she does with her body. In fact, John seems to derive enjoyment because Elizabeth is doing what she wants.

I actually thought the scene where Basinger is dressed as a man is very radical. John buys Elizabeth men’s clothes and “suits” her up so she can see what it’s like to be a man for a night. He also kisses her openly while she is still wearing a fake mustache. John doesn’t seem to give a fuck about the fact that Elizabeth passes for a man in this moment. In addition, when they are walking home, two men attack them because they believe they are “faggots”. In the fight scene that ensues, Elizabeth gets them to back off by picking up one of the attackers knives and, I kid you not, poking the other attacker in the ass with it. They run off screaming. In my experience, women rarely get to have a proper fight in an action movie, let alone a romance movie. This one was humorous, but effective.

I would argue the movie does not focus solely on sex, either, though it is a romantic drama. There are no sex scenes. There are intensely sensual moments. Rourke portrays a man who enjoys deeply physical experiences. There is a scene where John asks Elizabeth to stay in his house, and when he comes home to find she has been snooping in his things, he says he is going to spank her. She becomes enraged, and they have sex. I know in this decade, people would argue about whether or not that scene was a rape scene. My theory is that John is trying to get Elizabeth mad on purpose. He wants that heightened state because the sex is more intense that way. I’m not sure I’d say the ends justify means in this case–how do you consent to being made to feel angry for sex? Is John showing that he cares for Elizabeth in that moment, or is it a selfish act? I actually really appreciate older movies for including scenes like that. It shows that the rules for consent are not as black and white as contemporary academics want them to be, and that there is way more to discuss than the modern thinkpiece might suggest.

There are moments in which John still comes off as a little creepy–like that moment when they first meet and he’s just staring at Elizabeth while he’s right next to her. But I also think it is radical that he usually names what he is going to do before he does it. This allows Elizabeth to express when she is uncomfortable and she can leave the situation. For example, when he brings her to his apartment for the first time, John makes a comment about how she is taking a risk because she doesn’t know what he will do. Elizabeth realizes her discomfort and says she wants to go home. In another scene, he blindfolds her before rubbing a cube of ice on her body. Elizabeth gets kind of a “warning” of what’s to come–he shakes the glass filled with ice before he begins. I haven’t seen many other movies about kink (I’ve heard a little too much about how 50 Shades of Gray is an insult to human intelligence to want to see it), so I don’t have much to compare this to. But I will say, this is more communication than I see happening in the average post-2000s rom-com. Those sex scenes usually go like this: lots of kissing, suddenly the protags are having sex. There is no build-up to the moment. I like that Adrian Lyne really took a lot of time to lead up to a sex-related moment. It is as if foreplay is the climax of the movie.

The second John fails to provide adequate information, Elizabeth decides to end the relationship. The scene where John attempts to add a prostitute to their sexual encounters sends Elizabeth into a jealous rage. She leaves John a few days later, claiming they both knew neither of them would stop seeing the other unless one of them explicitly said to do so. I think that’s a profound thing to propose. It is a reference to something Elizabeth tells her friend, Molly, earlier in the movie. She says that usually, you can tell what will end a relationship, and you store it in the back of your mind until it resurfaces one day, and you cannot pretend you are happy any more. She says she cannot figure out how her relationship with John will end. Molly suggests that perhaps it is true love in this case.

I would disagree with Molly. I think the fact that women will so frequently put up with people who they know they don’t want is because society sets them up to think this is the only way they will be happy. The world gives women messages about how they must accept whatever man floats their way because apparently, a woman is most valuable when she is kind to men, regardless of how horrible and selfish the man is. Having men look at you is the pinnacle of being a woman. But perhaps if you can truly say no, if you can walk away and not encounter some kind of social backlash, this indicates you are actually on equal terms with the other person. Maybe that is why it is a strange feeling to Elizabeth–she feels she is on equal terms with John. She is not choosing to be with him out of pity or fear or boredom. She genuinely wants to be with him. Thus when she leaves, it is not because she has been pretending to be happy the whole time. She was happy, and he crossed her boundaries too many times. It was an honest end to a relationship.

