“Amma” – published in Mujeres de Maiz 2015 zine

My mother’s skin has an earthy smell. Her golden wedding necklace chimes against her chest when she walks. Her face is too familiar to describe – dark hair, pale complexion, strawberry-shaped nose. Her fingers touch the metal strings of the wise goddess Saraswati’s own instrument, the veena. She gives us the tastes of spicy tomato rasam, the comfort of plain yogurt and rice.

Of all the senses, it takes the sixth one to capture my mother in words. The life of an immigrant is one of finding roots in foreign soils. Her role as mother is to anchor us in a culture that seems anchorless.

That anchor is our tradition, our religion. The kolam drawn at the threshold of the home with rice flour consecrates Mother Earth, and provides food for ants that otherwise might become pests. We offer flower petals during worship. Such rituals remind us of our connection to the Earth.

Natural processes include the pain of growing up, dandelion seeds floating on the wind. Years later my mother still bears the wound of leaving home, and now must face the wound of her daughters putting down roots in soil she did not choose.

The Earth has a way of healing wounds, with the slow march of seasons. I someday want to be a mother, though I know it is not the only component of my destiny. My own rituals will be forever shaped by my auspicious, wounded, bountiful mothers, grandmothers – my heritage. Thank you Amma.

grieving the Brazil nut tree

If you have ever traveled through nature with people who are attuned to its secrets, you know what I mean when I suggest that they can hear things most of us can’t. When my family spent three days back in 2012 in the Tambopata National Reserve – a vast tract of undeveloped Amazon rainforest in Peru – we were amazed at our guide’s abilities. We didn’t even notice the sound of water dropping, but he immediately recognized it to be a monkey’s subtle call; what we barely acknowledged as a piece of mud on the ground, he saw as a tarantula den. In the eco-lodge, we met individuals who had been transformed by their closeness to the rainforest. One employee, a PhD from Stanford, had discarded his old life and decided to teach yoga in the Amazon. He told me that the longer one stayed in a place like Tambopata, the more one’s powers of observation improved, and the more peaceful one felt.

The Associated Press reported on November 21, 2015, that as many as half of the Amazon’s tree species are threatened with extinction because of massive deforestation. Among these species in trouble are Brazil nuts and mahogany. When I read this, my mind immediately flashed to the tasty snacks they gave us on bus rides, rich Brazil nuts rolled in sugar, coconut flakes, and cocoa powder. My fascination with the Brazil nut, though, comes not from its taste but its story.

The Brazil nut tree cannot grow outside of the Amazon rainforest; the nuts are harvested by hand once they fall from the tree. But this is not for lack of trying to bend the Brazil nut tree to Western control. Our guide told us about how savvy entrepreneurs saw the Brazil nut as an opportunity for profit. They researched the conditions, shipped the seeds to plantations in different parts of the world – Australia, Canada – and waited. Crop after crop failed. After losing incredible amounts of money, they realized they were missing something: the ecosystem.

Brazil nut trees are one part of the complex organism that is the forest. The pollination of the Brazil nut relies on a particular species of bee. Once the nut drops to the forest floor, its dispersal relies entirely on the agouti, a mid-sized rodent we frequently saw scuttling through the eco-lodge’s grounds. It rains nearly every day in the Tambopata, and the detritus of the forest floor provides a unique set of natural fertilizers for the tree. An entire economy relies on the manual harvesting of these nuts, which also provide vital nutrition for local tribal communities.

When I see one line in a newspaper article that mentions that the Brazil nut could go extinct, I think of the vast ecosystem the Brazil nut is part of. If the Brazil nut tree dies, so too do the bees. The agouti will lose its source of food. The local economy will be disrupted forever. A traditional source of nutrition will disappear. The least important impact is the tourist who will not be able to eat her delicious coconut-coated snack, and yet feeling the sweet, fatty crunch of the nut in my mouth was my first direct, tactile connection to this ecosystem.

