Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

473. Violence

In 2000s, 2010s, Aging, blogs and blogging, Britain, culture, Family, Immigration, Media, Politics, Stories, United States on April 27, 2020 at 2:11 am

This is the twenty-second entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

The United States is characterized by violence. After 50 years in this country, I am still not inured to it. Is it more violent than other countries? Certainly more violent than other wealthy countries. And the violence is not only measured in firepower, although there is plenty of that, but in the less visible structural violence of a dog-eat-dog society, and the epistemic violence that creates and marginalizes people whose lives are expendable.

I could write a long, mind-numbing piece documenting the violence at every level: the permawar, the mightiest military by far on the planet by just about every metric, a military presence in the most countries–of military bases, combat troops, and counter-terrorism forces–the preemptive strikes, the drone bombings, the U.S. as simultaneously the world’s foremost arms exporter and the world’s policeman. I could write all that; but you already know it, don’t you?

What about the culture of violence at home, the militarization of our society that goes so deep we no longer even notice it? Take the top-grossing movie in the U.S. in 2019: Avengers: Endgame. It had been one of the most expensive to make, but soon paid off and became the highest-grossing movie of all time. I haven’t seen it, but watched the trailer (which, like the succession of trailers one is forced to watch whenever one goes to the movies, was absolutely draining, and robbed me of any desire I might have had to watch the whole film). Take a look and see what you think of both the violence and the militarization. I read the plot summary, then went to the parents’ guide to the movie to see what they had to say. By the way, it is rated PG-13, and according to Commonsense Media, not only have films got much more violence of the past few decades, but the rating have changed accordingly as viewers have become desensitized to the violence. Most films rated PG-13 today would have been R-rated in the 1970s. The parents’ guide described the scenes that might be experienced as disturbing, of which here are just two:

At the very beginning, Thanos is decapitated by Thor. We briefly see it fly off. This is somewhat graphic, but later on in the film we see a flashback through Nebula’s eyes showing it up close. This is extremely graphic and gruesome. However the disturbing aspect of this scene is lessened by the fact that the character deserved it.  

As long as we label the recipient of the violence the bad guy, it seems that we need not be disturbed by the gruesomeness of the violence inflicted on him. Interesting too, that beheadings are supposed to be the province of the barbarians. But when the good guys decapitate the enemy, it is something to revel in.

During the battle at the Avengers’ headquarters, the final battle between the Avengers and their now restored allies against Thanos, numerous filler characters / minions die, including getting blown up, tossed about, stepped on, impaled, blasted or shot, etc. None of it is bloody or dwelt on, less so than the climactic battle of Wakanda in “Infinity War”, but it’s still rather brutal and it has an even higher body count.

I flinched when I read the term “filler characters”, since the deaths of these characters were clearly not expected to be as disturbing because those killed weren’t the main characters with whom the viewers identified. In a battle with say, ISIL forces in Iraq, would ISIL and Iraqi casualties alike be in that same category of “filler characters” to an American TV audience, even though the Iraqis were U.S. allies and would be on the ground taking the direct hits, while the U.S military personnel provided the supporting firepower from a place of safety on high?

SWAT team prepared (Wikipedia)

It has been increasingly evident over the past decade—actually, since the beginning of the never-ending War on Terror in September, 2001—that U.S. society itself has been becoming more militarized, as has the police force and policing in general. A recent study has demonstrated that the police use of SWAT teams more often deployed on communities of color, is counter-productive: they do not reduce crime or protect the police but they do hurt the reputation of the police in the eyes of the public. Whether studies like this one will affect policy remains to be seen.

The violence at home has also been amply documented and, I have already prevailed upon your forbearance too long. Suffice it to say that the U.S. rate of incarceration is the highest in the world bar none, that there were more mass shootings than days in the year in 2019. The Gun Violence Archive documents them, and the Giffords Law Center both document and seeks to prevent gun violence in general, pointing out in its informational brochures that Americans are 25 times more likely to die of gun violence than residents of peer nations—France, Canada, Germany, Australia, the U.K. , and Japan.

But there is yet another pervasive violence that is less visible but no less deadly. It’s the jungle of unregulated U.S. capitalism, a structural violence that creates ever-deepening economic inequalities in American society. The more than half-a-million Americans homeless on any given night attest to it, as do the 8.5% or 27.9 million Americans uninsured against medical expenses as of 2018; and of the people who were insured, 29% were underinsured. The uninsured and underinsured people are disproportionately poor and people of color; and for those whose health insurance coverage came with their jobs, the massive job loss that has resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic has left millions more Americans without health insurance in a global pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also made American society’s invisible structural violence starkly visible in the shockingly high percentages of the coronavirus fatalities who are African American and Latino who are dying at two to three times the rate of white Americans. On the Navajo Reservation during COVID-19, where the death rate is nearly 10 times higher than in the State of Arizona, many people are unable to take the basic preventive measure of hand-washing because 30% of homes do not have running water. Similarly, in the hard-hit hotspot of Detroit, Michigan, where approximately 80% of the population is African American, the city shut off water to 11,000 homes in 2019, and many have still not had it restored.

