Month: May 2014

Mobilize

I often reflect on the time I spent in elementary school. Many of the experiences I had then take on a different meaning now that I see them from a social justice perspective. I find it interesting that, in spite of society’s best efforts to be “colorblind”, I was very aware at a young age that I was not white (or not “normal”). This may have been because my mother taught me my family’s cultural practices early on, thereby conditioning me to present as a person of color. There were other indicators as well, like the way my parents and I thought I had to adhere to rules more strictly than a lot of my same-aged peers. For example, there was a very lenient uniform code at my school. While I showed up every day in red or white school polos and pairs of khaki or blue pleated shorts at my mother’s behest, other girls showed up in tee shirts of every color and jeans and denim shorts, and no one ever passed a comment for them.

I believe the real red flag for me was the way people treated me. It’s not as if they were ever rude, but I distinctly felt that people didn’t listen to me. In group projects, I’d give suggestions that somehow never made it on the paper. I’d volunteer for tasks, and then my name wouldn’t appear on the list. I might have taken it personally, except I knew other Asian American students to whom the same things happened. However, if a white student said something, anything, no matter how silly, misinformed, or off-target it was, they inevitably received some reply, even if it was just another student saying “shut up!” or “that’s stupid.”

One particular incident comes to mind to illustrate this point. I was nine years old, in fourth grade. It was after lunch one day, and I was waiting outside the cafeteria for the next class period to begin. There were several other students out there, too, and we were queuing up to go back to our classroom. I was standing behind two girls from my class. We all knew one another, but we weren’t good friends or anything. I was in choir with one of the girls, and they were talking about how she was nervous because she had received the solo in one of the songs we were going to perform. I tried saying something to help her feel better, but I received no reply. Just in case they hadn’t heard me the first time, I repeated myself, louder this time. They still did not reply. Both continued to speak only to each other.

It’s been a while since fourth grade, but I still remember the embarrassment I felt after that encounter. I had wondered if anyone had watched me being ignored. I also felt strongly indignant because the two girls had behaved as if they did not have to reply to me. It made me think twice before approaching either of them again.

At school, all the white children fell into a hierarchy. They also seemed to have a protocol in place when someone at the bottom of the social hierarchy happened to encroach on another person or another group’s space. In their own special way, they would tell the unpopular ones to get lost.

For me, there was no place in this hierarchy. Regardless of whether I was welcomed or not, I invariably received little to no acknowledgement in the social groups of white children. On one hand, that meant I could flit in and out of groups at will, and stick with whichever ones I pleased. On the other, it also meant I never truly belonged to any group, and if I needed help or got hurt, I usually had to deal with it by myself.

Now this is not to say I’ve been heartily accepted into every group of Asian people I’ve ever come across (as I’ve mentioned previously). This is also not to say that there aren’t groups of white people into which I have been truly accepted nor that there aren’t white people out there who are not accepted by other white people. In spite of the picture I am painting, I had a lot of fun in school as a child. It is where I discovered how smart, creative, and capable I am. But I think knowing what I know now gives a depth to those experiences that I couldn’t see when I was that young.

Years later, in college, I received the education that helped me understand being a person of color at a predominantly white institution. I learned the vocabulary–microaggressions, bias incidents, internalized racism–to describe what had gone on for years in my life. The 20-year-old me could not help wishing that someone had told me these things a long, long time ago. I think this is something that we, the children of Asian Americans, need to encourage Asian American parents to do more, or perhaps do for our own children. Sheltering me did not help me at all; if anything, it kept me from speaking up when I should have. In the work that I do, I hope I can bring the age threshold down for when Asian American children learn the truth about race in America. This movement would move faster if, instead of having to educate twenty-somethings on basic social justice issues, they already knew the issues and were ready to mobilize when they reach adulthood.