Going to the Amazon was an incredible privilege, one that most individuals outside of South America will never experience. It is a tragic fact of today’s human condition that we find it difficult to connect with communities and environments that we have never seen. Conceptualizing the loss of fifty percent of the tree species in the Amazon is perhaps too much to comprehend. The extinction of the Brazil nut is intellectually a tragedy, but emotion – grief – comes from our senses. My memories of the agouti and the tall, majestic Brazil nut trees – along with the other vibrant, incredible creatures we saw, from the prehistoric clawed Hoatzin bird, to the hanging fruit bat colonies, the giant kapok trees, the snapping piranhas, all of which are connected in ways I will never know – these memories are what make the tragedy sink into my heart.

the white working-class identity

A recent Christian Science Monitor article summarized something that’s puzzled me (and apparently sociologists) for years: “If America’s poverty is concentrated in the South, as data clearly show, why are those states the most reliably Republican, voting against the government assistance they seem to need?”

My favorite advice columnist, the Coquette, gives an excellent one-sentence response for why these people continue to vote against their best interests: “Because they’ve been institutionally conditioned to use their vote as a means of justifying their belief system rather than protecting their interests.”

The white, working-class population in this country has lost faith. They don’t have faith in the American government or in their ability to change their own circumstances. The mortality rate for middle-aged whites has increased between 1999 and 2013 because of a rise in “suicide, drug abuse, and alcoholism” – the root causes of which include fiscal uncertainty, stagnating wages, obesity and a wide host of other health problems, lack of opportunity and lack of education. Yet Obamacare signups are much lower in the South than they are in the rest of the country! Gallup found that 45% of Republicans “think rich people should pay more in taxes” – yet they continue to vote for a party that consistently privileges the 1%. Why?

This is about identity. The white working class in the South expects to continue enjoying all the entitlements of white privilege that the previous generations enjoyed, but it’s not working out that way. Society today seems to be launching an attack on their traditional lifestyles and values. The Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage is constitutional. Mizzou’s old-school leaders had to resign because of racial insensitivity. It’s like, “We can’t even get our own jobs but the government might allow refugees in.” It seems like the colored people are out to steal their jobs, and along with that, their birthright to power.

It’s true that these individuals are exploited by the system, and they are most certainly the 99%. This group is disaffected and that experience is affecting their mortality rates. But what disappoints me is that the reaction to this frustration is to form groups and communities centered on hate and exclusion, rather than groups that foster a sense of community and inclusion.  Just look at the rise in popularity of Donald Trump. He’s anti-establishment in many ways, but there is no doubt he fearmongers. He is literally profiting from the fears of this community that they are losing power and the only way to get that power back is to build physical and figurative walls.

I think it’s time for institutions of the white working-class (churches, schools, etc.) to start examining the cognitive dissonance that lies at the root of their political choices. Alliances and coalition-building are much more effective tactics than Trump’s bombast. But to do that, the community has to stop seeing non-whites as threatening “Others.” Unfortunately, I don’t have too much faith that they’re interested in going through the difficult process of redefining identity – or that they have any good examples to follow in the media!

written after the ferguson protests

Black bodies lie on our streets,
Folks cry about broken windows.
Grim poised police fleets,
Death sentence with rock throws.

He’s seen his cousin killed, age ten,
His every day a set of rules,
Voice raw, it happens again,
Lessons taught in street school.

A pack of cigarettes, a toy BB gun,
We play like we belong here.
Costly assumptions – but he’s my son!
Lethal playground, young lives disappear.

Packs of students, protests, signs,
Drink to peace, smoke one for justice.
White folk all out to have a good time,
Channel MLK, Gandhi, your righteous ruckus.

You’ll go home, Instagram, morals freshly arisen,
Get back to your life without missing a beat.
Riot police still wardens of the open-air prison,
Black bodies still lie on our streets.

the weekly news roundup

I’m always digging up articles or commenting on articles my friends find, and it’s usually an eclectic set of topics. Rather than do what I usually do (which is message random things to random people), I thought I’d share what’s been on my mind through this blog.

The Two Asian Americas“There are now, in a sense, two Asian Americas: one formed by five centuries of systemic racism, and another, more genteel version, constituted in the aftermath of the 1965 law….If Asians sometimes remain silent in the face of racism, and if some seem to work unusually hard in the face of this difficult history, it is not because they want to be part of a “model minority” but because they have often had no other choice.”

Homan Square revealed: how Chicago police ‘disappeared’ 7,000 people – “Try finding a phone number for Homan to see if anyone’s there. You can’t, ever.” A pretty shocking account of a gross violation of civil liberties. Not that anyone who’s been listening will be surprised…

Stanford Business School Sex Scandal – Apart from the click bait, this story is kind of wack. I also think it’s a shame because Professor Gruenfeld is an inspiring speaker who talks about women, negotiation, and power. The irony….