This is the daily violence of pervasive inequality in the richest and most powerful country in the world, which shows in poor health, high rates of chronic disease such as diabetes and respiratory conditions, higher rates of poverty, incarceration, and death. Poverty is violence; and so is our political system with its roots in slavery and dispossession. The very language we use is structured in violence, epistemic violence that dehumanizes whole groups of people and makes their lives cheap.

The English side of my family always thought we were fabulously wealthy because we had moved to America. Little did they know that even the poorest among them, at least before the recent cuts to the National Health Service, were more at peace than my immigrant parents were in their old age, despite their house and car and bank account. The Welfare State that was put in place after the Second World War was a safety net for elderly and vulnerable Britons, providing a sense of security that my parents, who had both worked hard to enable us to attain a comfortable middle-class life in the States, just didn’t have.

It’s a jungle out there.

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458. Graduate School

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, culture, Education, Immigration, parenting, postcolonial, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 9, 2020 at 2:01 am

This is the seventh entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Graduate School. 

In 1987, twelve years after having completed my B.A. in English, I found myself in graduate school in an English MA-PhD program. I say “found myself” because never in a million years had I considered going for a doctorate until I was actually doing it. After moving to the farm in the early 1980s and casting about for some worthwhile employment in the surrounding towns, it struck me that since the local schools were failing to teach the children to read, I might usefully get my M.A. in Teaching and become a reading specialist. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but reading had always been my passion. However, the local state college didn’t offer enough courses to enable me to complete the MAT, so they recommended that I apply to the nearest state university, some 30 miles away. With a two-year-old baby a 60-mile roundtrip commute already pushed my limit, so UMass Amherst was the only graduate school to which I applied, and the English department only had an MA-PhD program. Though initially I told myself that I could simply stop at the M.A., it was soon clear that I was going to go all the way. But if my graduate studies came about by accident, then—despite the inevitable, and not inconsiderable, costs to other areas of my life—it was a fortunate accident, because in some very important ways they brought me back to myself.

I have always been told that I talk too much. My primary school report cards said so, and so did my high-school friends’ entries in my autograph book. The move to high school in the U.S. at fifteen didn’t shut me up either, as I felt fully accepted by my small group of friends, all of whom for one reason or another were not part of the myriad cliques that divided the school. But college did silence me. My typical mode as an undergraduate was to slouch in the back with dark glasses on, metaphorically speaking, feeling completely out of place, and routinely tormenting myself at the thought of all my parents’ hard-earned money that I was wasting. I made few friends in my first two years there and spent more time wondering what I was doing there than actually doing something. It was only after taking a year off to study in London that I returned to the States with a sense of purpose, and finally learned a great deal in my final year. But most of the time I felt like an outsider in an alien environment with people who didn’t understand or include me and didn’t have the least interest in doing so. No doubt many fellow-students felt that way too, but my old gregarious self went into eclipse during those years, especially in classroom settings, where I hardly said a word unless called upon.

Merle Hodge

Returning to university for graduate school, I was a few years older than most of my cohort, and had the confidence of the intervening years of life experience. It was also very lucky for me that at the outset I met a group of young international faculty from India and South Africa, barely older than I was, who mentored and introduced me to an emergent field that I seemed to have been waiting for all my life. Looking at the course catalog for my first semester I noticed that a Dr. Ketu Katrak, a professor with an Indian-sounding name, was offering a course called “Commonwealth Literature.” Interesting, I thought, literature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts? But it turned out to be literature of the British Commonwealth, the name the Britisher gave to an emergent body of writing that, in the late 1980s, was about to rename itself postcolonial literature.

Chinua Achebe

In that first course we read works by Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ousmane Sembène and Ama Ata Aidoo from Africa, by Merle Hodge and George Lamming from the Caribbean, Anita Desai and Mulk Raj Anand from India, and I was hooked. Where had these works been hiding all my life? As an undergraduate I hadn’t been able to read anything other than British and American literature written well before the Second World War. A Passage to India (1924), the most recent British novel on the curriculum there and the only one set in India, had been written by an Englishman, albeit a wonderful writer deeply critical of British colonial rule. With Ketu Katrak graciously consenting to become my dissertation director, I immersed myself in the study of twentieth-century literatures from India, Africa, the Caribbean, and the postcolonial diaspora and the years just flew by, until one day Andrew gently reminded me that perhaps it was time for me to finish up, and at last I did, eight years after I had begun.

I was only taking two courses a semester because I was teaching at the same time and Nikhil was only two years old when I began my studies. Both my guys were nothing if not supportive. Andrew and I barely saw each other during those first years of grad school, because he was with Nikhil in Winchendon while I was away at UMass and I was with Nikhil while he was away at the press in Boston. Dear Andrew would occasionally nod off while reading bedtime stories to Nikhil and I would return to find the baby wide awake, beaming from ear to ear, with his dad fast asleep and snoring. Returning to Winchendon the day of my PhD qualifying exam, little Nikhil told me that he had kept all his fingers crossed for me all day. As a three-year-old he rode to the administration offices on my hip when the unionizing graduate employees were calling for family health insurance and childcare support (both of which we won). And he met many of the postcolonial writers and scholars who passed through the five-college area, including Anita Desai and her teenage daughter Kiran, who babysat for him for a semester while I was taking an African literature class with Chinua Achebe.