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Invisible Disabilities 101

Today, I was reading these great blog posts about chronic illness and the spoon theory. (You might want to read them, too, before you read this post). They inspired me to create a workshop about understanding chronic illness and invisible disabilities. Because I have a background in programming for undergraduate college students, I envisioned that this workshop could be facilitated by people who work directly with students, such as professors, resident assistants, staff members in student activities, multicultural centers, service learning, and others who work on college campuses.

I ought to preface this: I do not personally work with people who have chronic illnesses or disabilities. I also do not have a chronic illness or disability, and I do not speak for anyone who has one either.

I do, however, think able-bodied privilege is something people need to be more aware of, and I think this activity is an easy way to raise that awareness.

In my experience, undergrads are usually introduced to conversations about disability through simulations. You may be familiar–think “disability dinner/lunch/meal,” in which the facilitator randomly chooses a disability for each participant and then proceeds to tie a bandana around one student’s head to cover their eyes, tie an arm for another, give ear plugs to yet another, and so on, and this is supposed to help students “feel” what it’s like to have a disability. The participants then eat their food in slight discomfort, admit this would be a frustrating life to lead, and then never think about it again beyond the 30-minute discussion. Rarely do invisible disabilities and chronic illnesses (besides STDs) make their way into this conversation. Yet, there are millions (up to one in two people in the United States, according to disabled-world.com) in this country living with autoimmune disease, mental illness, hormone imbalances, and degenerative disease.

In the post about the spoon theory, the author talks about the choices a person with chronic illness has to make every day. Students in college hardly ever think of these decisions because they assume they are at the peak of their physical fitness and that no one their age could ever be chronically ill. My hope is that this activity will introduce students who have no prior experience or knowledge to the needs of people living with invisible disabilities.

Invisible Disabilities Activity

Materials:

pencils

paper

*10-15 plastic spoons for each participant

*may be replaced with any number of small objects, such as beads, slips of paper, paper clips, etc., as long as each participant gets between 10-15.

Procedure:

1. Hand each participant between 10-15 spoons, but don’t give everyone the same number.

2. Ask everyone to make a list of tasks they did that day, and tell them to include things they still have to do. Tell them to be very detailed. For example, instead of “I woke up”, tell them to break it down into brushing their teeth, showering, putting on clothes, wearing makeup, walking up or down stairs (if that’s what they did), cooking, eating, etc. Tell them to include chores like homework, laundry, and washing dishes, as well as social activities like meeting friends, shopping, or going to the movies.

3. Instruct participants to count the number of spoons they have. Explain that this represents how much energy they have to do what they need to do in the day.

4. Tell them to count the number of tasks they have written down. Ask how many of them have enough spoons to do everything they have written down (it shouldn’t be that many).

5. Tell them to go back through their lists and pick the tasks they would most like to get done in the day given the number of spoons they have. Explain that if they have skipped a meal, that also costs a spoon.

6. Allow participants to discuss how their days would go differently if they “had” a chronic illness. Draw attention to what choices they had to make. What did they choose not to do? Why did they make that choice? What do they choose to spend time doing? How do they think their lives would change if they had to make choices like this every day, with the same number of spoons for each day? Explain that it may be possible to use more “spoons” than usual in one day, but then they would have fewer to work with the next day, since they would have to recover from having exerted themselves.

7. Discuss ways to be an ally to people with disabilities and chronic illness. For some suggestions, click here.

 

I realize this is a simulation, too. And if there’s anything that needs to be changed or can be improved, please let me know. My goal in creating this workshop was to change the one-sided and reductionist conversations that come from “disability dinners”. I was getting tired of how participants are often more patronizing after leaving those dinners than when they begin. I hope this activity shows that people with disabilities still have agency and independent lives, albeit it’s different than what able-bodied people might imagine.

Something that struck me about the spoon theory post is when the author said she has forced herself to slow down. She has to constantly think about several factors that affect what she can do, and that it is the “beautiful ability” of able-bodied individuals to just do things without thinking.