Artificial Intelligence Surpasses Humans: At work my team and I talk a lot about how AI is probably going to be the cause of human destruction, because once AI matches or surpasses humans – which, clearly, is happening – their behavior will become completely unpredictable because they have unlimited memory and we don’t know how to program morals and ethics. Cool! Maybe AI will kill us before climate change does.

New study confirms that anger bolsters men’s authority while undermining women’s: Yes. More data to fuel my hatefire.

Invading White Gentrifiers Call Cops on Black Residents – Oakland…please don’t become San Francisco.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: wtf JK Rowling!?!?!?!??! This sequel is going to be only for rich people!?!?!? Whatever, I hate reading sequels where my favorite characters are bitter jaded adults anyways.

I told you it was eclectic…

being comfortable with being uncomfortable

A couple posts ago I talked about how to abide with discomfort, especially in scenarios that are awkward, painful, or really personal (such as conversations about race or feminism). But while I’ve gotten used to conflict about issues that I care about, I’m still generally a conflict-averse person. I like getting along with people and I want to be liked. In my first facilitation training ever, the instructor videotaped each of us and replayed it with us one-on-one. She told me that while I have a lot of natural facilitative tendencies, I tend to “do a lot of frantic dancing” to cover up awkward silences or potential conflict. What she meant is that when I perceive conflict in a room, I try to solve it as quickly as possible so that we can all agree on things again.

I realized that this desire for harmony can get in the way of productive conflict. Productive conflict (and this idea comes from a book I just finished, 5 Dysfunctions of a Team) is ideological. Good teams are made up of people who are able to confront each other about deep philosophical differences and still trust each other. Productive conflict leads to better decisions, more commitment, improved accountability, and better results.

In my job I deal a lot with change, and I’ve recently realized that I need to embrace conflict as a critical element of long-lasting change. When people disagree, instead of trying to point out their commonalities or find a compromise, I’m now trying to be quiet and listen instead. If they air out the conflict and resolve it themselves, rather than relying on me to find the path, the resolution is more lasting and real. An example of this was a recent presentation my team did to share the status of an IT project with a bunch of people who weren’t involved in the project. Folks presented, asked if there were any questions, there were none, and then we were all happy for a few minutes because it seemed like everyone was on board. The silence struck me as a little too silent, so I tentatively asked, “Do people believe that what we’re working on is actually going to make a difference to your jobs?” That question by itself brought up a lot of conflict – dissenting opinions, questions, doubts (of course, only at the tail end of the meeting did things get interesting.) It made me uncomfortable to bring up something that could potentially derail or risk our efforts, but without airing out these doubts, there was no way that anyone was going to buy in at all. And they wouldn’t have felt comfortable saying anything if the question hadn’t been posed to them directly. The conflict ended up greatly improving our communication strategy for the project.

It made me think that instead of accidentally hitting upon conflict, we should try to anticipate conflict early. This opens up a new possibility for me as a facilitator. Instead of avoiding conflict, maybe my role is to proactively address possible conflicts, or even start a debate or argument. If I sense someone disagreeing silently, maybe I have to help them articulate themselves instead of brushing it aside for the sake of harmony. Instead of pointing out possible solutions to a conflict, maybe my role is to put some pressure on people to explore the problem and really air out all the objections before moving into the solution space. Maybe I have to get used to the butterflies in my stomach and heat rising in my neck when people start disagreeing with each other, because it’s better for the team.

Abiding with discomfort is really hard. But it’s so important that it’s worth getting used to.

books for the indian summer

It’s not by design, but when I think about it, all these books seem to be connected by the theme of change and transition – fitting for the end of summer and the gentle slip into a very warm autumn. Also, I still don’t know why I’m unable to finish one book at a time…

This Bridge Called My Back – Writings of Radical Women of Color, compiled by Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga

  • This book is hugely influential for me and I still haven’t plumbed its depths. I’m always picking it up and reading a poem or essay whenever I can.

The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brene Brown

  • She has some interesting things to say about shame, self-love, and vulnerability. It’s a “spirituality-lite” type read, but her tenets on wholeheartedness are good to remember and well-grounded in research. She has a famous TED talk about vulnerability.