Shakespeare-Wallah (1965)

I’ll close with an anecdote from graduate school that exemplifies what I’ve been trying to feel my way toward. One semester I was auditing a Shakespeare class with the brilliant Normand Berlin (who at twice our age put us students to shame with his energy). My classmates knew their Shakespeare much better than I did; but of a class full of Shakespeare lovers, the two students who were head-and-shoulders above the rest came from Asia: one woman from Manila, the Philippines, and the other from India, a Bengali woman from Calcutta. My point is that in this particular context in the late 1980s, foreigners and immigrants like us were not outsiders, but at the center of an exciting new literary-cultural movement. We didn’t have to slouch in the back with dark glasses on as I had as an undergraduate. (America’s honeymoon with the Other didn’t last long; but that’s another story.)

The point is that this new field of literary studies gave me permission to delve deeply into literature and history that told my story and the stories of my parents. While the British Empire had invaded countries around the world and grown wealthy at their expense, my father had traveled to study in England, where and my mother had met and fallen in love, returning to India with her after my birth. I had grown up in newly Independent India in English-medium schools reading English children’s books (very good ones, I hasten to add). But it was only after coming to the United States that I started studying the literatures, cultures, and histories of the countries I had left behind. Now it became my mission to help students who might not have been exposed to this wealth of literature from around the world to fall in love with it as I had, and to see that the world was there to learn from rather than to dominate.

I was still talking too much, but now I had a captive audience.

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454. Cooperation

In blogs and blogging, culture, Food, Politics, Stories, United States, Work on April 3, 2020 at 11:26 pm

This is the third entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Cooperation. The United States is proud to be an emblem of capitalism. It believes religiously in capitalist ideology, and sees the spirit of competition as its engine, associating competitiveness with good health and individualism with freedom. When Americans speak of fostering “healthy competition” I’m never quite sure whether they mean that there is a healthy and an unhealthy way to compete or whether they consider competition to be inherently healthy. Most of the time, it seems quite clear that they mean the latter: that competition itself is healthy, and any other way of engaging with the business of living is suspect.

What of competition’s opposite, cooperation? Despite the lip service given to cooperation, I find that in the U.S. it tends to be thought of as a sign of weakness or passivity, certainly not a leadership quality or a source of creativity. When someone is labeled “uncooperative,” it really means that they aren’t a “team player”—that they aren’t willing to shut up and do what they’re told. Funny, that contradictory message: you are supposed to be a self-motivated individualist, but only when carrying out the orders of your superiors. If you’re a maverick, as John McCain called himself in his 2008 presidential campaign, is that a good thing? It depends who you ask or what you’re refusing to fall in line with.

Is she ever going to stop this rambling, you may well ask. Sorry, I digress. I want to tell you about how I discovered various kinds of cooperatives in the 1970s, my first decade in the United States, and how they changed my life. To varying degrees, they all sprang from dissatisfaction with the dominant modus operandi—which is, Get the best deal for yourself and screw the rest.

at a Co-op reunion

I was introduced to cooperatives as an undergraduate, when I decided to move into a cooperative  house in the Spring semester of my senior year in college. Had I discovered it much earlier, I would have had a much happier college experience. What was the difference between living in the co-op house and living in the college dorms?

First, we saved money by cutting down the college’s profit margin, cutting out middlemen, and doing much of the work ourselves. Although the two houses that made up the Co-op were owned by the college, they were relatively autonomous in that while we rented them, we were relatively autonomous. We lived in a residential neighborhood a bit of a walk from campus. We didn’t have custodians cleaning and making repairs, neither did we have to purchase a college meal plan; instead, we bought our food in bulk from the local food cooperative federation and did all our own cooking and cleaning. We did have a resident advisor based in the house, a graduate student, but his presence was low-key and he maintained a strict hands-off policy with regard to just about everything. One of the college’s main deterrents to students trying to save money by moving out of the dorms was a hefty Off-Campus Fee that wiped out all possible savings; but if one moved to the co-op house, the Off-Campus Fee did not apply. Perhaps they saw us as a necessary safety valve for misfits and malcontents.

Second, because the college removed itself from our lives at the Co-op House, we had a much more interesting group of housemates, students who, for a wide variety of reasons, wanted to put a little distance between themselves and the prevailing culture on campus. Boyfriends and girlfriends who didn’t attend our college were embraced by the community as well. We had a resident Elder, a homeless man who moved in one night and never left (see TMA 158, The Pagli and the Tramp. Co-opers generally eschewed displays of class status, intellectual arrogance, or academic competitiveness; tended to be less politically conservative than the average student; accepted everyone, regardless of their personal idiosyncracies; and even tolerated a wide range of culinary skills on the part of the self-selected cooks.

I signed up to make dinner once a week because not many people ventured to prepare meals for 40 people, so cooks were in demand. A bonus for me was that if you cooked at least once a week you never had to perform any of the onerous house-cleaning duties, which were decidedly not my strong suit. An endearing Co-op custom was to cheer for the cook at every meal, and people did so religiously no matter what fare had been served up, though they would cheer more full-throatedly for meals they really loved. The trick was to keep both the meat-eaters and the vegetarians happy, which I could reliably do with Indian food, which was universally liked, even when it was all-vegetarian. In contrast, living in the college dorms as a vegetarian in the mid-1970s was miserable.