I want people to reflect on that, on how they have unlimited spoons that they can spend doing whatever they want every day.

Be Victorious

Trigger Warning: Death, Language related to Eating Disorders

Many nurses who work in hospice care and nursing homes report that in the weeks or months before a resident dies, they often lose their appetite. Loss of appetite over a long period of time can be a sign of grave illness. This makes sense if you think about it. Food is a means to sustain life. Hunger is your body’s way of asking you to help it do its job: keeping you alive. People often lose their hunger toward the end of life because the body is preparing for death. It can no longer process food, or it might give you pain to try, so it no longer accepts nourishment to spare you that pain. I don’t particularly support the idea that humans are like machines, but in this instance, the comparison fits. At the end of life, your body, the vehicle that has transported you through life until that point, cannot be sustained any longer. It has run out of fuel or spare parts, or it has corroded. It is done.

Many cultures attach a special significance to providing meals for others. The reasoning is actually not cultural or religious at all; it is something far more universal. Like I mentioned earlier, food sustains life. To give someone food is to sustain them, to tell them that you support them, that you want to see them grow and thrive and prosper. You want them to live a long  and happy life. You tell them these things by giving them food.

My last plate of food at the University of Florida.

My last plate of food at the University of Florida.

I have reached the end of my time as an undergraduate, and today I went to a New Alumni Celebration. I ate a meal there, perhaps the last one I will eat as a student at the University of Florida. The university has probably fed me thousands of times since I started as a first-year. In the two years that I have been a resident assistant, it has given me the equivalent of 550 dollars worth of food every semester. In the two and a half years that I have been a student ambassador at Multicultural and Diversity Affairs, almost every event has provided free food. At any major events hosted by the Department of Housing, there is almost always free food. Many events held by student organizations on campus provide free food. Even some academic classes provide free food. With every meal, they have shown that they support me, they want to see me grow and thrive and prosper, they want me to live a long and happy life.

I remember all the people who have given me food. I remember all the places where my first mentor paid for the bill, even when we were with our whole staff, at Bento’s, at Mochi, at The Fat Tuscan. I remember Professor Logan taking me to Maude’s. I remember the supervisors who have cooked for my staffs, the people who have paid for me when I travel to their cities. I remember the friends who have cooked for me at all hours of the day–fried rice, bread, all manner of vegetables, poached pears, chocolate ganache, pastries, chicken adobo, curried pork, falooda, fried fish, kebabs, eggs, countless cookies–and expect no payment in return. Every one of them has symbolically said they support me, they want to see me grow and thrive and prosper, and they want me to live a long and happy life.

I know now why it never bothers me if people don’t pay me back for food. All the times when I have paid for someone else, or given something to someone, are some of the best memories, and with some of the people I love most. I remember the grilled chicken sandwich I bought for a friend who won her election, the Publix fried chicken we ate on a picnic table at Lake Wauberg, the time I paid for Asian Chao at the mall and we ransacked Forever 21, and so much cereal that is sometimes the only sustenance for some of you until mid-afternoon. I worry now that you truly will not eat until mid-afternoon. I support every one of you, I want to see you grow and thrive and prosper, and I want you to live a long and happy life.

You should never have to choose between eating or refusing sustenance because you feel embarrassed or self-conscious. Never deny your own hunger. To deny yourself food is to negate your own well-being. It is your own undernourishment. It is you allowing others to tell you that you take up too much space, that you are too present, and that you should be invisible. Do not ever give people that chance. You are alive. You do not need an excuse for doing what the living do.

In Hindi, there is a phrase, “jeetay raho”, that is used to say farewell. The phrase loosely translates to “be victorious”. Your body tells you every day that it is working hard to keep you well. Don’t ignore it. Your body is the vehicle to your dreams. Honor it, respect it, and fuel it. You deserve to be seen, you deserve to have a presence, you deserve life. Grow strong. Shamelessly take up space. Chase your dreams.

Be victorious.