Thoughts on Exit West

exit westI recently finished reading Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Like the meme about toilet paper, this book only picks up the pace right toward the end. However, I think it is a beautiful novel. I like how it starts in the microcosm of a couple falling in love in a city, and eventually gets to the macrocosm of two whole lives lived in the aftermath of a war. Though the novel is about migration, I think Hamid’s most powerful messages are actually about human relationships and how closely people are connected in spite of violence.

I actually find Hamid’s tone to be surprisingly similar to that of Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games series–very even-keeled, though he is talking about heavy subjects. Perhaps that is the point. To dramatize violence is naive; it is so much a part of people’s lives everywhere in the world. Only in the Western world do we believe the lies we are told about how safe we are.

Against this backdrop, the kernels of truth Hamid offers are especially poignant. The way he talks about how Saeed and Nadia move from one country to another borrows somewhat from magical realism. We do not actually know how they get from one place to another–the two protagonists are said to go through “doors” (p.83) that take them from one place to another. The sinister implications are that, in the modern world, where borders are heavily policed, poor and desperate people will take huge risks to travel, and to ultimately survive. In fact, the novel could be arguing that migration is necessary. Lack of resources or lack of security forces people to take whatever route necessary to leave a country, often leading to massive, technically illegal migrations of people. I think here, Hamid begs the question of why we need to police borders with such fervor. What are we really “keeping out”? What does it say of our humanity that we would not allow other human beings to just live peaceful lives? Was there not a point in precolonial history when migration and exchange helped humanity thrive?

I’m intrigued as well by Hamid’s decision to intersperse throughout the novel anecdotes that at first seem to have nothing to do with the plot, but one realizes are like trail stones on the path that Saeed and Nadia travel. The anecdotes in the beginning are terrifying and quite violent–like the one about the Japanese man who is incensed to find Philipina women walking in his territory (I cannot remember the page for this). And then after a while, the stories become softer, with more connection among the characters. Perhaps my favorite is about a Dutch man and a Brazilian man who at first have not much to say to each other, but eventually fall in love (p.175).

The protagonists travel from their city–which sounds like it could be somewhere in the Middle East or North Africa–to Mykonos and London, and finally end their journey in Marin, a suburb of San Francisco. While they travel, their relationship to each other changes from that of two young lovers to…something else. And perhaps that is the more interesting transition than their physical journey. While they migrate, they get to know each other intimately, but the romance declines. They sometimes experience the annoyance of two people who are close out of necessity, but they do not hate each other.

Eventually, Nadia and Saeed part ways (p.220), which seemed inevitable from the start. They have wildly different personalities, in some parts truly only getting along because they have to. Hamid comments on what we change about ourselves when we move to other places because of culture, because of necessity, or just because we finally can. Though she does not come to terms with her queerness until near the end of the novel, Nadia may always have been attracted to women. She just had never lived in a place where it was socially acceptable to admit. She claims she wears a robe so men won’t fuck with her (p. 16). Of the two, she is better conditioned for survival after living alone for a long while before migrating and navigating without the support of her family. In contrast, Saeed is like a pampered mama’s boy at the beginning of the novel (p.9). He lives in a comfortable middle class home with both his parents. As the novel progresses, he learns to understand life from more perspectives than his own. Often, it is Nadia who points out these perspectives to him, like she does when they talk about the differences between migrants to England and to their home country (p.162).

I like the implications about faith and humanity that Hamid makes. In the novel, Saeed never loses faith, though his relationship with religion changes. Near the end, he prays “as a gesture for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way…he touched a feeling that we all lose our parents…and we too will be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity…” (p.202). It reminds me of Antonio, of how strongly I still remember him. And of my grandfather and how the family I have that is part of my generation is at peace with the fact that he is dying because he was already so old when we came into the world, but my mom and her siblings are maybe less accepting because he was not old when they were born, and for so long he was not old. And that for them it is so hard to accept that they won’t even look at the reality that one day, Koka will leave us because that is the natural way of things. They don’t accept yet that we will be okay, we are still here for each other. And I will experience losing all of them as well. And one day, hopefully a very long time from now, other people will experience losing me.

I think what I like best is the very last sentence of the novel–that they do not know if that evening will come. I like that it leaves the door open for possibility, and that there is this hope that something good, something beautiful and pleasing, is on its way, perhaps. It might take its time coming to us, and maybe we have to get through hardship on the way to it, but it is there, waiting.