The third difference was the feeling of family, best exemplified one evening when the phone on the landing rang for a housemate. Now, even though we were close, I didn’t know all the co-opers equally well; but I was able to tell that caller exactly where the person they were trying to reach had gone and when she would be home, realizing in that moment that I could have done the same for just about everyone in the house. We listened to music, attended concerts, and took trips together, enlisted each other in improvement projects and contributed to murals for the house, enrolled in some of the same courses, helping each other with assignments and deadlines, created and tended a garden, compost heap and all, and played group volleyball every evening, all the while having the delicacy not to pry into each other’s private or family lives unless our housemates chose to share them with us.

It’s hard to how explain exactly how co-op house culture differed from life in the college dorms. The Good Old Boy, secret-society, prep-school, legacy ethos was entirely absent. We had a dartboard with the images of notorious dictators like the Shah of Iran and President Marcos of the Philippines, and took bets on who would be the first to be bumped off. We had a Workers of the World Unite! mural with that slogan in numerous languages—my contribution was Hindi. We held periodic multi-course banquets to which we invited non-Co-oper friends. We had a housemate whose sole duty it was to cultivate and maintain our supply of yoghurt. It was a gentle, nonjudgmental space where I never felt out of place as I regularly had in the dorms.

That early experience of cooperative living set a standard for me in my life after college, where I went on to live in a series of group houses with like-minded friends who shared the cooking and cleaning and much else besides. Even after our marriage, Andrew and I lived for seven years in a group house in the country where our son Nikhil was born and lived until age five. When we moved into our first home as a nuclear family, we did appreciate the new experience of privacy, but missed the company. For Nikhil, group living was the norm; he had never known anything else. When someone he liked came over for dinner, he would regularly ask them if they were going to stay over; if he really liked them he would ask hopefully if they were moving in.

I have not discussed the many other kinds of cooperatives and cooperation that have been so important to my life, and only have time to mention them here: participating in unions at work (TMA 375, 400) co-founding a cooperative news service (TMA 102), and engaging with food cooperatives at a number of levels (see TMA 114). They all had a spirit of egalitarianism, sought to reduce profit margins and eliminate the profit motive, and emphasized the sharing of knowledge and working for the common good rather than seeing others as an obstacle to one’s own individual advancement. Fundamentally, I believe, competition is inherently unhealthy and cooperation is eminently sane. Don’t mean to be pompous or polemical; cooperation has been a lot of fun.

I realize that after 50 years in the United States, I am fundamentally out of step with it in my beliefs about the unhealthiness of competition. However, I also know that there is a strong and perhaps growing minority of Americans who are sick of what rampant U.S. capitalism has brought us and, in this time of the Coronavirus pandemic, who know that the system itself is just plain sick.

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450. A Virtual RUSH

In Books, culture, Music, singing, Stories on March 14, 2020 at 11:10 pm

Nearly every month for nigh on ten years I have been heading up to the Pelham Free Public Library of a Saturday night for RUSH, Rise Up Singing in Harmony, founded by Roger Conant, who passed away less than nine months ago. RUSH is based on the group singing songbooks compiled by Peter Blood and Annie Patterson which have given rise to hundreds of groups like ours all over the world. You show up, with or without musical training, with or without a musical instrument, with or without the Rise Up Singing (1988) and Rise Again (2015) songbooks (there will be extra copies on hand if you don’t own one), and go round the circle singing your hearts out for as long as the group agrees to stick around.

We all count on RUSH for camaraderie and courage through good times and bad. Roger passed the baton to Dan and Nancy, and they have faithfully carried it forward, until just yesterday, when the coronavirus shut just about everything down, including the library. We received two messages from Dan and Nancy, the first one saying stoutly that we would meet as usual and just sit a little farther apart; and the second, just a few hours later, sighing, “The guitarist is willing but the library is closed.” And with it, RUSH. I suppose it’s just as well, since it must be said that most of us are in getting up there in age, and therefore in the population most vulnerable to the virus.

Today, as the afternoon wore on, I found myself singing on my own and lamenting the sad, RUSH-less state of affairs,
until I decided to take matters into my own hands by selecting a handful of songs from each songbook—a baker’s dozen in all—and sharing them below with hyperlinks. Many of the Youtube listeners have posted the lyrics, so perhaps some of you will click on a few and sing along in the spirit of RUSH, even if you don’t have the books.

From the Old Blue Book (Rise Up Singing):

Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore (p. 6)
This is the original, by John Prine, from his first album.
Pack Up Your Sorrows (p. 67)
Richard and Mimi Fariña with Pete Seeger on his television show Rainbow Quest. (Check out Mimi’s beautiful descant.)
Banks of the Ohio (p. 99)
Doc Watson sings with Bill Monroe. (Oh, the harmonizing!)
Catch the Wind (p. 122)
Donovan (at 19).  And here’s Sara Lee Guthrie’s cover.
Shake Sugaree (p. 185)
Elizabeth Cotten on the guitar, with her granddaughter singing.
John O’ Dreams (p. 133)
Christy Moore sings Bill Caddick’s beautiful lullaby.