On Beauty, Zadie Smith

  • This book is all about race, academia, and aesthetics. Apparently it’s based on some other famous book too so I probably missed half the meaning. Time for a re-read.

The Living Company, Arie de Geus

  • I think the most interesting part of this book is how companies are described as organisms. And how we underestimate the parts of a company that need nurturing.

All 7 Harry Potters, JK Rowling you genius you

The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni

  • Pretty sure these dysfunctions are familiar to everyone. Lack of trust leads to lack of productive ideological conflict; if conflict hasn’t occurred, no one commits; if no one commits, there’s no accountability; and if there’s no accountability, you don’t have results.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, Maria Kondo

  • yeah, I need this…

Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris

  • This one’s a re-read, because every essay is completely hilarious. The first time my sister started reading this on our couch at home, she couldn’t even read her favorite parts to us without crying with laughter.

And a song for kicks:

a trip to chennai

I went to visit my family in Chennai a couple years ago, December 2013, and this is what it was like..almost exactly. As I plan a trip for next year, I have no doubt it will be ten times more exaggerated than this one (now that I’m 25 and over the hill and all).

Day 1: I fall miserably sick (because no trip to India is complete without illness). It is 71 degrees and lovely weather in Chennai and literally everyone is wearing earmuffs because it’s “so cold.”

Day 2: We shop like there ain’t no tomorrow, and argue with the tailor like it’s 1895.

Day 3: Grandma informs me that the astrologer said I would get married by the end of 2013. I have 5 more days until the prophecy is fulfilled and I am still terribly single. My heart is heavy. I must trust that fate will have its way…somehow.

Day 4: By this time we have attended approximately 4 million Carnatic (South Indian classical) music concerts, where the entire audience consists of our acquaintances from the Bay Area. The canteen food is to die for – idlis, dosas, parathas, tharatipal (a condensed milk sweet – hello, lactose intolerance, we meet again). PS, no husbands to be found at these concerts; average age, 65.

Days 5-8: Attend religious function at ashram. Hang out with cows. Contemplate how religious rituals provide structure for individuals to constantly remember the divine while going about their daily mundane tasks, and notice the problematic caste and gender politics (especially the heteronormative family lifestyle that religion endorses as well as the physical and ritualistic barriers between men and women). However, the food is once again, to die for. Sad to say, no husband to be found among the cows. Priests not proving to be husband material either.

Day 9-10: Meet up with 1882589 family members. Get eyebrows done (I’ve been looking forward to this shit all year). It is the New Year and I somehow didn’t find a husband in this past week. My heart fills with…relief? I am unmoored from Fate’s restrictions and am bound only by my free will! My mother informs me, however, that you must give astrological predictions a standard deviation of some sort. The astrologer no doubt meant that “she will actually get married by the end of 2013 or maybe 2023.”

Day 11: I have arrived home after the 30-hour journey, full of crying children and “Hindu Veg” meals (PS, I start pondering a deep question… does anyone else who gets Indian vegetarian food on international flights notice that they don’t give us dessert? All the meat eaters get these cute little cakes and Haagen Dazs ice cream cartons and we get cantaloupe that tastes like plastic. Since when are Hindus healthy? I haven’t exercised in 14 days and I think I ate like half a fruit the whole time.).

Day 12: Everyone at work is asking me why I haven’t brought back a husband. Shut up! If I’d just had 1 more day it would have happened. Also they wouldn’t have let him through customs.

“you talk about oppression too much”

“When you start talking about [feminism/racism/black lives matter/insert cause], you become annoying and it makes me less likely to listen to you.”

This argument and the hundred variants of it will undoubtedly be familiar to people who are passionate about any issue and start talking about it a little too much for the average listener’s comfort. It’s a really frustrating experience for both parties involved – the person who’s trying to be heard, and the person who doesn’t want to be lectured.

Last week, I had a couple conversations that made me think about this. First, my friend was told that her tone gets self-righteous when she starts talking about feminism and it alienates her listeners. Second, another close friend and I had a really interesting conversation about her strong female Latina acquaintance, who ends up “always making it about race” – and who ends up alienating non-Latinos. In both cases, the theme was that by talking about these topics seemingly incessantly, those of us who are trying to get people to hear us are potentially alienating our listeners.