Visiting the Homeland


Snowfall at Holyoke Community College

I am at work right now, and one of my naughtiest students is trying to cheat on a game again. She always tries this with every game. She is a cute little girl. Somebody does her hair very nicely every day. She’s gonna be a little heartbreaker when she grows up.

This has been a semester, y’all. I have never in the history of my life had a semester like this. I’m exhausted.

The people at Holyoke Community College are charming. Absolutely charming. They are so sweet and kind and just nothing at all like the people at any other college I have ever been to. Every conversation I start with an 18-year-old boy ends with me actually wanting to be friends with him. The professors are so adorable. Perhaps I was just lucky and ended up with the most adorable ones. Everything my math professor does makes me fall more in love with him. He draws beautiful things. He says beautiful things. Even the way he makes fun of us seems beautiful.

I love how easy it is for them to show their love for me, whether or not they are aware of it. Without hesitation, people will ask me if I’m free to hang out, or to get dinner. They tell me they know how smart I am. They notice when I’m not there. They ask me if I need help. I feel attractive and good and appreciated.

I wish I could always remember these things about myself. Because heading into this holiday season, I am once again doing something emotionally exhausting.

This year over the holidays, I am going to India to visit my grandparents. My grandfather has dementia that has progressed quite far. I have not seen him in 4 years, but he has had dementia now for my last few visits to India. I remember when I went alone at the age of 12, he was just starting to forget things. He couldn’t remember when his birthday was. Slowly, the number of things he’s forgetting is increasing. I remember once when I was in college or maybe after I had graduated, he was asking for me on the phone. He said he wanted to hear his first grandchild. I think that’s the reason why he knows I exist. I was there before the memory loss.

I’m supposed to stay with my mother’s family, a group of people who are not good at showing their love. Or perhaps more accurately, they can, but you have to know what you’re looking for.

My mom says that my grandfather was a very strict man with his three children. He was the one who enforced discipline. His children were scared of him. But I never experienced that side of him. By the time I was born, he was retired. I first visited him when I was 11 months old. I learned to walk in front of him. He visited me in Florida when I had grown a little older. I was 3 or 4 years old. My brother had been born by then. He liked playing ball with me. He would bounce a beach ball off his head for me to catch, like a soccer player. He gave me a little red stuffed rabbit. I still have it in one of my bureaus.

He liked explaining things to me when I was younger. I remember we used to take walks around the garden and he would show me different flowers and fruits and butterflies.

My brother is very hesitant to go. He’s anxious about how seeing Koka will affect my mom. He is already trying to be detached. I have every intention of treating that man like my grandfather. That is who he is.

I just wish my other relatives could remember I want connection with him, too. I know they will clamor, create lots of noise because that is what anxious people do in my family. They are not the only ones who lose him. When he’s gone, I lose him, too.

I try to remain optimistic about how this trip will go. I hope I will be able to take lots of photos and videos of good times because that’s how I want Koka’s last years of life to go, with lots of fun and laughter. These are some of the last years, though. I try to share that with the people who can hold it with me, so that I can hold some of my family’s feelings even if they can’t do the same for me.

Re-Evaluation of a Memory


So aesthetic pretty wall to remind you of rustic old places. Location: Poet’s Seat Tower, Greenfield, MA. Credits: Me

I do a type of counseling where I am encouraged to look at a lot of my early memories, and I recently had a re-evaluation (what, in other counseling methods, may be called a “breakthrough”) in a very important place. I felt like putting it here because maybe this would be helpful to someone.

My early memories indicate that my father was a very happy person who made it clear that he wanted me very much. Every day, he came home from work and was eager to play with me. He was the one I asked to push me on the swings and let me run around outside and play games with me. He was a lot of fun! Oftentimes, when I have a crush on someone, it is frequently because they remind me of my dad. The thing is, they often have his shortcomings as well. He left every day for work, often before I was even awake. I spent most of my mornings and afternoons without him. I spent that time with my mom.