And from the New Brown Book (Rise Again):

Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie (p. 9)
I love Sweet Honey In the Rock’s rendition, and their harmonies.
Dump the Bosses off Your Back (p. 284)
from the Wobblies’ Little Red Songbook (“to fan the flames of discontent”)
Dear Abby (p. 90)
John Prine again (I can’t help it), a bracing tonic for these hard times: get over yourself!
Many Rivers to Cross (p. 136)
Ah, Jimmy Cliff, from The Harder They Come.
Don’t Worry Be Happy (p. 104)
Bobby McFerrin, with some advice we could all use.
On the Sunny Side of the Street (p. 145)
Billie Holiday’s version has always been the only one for me.
Iko Iko (p. 105)
A New Orleans favorite, sung here by The Dixie Cups (1965). (And here’s another, grittier, version, by the late Dr. John.)

Until we meet again, take care of yourselves and let’s take care of each other.

P.S. Here are a couple more RUSH-related stories from the TMA archives:

No Rush (May, 2015)
“I never died,” says he (August, 2019)

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446. Musings on Multiculturalism

In culture, Education, Food, Inter/Transnational, reflections, Stories on December 7, 2019 at 1:49 pm

Our new house is just a block away from the campus of the University of Massachusetts, the largest public research university in the state. For the past four years in a row its dining program has been ranked the best in the nation, bar none. My family can attest to this; my nephew Tyler completed his four years of undergraduate studies at UMass this year and in his first year, I remember, the often-rocky path from home to dorm life was made smooth by the fabulous food. Better still, family members eat free, so we would regularly be invited to join Tyler for an all-you-can-eat meal with a dizzying array of choices, master chefs and fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Since Tyler graduated we don’t go as often, but it’s a terrific side-benefit of having UMass on our doorstep. Last night Andrew and I walked over to the nearest dining commons for dinner, since we didn’t feel like cooking and on Fridays there’s fried fish on the menu. Among a great many other things.

During the stressful last 12 days of classes, UMass Dining is additionally featuring special treats, comfort foods, and student favorites every day. Yesterday, according to the schedule, the special was the intriguing-sounding Jian Bing crepes, today, sticky rice with mango, and tomorrow, Tonkotsu Ramen bar. But when we entered the main dining hall all we could see were the regular stations—the fish with roasted acorn squash and stuffed red peppers, the gluten-free Jamaican jerk chicken and sesame collard greens, the risotto bar, made to order as you watched, stir fries, also made to order with a choice of ingredients and sauces, the obligatory pasta and pizza sections, burgers of course, including vegetarian black-bean burgers, salads of all descriptions, organic teas, milk from the local dairy farm, fresh fruit and hot chocolate to go, in compostable cups. But ornery as I am, I was disappointed. Where were the advertised specials?

We started with the fish, but even though it was melt-in-the-mouth fresh and flaky, I fretted about what wasn’t there. Still, we enjoyed our first course as I looked around and people-watched. Having endured an undergraduate experience in the early 1970s with a pretty homogeneous group of classmates in terms of race and class, I delight in the international diversity of the UMass student body with so many students from South and East Asia. In my day I had not a single South Asian classmate. But where was the Asian food this evening?

Finally I made inquiries and was directed to an adjacent dining room. There I saw students with promising-looking deep bowls, suggesting the proximity of ramen. But all I could find behind the food counters was the dessert special, freshly made waffle bowls filled with the ice cream and topping of your choice. With ramen on my mind, these failed to tempt. Eventually I was directed to a third room adjoining the second one, and Bingo! There were all the missing specials I’d seen on the online menu. And there, too, were almost all the Asian students.

After racing back to tell Andrew the good news I loaded up a bowl and a plate and came back later for a second plate. After filling the bowl at the ramen station with dumplings and a choice of toppings, I found the Indian food station: pullao rice, naan, chicken, paneer and vegetables, channa (chickpeas), and mini-samosas. Reminding myself that we could make this at home, I took a very modest helping, so as to save space for other choices. It was ridiculous–I was already full, but this food was begging to be enjoyed. The Jian Bing crepes were delicious, made with besan (chickpea flour), egg, and chopped scallions and filled with lettuce, crunchy fried wonton strips, and shredded chicken, and the obliging cook made an all-vegetarian one for Andrew. The station next-door was making sushi to order, but I reluctantly had to give it a miss this time. We ate our fill, followed up with a bowl of sticky rice with mango (delicious) and a gratuitous slice of chocolate mousse pie (too much, I know, but not to be missed) and waddled home clutching cups of hot chocolate (me) and coffee (Andrew). But what I really wanted to talk about was the people.

As I was finding my way to the dining hall with all the deliciousness, I noticed that there were more and more students of color sitting at the tables in the room adjacent to ours, and when I found what I had been looking for, I realized why. On the way back with my first bowl of ramen and plate of Indian food, I saw a long table filled with beautiful, happy, animatedly-talking South Asian students and—I kid you not—a row of young men who all looked like twin brothers of Hasan Minhaj. Now you know that I don’t think all South Asians look alike, but this was completely true, even taking into account my penchant for exaggeration. I was happy to see East Asians, South Asians, students with hijabs, students fresh from sports practice and still in their shorts (it was snowing outside, mind you), students with Santa hats, all laughing and chattering and being warmed inside and out with that delicious comfort food.

