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.

i’ll have some snake with that pb&j

  • “I got made fun of for all the smells of Indian cooking and on how Indians eat with their hands, because they were too ‘uncivilized’ to eat with utensils like normal people.”
  • “In the 5th grade I had classmates tell me my food smelled bad and that it was gross without trying it. Even now, I get disproportionately angry and insulted when I hear people insult other people’s food, especially ethnic food.”
  • “I had a classmate try to convince me that as an Indian I of course ate snake…wrong on many levels. I think he watched too much Indiana Jones…”
  • I was mortified when classmates teased me about having smelly lunches so I asked for PB&J. My dad tried to appease me by packing me a PB&J, but he used roti instead of bread so I started packing my own lunch.”

These are samplings of the shame and embarrassment my peers and I had around the food we grew up with. It’s probably one of the most universal immigrant experiences. This article is fantastic and captures a lot of the ambiguities and emotions of that experience: Craving the Other: One Woman’s Beef with Cultural Appropriation and Food.

I relate to this article, from the tantrums I threw in second grade because some kid made fun of my smelly food (“that looks like dog crap”) and I couldn’t even tell my mom because I felt like it would hurt her feelings, so instead I did the unforgivable and pretended I preferred sandwiches but please put fake soy lunch meat in that so it looks like pink-disgusting-plastic-baloney and my friends (all white, not a person of color in sight) wouldn’t target me for being vegetarian; and once she caught me tossing her homecooked food, which she had woken up early in the morning to make for me, tossing it like a piece of shit into the trash, and it made her cry. Then there’s college, when my white roommates informed me that they were scared of mustard seeds popping and also it made them cough and didn’t it look kind of questionably yellow (they didn’t know that turmeric has antiseptic and anti-Alzheimer’s qualities built in with the Anti-Americanness); and last year when my (white) friend informed me it made him uncomfortable to see me eating the curry (that I cooked for my friends) by using my hands and getting them messy.

Food is the most basic imperialist project, a way of “othering,” a way of making foreigners and immigrants seem “dirty” and “smelly” and “colorful” and all those other culturally appropriative terms used when visiting another country, a method of exotification (now it’s hip, mainstream, urban), and it’s almost like the white blank-slate color of my well-meaning, close friends’ skin means they are entitled to absorb my colors. And in the meantime I am told that my brown skin, my yellow food, my spices, which I’ve been apologizing for and white-washing until I reached the age where I wanted to reclaim that, are now a form of cultural capital, a tasty little masala appetizer to feed the carnivorous market forces that absorb “the other” and shit out homogeneity.  And seriously, fuck Lunchables, I used to beg (absolutely BEG) for those, my poor mom just gave up and said “at least don’t touch the meat” and was resigned to me coming home hungry, cranky, and yet socially victorious because Lunchables were the coolest lunches any American kid could have and honestly, fitting in was worth a lot, it still is. For the record my favorite Indian food is rasam, hot peppery tomato lentil deliciousness that isn’t sold anywhere like my mom makes it, and will never be.

a quote for the lost twenty-something

My friend has this quote taped to his door. It’s so wise and gentle. I want to tape it to my face.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. 

-Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

the bay – inspired by the thought of my close friend leaving it

The Golden Gate Bridge is not mine. Ever since childhood, it’s been a destination only to be visited when hosting tourists, a display of beauty and riches – ‘this is where I live’ – but never a part of my life except for in the distance, though I have as much or more of a birthright to that bridge as anyone. Despite calling the Bay my home for the past twenty-five years, I feel the divide in my heart, the divide between the golden city and the cities that fall in its shadow on the East. To me, the Bay is our campus, which we occupied, where we came of age, where we wrestled with identity and finding real friends and first kisses and first protests. The Bay is our community – potlucks, farmers’ markets, usually-losing sports teams, gay clubbing, the Fox, the open mics, the vegan Thai tea ice cream. And yet the Bay makes me so angry these days – the oblivious tech industry, the constant self-absorption, the overconsumption, the lack of diversity, the self-disgust when I realize I’m just another entitled young person in the sea of entitled young people who take over Dolores Park every weekend. Not to mention our sports teams win all the time now (what’s the deal?). We like pretending we’re natives, but none of us are, really.