I don’t remember my mom well from that period and that told me something about my relationship with her (this is before my brother was born, so before I was 3 years old. Most people are shocked I can remember that far back in my life, but I can). At first, I thought it was because she didn’t want me. I thought she was upset about the career she did not get to have. Or perhaps because she had immigrated to the United States. But neither of these explanations really made much sense. She had me 3 years after she moved to the country. I have seen photos of her from before my birth, and she looks happy. She and my father used to travel a lot. They went to lots of theme parks, had many friends, and visited many states. It is only after I was born that I remember my mother sleeping for long periods of time in the middle of the day, which is what initially made me think she didn’t want me.

I have worked on this memory dozens of times, and it never made much sense to me until recently, when a few important things happened. First, I recently broke the crush I have had on my math professor for the last two months. A counselor of mine said precisely what I forgot was true: it is nice to focus on a crush when everything else is going wrong. It provides escape. And I realized something else when she said that. I feel as though he (my crush) gives me something that few other people are giving me right now: he is not asking anything of me. And that is why I have fallen so in love with him. My father was not asking anything of me either, all those years ago.

Yesterday, I also got a good direction from a counselor that helped me figure out the other half of the puzzle with my mom. My counselor said “she was doing the best she could.” I was also working on other family matters at the time, talking about my cousins, who all live very far away. I was talking about how I wish I knew them more intimately, and I was thinking about how well I now know my math professor. I know what he likes, I know what he smells like, I know that he likes to dance. I don’t know any of those things about my cousins. That is why it is sometimes hard for me to understand why my mother thinks those relationships are important. My cousins are strangers to me, and I know I could change that, but I just don’t believe the internet is enough for me to really feel their presence.

I then had to connect that feeling with the time when I was pregnant. In the weeks leading to my abortion, I really wanted to carry my child to term, but every time I asked myself how I would make it work financially, I knew I couldn’t do it. I got an abortion. I thought about mom being pregnant 27 years ago, and what it must have felt like to realize that her baby girl would grow up with none of the people or things that she was familiar with. I would not have my cousins, aunts, uncles, or grandparents. It would take a much greater effort for me to learn and maintain speaking Assamese. I would know nothing but what she taught me about the place where my ancestors are from.

I imagine all those things weighing on the mind of a 29-year-old immigrant woman. And I realized the reason why I cannot remember my mother from all those years ago is not because she didn’t want me. She wanted me very, very much. She was sad after I was born, but I was not the problem. The problem existed long before I did. She was sad, is probably sad still, because every time she looks at me, she thinks of all the things her little girl had to grow up without. My counselor said, if anything, this is a gift. My mom loved me so supernaturally that she is sad she cannot give me the things she really wants to give me.

And the thing I have to keep in mind is that I cannot give her what she wants. It is something I want so badly to do even now. When someone senses my hyper-responsiveness and latches on, draining me of all my energy, I still think I will be the one to give them what they want. I couldn’t make sense of what was missing as a child, and I thought I had the power to give my mother what she wanted. Again and again I would try. Her responses never made any sense. If I was doing well, the activity was too easy. If I wasn’t doing well, it was my own fault. She was impossible to satisfy. Eventually, I learned to shrug her off, to cut her off even, because after a good amount of time, I could identify her duality for myself. It still confused me. I have spent years trying to figure out what she could possibly want.

I love her, and it is not my responsibility to fill that gaping hole for her. I know now that the reason I could feel my father’s happiness is because somehow, he sees what I have, and what I am. I don’t know if it makes sense to hope for that from my mother. On a physical, material plane, I know she will retire some time in the next 10-15 years and perhaps after that her mind will settle enough to lead her to what she wants. In the spirit realm, who knows how to fill that abyss of hers. It comes out of her in every way, especially toward me. If anything, without knowing it, every time I pull away, every time I reject her, I make it worse for her by reminding her strongly that I am not like her. What I am making of my life here is not at all what she made of hers, nor is it something she ever could have made of hers. How many years of counseling would it take for her to unravel over twenty years of feeling inadequate, of feeling she couldn’t provide, of feeling I should have had more that she could never give me?

That I wasn’t asking for.

That I don’t know, and will never know.

I wonder which is better, having the mother that wanted me to know, and therefore told me everything, setting expectations I could never reach, or the mother that chose to never tell, bottle the truth, and let her child continue in blissful ignorance.