Back at our table in the “traditional” room, as the empty plates piled up and I slowed down considerably, my eyes strayed to the students at the tables around us. Even in this room there was a diversity of students, some eating alone, some in couples, and some of the small groups were mixed: men and women, Asians and African Americans, jocks and gaming aficionados, all bonding over food. I can’t say for sure if there were any mixed couples, though, and wondered whether the past fifty years had seen much change in this area, one particularly dear to my heart. There were two women across from us, one South Asian and the other East Asian, and the East Asian student had a large, soft, buttery piece of naan which she was trying to eat with chopsticks. I watched her out of the corner of my eyes with a huge smile spreading over my face, as she tried to handle the naan daintily with the chopsticks, nibbling away at the edges and, as it kept lurching dangerously and threatening to escape, she bit off larger chunks to get it to a manageable size. It looked like one of those contests in which people have to try to take bites out of apples on a string with their hands tied behind their back. By the end of it she was a pro, and, undaunted by the rising carb count, began to tuck heartily into a bowl of sticky rice and mango.

I couldn’t help reflecting on U.S. multiculturalism. It was all here—the benefits of diversity showing in the mixed groups, the exposure of meat-and-potatoes Irish American students to stir fries and sushi, of strictly-stir-fries Asian students to pizza and burgers that their mothers might never prepare at home, the options to suit every dietary restriction. Andrew asked a server to put some kale on his plate of beer-battered fish, but they insisted on giving him a separate plate so as not to accidentally mix a gluten-free dish with a gluten-containing one. But on our way home I thought of the table of Hasan Minhaj lookalikes and the dining room filled almost exclusively with students of color. I thought ruefully of my own student days with not a single South Asian student to be seen (and no vegetarian options but cottage cheese and pasta without sauce), but also, with a pang, of the tables of laughing Latino and African American students to which I didn’t belong any more than I did among the prep-school white American students (we had only immigrated to the U.S. the year before). Much of the time I ate hastily alone and then smuggled some of the meager vegetarian options, such as there were, up to my dorm room for Andrew. Here at UMass, there was not only hot sauce, there were choices of hot sauce, from the ubiquitous tabasco, to Mexican salsas, to the glorious Sriracha. What I would have given for even one of those back in college!

But the celebration of multiculturalism has notoriously meant exposing students to a diversity of holidays and foods but not much else in terms of meaningful structural change. For the most part, despite the diversity in the UMass student body, they still sat together in their separate racial and ethnic groups; and the dramatic demographic difference between the two dining halls was sobering. Still I consoled myself that there had been progress. Asian and Caribbean American students had a taste of their own home cooking and people of their own ethnicity and cultural background to bond with. Although UMass Amherst, out in the boondocks of Western Massachusetts, has far fewer African American students than UMass Boston does, it was heart-warming to see a small group of South Asian and African American students together. And the image that stays with me: the delightful hybridity of that young East Asian student working to maneuver that unmanageably large piece of fresh naan bread into her mouth. Even now, in my mind’s eye, it makes me smile. It’s messy, but we’re getting better at it.

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440. Why this Fussing and Fighting?

In culture, Family, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, reflections, seasons, Stories, Work on September 2, 2019 at 3:07 pm

Have you noticed that the antics we are observing on the national and global scenes are playing out at work, in our hometowns, and in our personal lives as well? Instructive, isn’t it, the fussing and fighting—chaos and confusion, corruption and contention, dissonance and division—Orwellian Newspeak, through-the-looking-glass opposite language that everyone in power is employing in this post-truth era, and incivility to friends and foes alike? It’s hard to withstand it and to maintain one’s own internal harmony and balance.

As I begin what promises to be a busy teaching year, I think of the tension, insecurity, and barely suppressed anger I am carrying, even in my privileged life, and call to mind the desperation of the millions upon millions of uprooted people around the world, refugees from war, repression, environmental destruction and climate change who have been forced to leave their native places on foot and find a new place they can call home, at least provisionally. I think of the families who have lost beloved pieces of themselves through drug addiction and gun violence, refugees and asylum-seekers who have been separated from each other and herded into camps, people who have been deported and their family members who have been left behind, disenfranchised prisoners and their families, homeless people and outcastes who are demonized. The stress I feel—and this is not to deny or minimize it—is but a microcosm of what so many of my fellow-human beings are enduring every moment of every day.

Still, we human beings are resilient; we are. We can suffer what should be mortal blows and still get back up and trudge another mile. We can retain our humanity no matter how much we have been brutalized. And we can remember to slow down, breathe, and be present and civil in our interactions with each other, even to those who do not, perhaps cannot reciprocate. We owe it to ourselves and to the future.

When I get caught up in the paranoia fueled by the current climate, I remind myself that I am not alone. Face it, there is no security anywhere at this time, and all that we can be certain of is change. Working together to create inclusive, mutually supportive communities is our best chance of surviving and maintaining our sanity, both individual and collective. My favorite writer Doris Lessing speaks urgently of the Substance-Of-We-Feeling (SOWF) that is spread thin at this time, that we must cultivate if we are to escape the every-man-for-himself mentality that is destroying this planet and driving us all to extinction. Here’s the band Canned Heat, singing Let’s Work Together. We can do it; we must.

Back to school tomorrow. Keep calm and carry on, Everyone. One Love!