What can I consider mine – or in other words, what is my place? Maybe the Bay is my kitchen. My first attempts at constructing a home and a routine and inviting people into my life. The well-traveled freeways between Oakland and Pleasanton, the comfort of my parents watching the 6 o’clock news every night, walking around Lake Merritt at 9 pm on a weeknight with my roommate (rats and all), and endless conversations till dawn in living rooms everywhere. We carve our own little channels and settle comfortably into those grooves, invisible lines on an invisible map.

The cranes on the Port of Oakland are permanent fixtures on that map, silent sentinels of change that is not always good. (News came last week that Uber is moving into the Sears Tower in downtown Oakland; the relentless march of gentrification continues.) Those cranes bear witness to my own well-worn pathways across this place I call home. Maybe that makes them partially mine, even though they existed long before I was born, even though I’ve made no mark on them, even though they’ll exist long after I’m gone.

growing up brown in a sea of white

Last week, I posed the following scenario to my Facebook community: “I’ve been thinking a lot about what it was like growing up as one of the only Indian kids in my elementary school. That shit has some lasting effects and I want to write about it. So help me out: If you’ve ever been one of the only brown kids in any grade, school, or class, like this status and leave a comment telling me one of the most traumatic/weird/interesting/masala-filled memories you might have from that very odd stage of our childhoods.”

The response was pretty incredible – almost 100 comments and replies in all. I also received texts and private messages about the thread, many of which describe the experience of participating as cathartic. These stories range from hilarious (“whenever someone said ‘Indiana,’ I thought they were having trouble saying India”) to stereotypical (“do you worship cows? what tribe are you from?”), to heartbreaking (“someone called me dirt – brown on the outside, brown on the inside….to this day, it is the most hurtful thing anyone has ever said to me”…or “I was really embarrassed about my mom’s accent so I never invited people over and, sometime in middle school, asked her to not talk to people from school.”) These stories touch on really complex issues – power, gender, politics, race, and it made me think a lot what I want to explore on this blog.

It’s obvious that many communities can connect with these experiences. Most immigrants and minorities have similar or worse stories; not only that, I’m sure anyone who’s ever been bullied can relate. Many of my friends have pointed out that these experiences have made us into who we are today – strong, adaptive, empathetic, resilient people. Identities forged through struggle. In fact, sometimes I feel a weird sense of loss when I think about how the next generation will probably never go through any of this; they may not be able to relate to our experiences. The world has already gotten significantly better. We’re also a little more mature ourselves. We seem to have kind of collectively gotten over the traumas of stinky foods (because Indian food is freaking delicious and we all know it). I don’t wish my name to be ‘Melody’ any more, and when my name gets butchered nowadays, I know it’s not my problem. I’m glad to report I haven’t been asked what tribe I’m from since elementary school.

But some of it sticks with us to this day, and not always in a productive way. Sometimes I feel like we take these memories and crumple them up into a tiny ball and tuck them away into a hidden part of our hearts. Sometimes I think those of us who are part of communities with non-Indians just don’t even bother sharing these stories, because when those friends or loved ones don’t get it or say the wrong thing, it hurts. Sometimes I think we forget that others share these same experiences and could be a community for us. Sometimes I think some of us don’t even know how to be our full, true selves because, from such a young age, we’ve always been hiding parts of ourselves, performing parts, playing roles.

Not to get all Freudian, but these childhood experiences definitely have implications for some of my issues today. Struggling to define my spirituality. Not wanting to be a representative for my culture but feeling like I have to. Not having any language beyond what was learned in high school to deal with complex issues like caste or patriarchy. Figuring out whom to be friends with or date. Realizing that I want to stand in solidarity with other movements and minorities, but not necessarily feeling like I fit in there either.  Trying to live up to parental or grandparental expectations. I know I’m not the only one.

This is what I want to explore. So many people really needed the experience of sharing and hearing what others have to say; I know there’s a hunger to make those connections, to find out more, to figure out why we are the way we are. I want us to unleash the voice that we may have hidden for years. I speak American so well that I’ve learned to silence the Other voice – many of us have. It’s the voice that tells me when something feels weird, or isn’t quite right, or makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s the voice that’s hard to resolve, the voice of ambiguity and pain and struggle, but it’s also the voice that I find is truest to myself.

The Facebook post was just the beginning.