I want to describe the process I went through that ultimately makes me say: The burden is not on the speaker to monitor his or her tone or message. The burden is on the listener to hear what the speaker has to say. The person talking about oppression is expressing the frustration that comes from true alienation, whereas the person who is reluctant to listen is merely experiencing temporary discomfort. I’m going to explain how I came to this position.

The first time I became aware of oppression was when I decided I was tired of being sexually harassed and tired of having no voice to resist it; and so I started educating myself. Once I awakened to the injustices and oppressions of one system (patriarchy) around me, I saw it everywhere. And once you understand one system of oppression, it’s just a short hop to identifying all the other ones (race, class, sexual orientation, able-bodies, you name it). I’m not the first person to describe this as a fog lifting from my brain. All the things I’d been taught were up for questioning. When you start going down this path, it’s also a quick realization that most people are not on it. Most people don’t question what we’ve been taught. Most people just exist in the system and continue to live life as best as they can without taking responsibility for change, especially if they benefit from the system. I personally think that discussing controversial, painful, uncomfortable issues and confronting them head-on is one of the most direct ways to achieve change. My voice is my power.

Of course, when first exercising that voice, I got the dreaded reaction. When even my close friends or family members tell me, “You harp on feminism too much” or “You are way too sensitive about certain issues,” it hurts me for several reasons. First, it’s a painful experience to be silenced; it makes me feel like no one cares about something that’s deeply important to me. Second, it doesn’t actually make me want to stop talking; it makes me want to talk more, because obviously no one else is going to. Third, people can say really messed up awful shit and I find that if I get upset about it, their biggest weapon is to call me sensitive. It’s all too easy to make me seem ‘crazy’ or ‘overemotional’ when really, the only crazy thing about this is how people are allowed to say really messed up things and I’m not allowed to call them on it. Finally, it is apparent that people who say this to me aren’t actually listening to me. They aren’t asking me why something upset me. They don’t ask me what experiences I’ve had that have made me think this way. They don’t admit that what they said was wrong. They refuse to admit that they might be part of the problem. They almost never just say, “Wow, that sucks.” Instead, they make me feel like by just speaking about it, I am sabotaging my own cause.

The problem is that talking about oppression at all makes everyone uncomfortable, so people are very likely to just project tone onto the speaker. “She must be preaching.” “She must think she’s better than me.” Listen, we are all on a long journey to dismantling these unfair structures, and I contribute to them too. When I talk about patriarchy, it’s not because I’m somehow above it. It’s because I want to dismantle it. I want to address it. I actively work on my own thoughts and actions and check myself but I mess up too. I’m not better than anyone else, but I want to talk about it. We need to talk about it. It is our responsibility to talk about it. And say you’re doing your best but really can’t relate at the end of the day…is it that hard to just admit that something is just unfair?

I understand that people are defensive about privilege. When it’s pointed out, it can feel like a personal attack. But the people who are actually alienated every day in this society are the minorities and the women and the queer community and the disabled community, you name your margin of choice. Do not mistake discomfort for alienation. It is okay to be uncomfortable because the truth is uncomfortable. We all need to stop shying away from discomfort and instead, practice empathy.

Now wait a second, you might be thinking at this point. What about the feelings of the people who just don’t really want to talk about race or gender every single day? What if they don’t really feel like being lectured? I entreat you to weigh that temporary discomfort against the pain, anger, helplessness, and frustration that people feel when they are part of a system that works against them. If the volume of my voice rises a little bit when I express myself, think of it as compensating for years of silence and try to listen to the words behind the emotion. And on my end, if I get a compassionate response from someone, I’m much less likely to sound condescending or angry the next time I talk to them.

All of this being said, I have learned some things about how to make my voice more effective based on the audience (I have some future posts in the works about that – we can all work on communication); and I also have some thoughts on how to decide when to have emotionally draining conversations versus when it’s just not worth it.

But this post is about listening without defending; it’s about putting one’s self in someone else’s shoes. If someone always makes it about race, I have no doubt she has an excellent reason for caring about that. Sometimes the best response is just, “I’m sorry it is this way,” without perceiving a personal attack, without getting defensive, without trying to poke holes in her argument. And to those people who have felt silenced by comments that suggest you are “annoying” when you’re talking about something important, keep speaking truth to power. People will end up listening because it’s right.