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422. One Love

In blogs and blogging, culture, Inter/Transnational, Music, Politics, Stories, Words & phrases on April 19, 2019 at 2:31 am

 

Reggae: music of the postcolonial diaspora, now protected by the UN                         BBC News, 2018 (photo:Mike Prior)

 

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter will stand for One Love.

In the 1970s, as a young woman and a new immigrant, Reggae music brought my worlds together and soothed my soul. Bob Marley and Peter Tosh sang of Third World and poor people’s struggles in Zimbabwe and throughout Africa, for equal rights and justice. They warned that there would continue to be war  and rumours of war until it was achieved. We don’t want no peace, sang Peter Tosh, We need equal rights and justice, we shouted back. Them belly full but we hungry, called out Bob Marley, A hungry mob is an angry mob, we responded, with the I-Threes. We little people didn’t have nuclear arsenals, but we had a small axe.

Reggae music was not all righteous anger; it sang the blues, songs of sorrow, exile, and longing. It sang of homelessness with talkin’ blues and exile by the rivers of Babylon, times of terror and transition with Sitting in Limbo and desolation in a strange land with Many Rivers to Cross. It wailed of so much trouble in the world but sang praise to the salt of the earth in Night Shift.

And then it offered us hope and succor. Bob Marley sang, Baby don’t worry about a thing, ‘cos every little thing’s gonna be all right. He had to go, we knew that, but while I’m gone, mind, No woman no cry. (By the way, Andrew and I were at that very  Harvard Stadium Amandla Concert in the videoclips above where Bob Marley and the I-Threes sang “Zimbabwe,” “War,” and “No Woman No Cry.”)

Through all the pain and struggle, all that fussing and fighting, we did want peace. Reggae held up a sustaining vision for the world, a message of unity and inclusion: One Love. It still does.

 

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415. G is for the Great Migration

In blogs and blogging, Books, culture, Immigration, Music, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 10, 2019 at 1:13 pm

This is my seventh entry for the 2019 Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge: G for the Great Migration.

An African-American family leaves Florida for the North during the Great Depression. (MPI/Getty Images)

An axiom of the U.S. national discourse is the statement that we are a nation of immigrants—with the exception of the Native Americans. But this oft-repeated idea (and I myself admit to repeating it just yesterday) has yet another glaring omission: the Africans taken from their homes against their will, made to travel the deadly Middle Passage, and enslaved in America. They were not immigrants fleeing persecution or looking for “a better life”;  their imaginations were not captured by the American Dream; on the contrary, better lives for the European settlers were achieved on their backs, the freedom of the American Dream depended in large part on their un-freedom. So yes, Africans were migrants, but not of their own accord. But there is a migration that they did undertake out of choice—one that, strangely, is often unacknowledged when telling the American story—and that is the Great Migration.

The Great Migration, which started as a trickle in 1916, and then grew to a flood over the next six decades, was the movement of more than six million African Americans from the Jim Crow South to cities in the North. As Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, has written: By the time it was over, in the 1970s, 47 percent of all African-Americans were living in the North and West. A rural people had become urban, and a Southern people had spread themselves all over the nation. Despite the end of the abhorrent institution of slavery after the Civil War, despite having been declared U.S. citizens with the right to vote, Reconstruction had been sabotaged and African Americans had been systematically impoverished, disenfranchised and marginalized from mainstream American society. White supremacy was rampant, and a reign of terror was maintained by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, supported by state governments. According to the NAACP, thousands of lynchings took place between 1882 and 1968, mostly of blacks, and mostly in the South. During that period, there were 581 lynchings in Mississippi, 531 in  Georgia, and 493 in Texas alone. Life became unbearable, and  eventually African Americans, prevented from declaring themselves at the ballot box, had had enough. They voted with their feet, and left. Building their lives anew in new environments required strength, courage, and creativity, and all those they had in abundance.

The Great Migration led to the transformation of American society in many, many ways: increasing urbanization, a cultural renaissance in almost every arena, people’s movements, notably the Black Power and Civil Rights Movement, that led to the end of Jim Crow segregation and profound political change for all Americans. The South was not forgotten, either. African American families in the north, like so many migrants, made the pilgrimage back whenever they could to visit their children’s grandparents and their extended families, to what Farah Jasmine Griffin, in her first book Who Set You Flowin’: The African American Migration Narrative, has called “the site of the ancestor.”

At this time I can only pay homage to the cultural contributions of the Great Migration through one example. Look at the formation of Chess Records in Chicago, one of the centers of the blues as it migrated from places like the Mississippi Delta through musicians like McKinley Morganfield—the late, great Muddy Waters, without whom there would not have been rock-’n-roll as we know it.

Here’s Muddy Waters in 1963, giving an inimitable performance of Got My Mojo Working, with the help of Sonny Boy Williamson on harmonica and Willie Dixon on bass, both of whom were also Mississippi natives.

And here’s Muddy Waters with James Cotton (also from Mississippi), and Muddy Waters with Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy (from Louisiana).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grateful for the Great Migration and all that has flowed from it.

 

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413. E is for Emigrant, Expatriate, and Exile

In blogs and blogging, Books, culture, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, people, Politics, postcolonial, reading, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 6, 2019 at 6:54 pm

This is my fifth entry for the 2019 Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge and since, yet again, I couldn’t settle on just one, I offer you three related words: Emigrant, Expatriate, and Exile.

Emigrant is a word used much less frequently than its counterpart, Immigrant. People are emigrants when they leave their country of origin. When they arrive at their destination, they are immigrants. That seems cut-and-dried, doesn’t it? But it leaves me with all kinds of questions. Once an emigrant arrives and becomes an immigrant, is her emigrant status over and done with? Or does she become an emigrant all over again whenever she returns to her country of origin? What if the person seen as an immigrant in the new country actually thinks of himself as an emigrant and inhabits the remembered haunts of his past as much as he does the physical spaces inhabited in his present? Another way to look at it might be in terms of Raymond Williams’ concepts of dominant, emergent, and residual cultures or and social structures; the social structures of the new society may be dominant; the immigrant status may be seen as emergent, as the immigrants develop interesting new fusions of culture and thought; and the emigrant status may or may not be residual, with old traditions and habits of thought persisting. The bottom line, for me, is that the immigrant and the emigrant are the same person; it’s simply that the former word privileges the place of departure while the latter privileges the place of arrival.

I’ve had an English translation of W. G. Sebald’s 1992 work, The Emigrants,on my bookshelf going on two decades, and still haven’t read it. I’m not sure why; maybe it would call me out as a fellow-emigrant. Sebald was German, studied in Germany and in England and tried to return to Europe but could not settle; he lived in Britain for the second half of his life but continued to write in German. Here’s the closing paragraph of Elizabeth Jaeger’s review of the recent New Directions edition of The Emigrants:

Here in America we think in terms of immigration, people coming to us. All too often, we lose sight of the fact that these men and women were emigrants first, leaving a place they may have loved. We focus on their expectations, their dreams of a new life, and we have written history in a way that highlights what they are running towards. As a result, we often forget or overlook the reasons they fled, the shadows in pursuit, and the memories that may never stop haunting them. The Emigrants is a reminder that many immigrants are burdened with experiences that we are fortunate not to have endured.

An expatriate is a person who lives outside their native country. This category may include people who must live abroad for work, for tax purposes, because it is cheaper to live there, because the climate suits them. It can be a temporary status or it can become a way of life. For one reason or other, expatriates don’t completely burn their bridges back to their country of origin, neither do they fully put down roots in the new country; why not? Are they dilettantes, privileged people who, unlike political exiles who have been banned or expelled from their countries, have the choice to return if they so desire? Sometimes; but expatriates certainly don’t all have lives of luxury. Consider, for instance, the many African Americans who have lived or currently live outside the United States, in search of a place where they can feel free—or at least freer—to be themselves, outside of the U.S. straitjacket of race. France Francois interviews 10 African Americans living in as many different countries in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, and all of them say that they feel freer living abroad. Francois concludes her piece:

All the responses came from people who have lived abroad for years and have immersed themselves in a new society and culture, making a conscious decision to disengage from the U.S. and reaffirm their humanity elsewhere- an act that is still revolutionary in its simplicity almost 50 years after Baldwin left for Paris. Rather than remaining static, Baldwin reminded us that we have a responsibility “to move as largely and freely as possible.”

James Baldwin in Istanbul, 1965. National Museum of African American History and Culture

Kimberly Springer’s essay in The Atlantic, The Tricky Allure of Becoming a Black American Expatriate, notes that for generations African American artists and intellectuals have left the U.S.to find a place where they can be free from the toxic racism that they have to endure back “home” on a daily basis. Still, she notes that they face other struggles and no place is free from institutionalized inequities. She concludes:

Feeling free from the metaphorical shackles of American racism has lasting value. Yet, being a black expat, one who’s attuned to American racial suffering, can merely heighten one’s awareness of other colonialist histories around the world and the racial disparities that persist because of them—a far cry from actually escaping racism. Living abroad can mean becoming one’s full self and being more deeply engaged with black struggle throughout the diaspora. But after staying in London for seven years. . .I arrived at the sobering conclusion that it’s better the devil you know. And with that, I came home.

Exile is the state of being barred from one’s native country, typically for political or punitive reasons. An exile is a person who lives away from their native country, either from choice or compulsion; so, too, is an émigré: someone who has left their own country in order to settle in another, typically for political reasons.

In 1984, the late Edward Said, the eminent Palestian postcolonial scholar and author of Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism, Covering Islam, The World, the Text, and the Critic, and the memoir Out of Place, among other works, wrote, “Reflections on Exile,” later reissued in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays.  In an audio interview, Said explained that the essay

seemed to me to capture—for my purposes, anyway—the condition of being somebody away from the place where he was born and belonged to, which was my condition. And I tried to generalize out from that to a more widespread modern condition of exile, of uprootedness, of migration, immigration, expatriation, and so on.

While exile can be a terribly lonely state, in fact, as Said notes, it can be enlarged from an individual plight to the condition of our age, one in which we are all uprooted; all dislocated even if we have never moved outside of the town in which we were born, the ground itself shifting under our feet. We can choose to resent and resist the change, or we can seek to understand all the forces that have brought the world to this moment and seek, as Edward Said did all his life, to encourage people in this shrinking world to find ways to live together, with all their differences; to thrive in the insecurity of our times rather than to live in a permanent state of siege, trying in vain to shut out the feared barbarians at the gates.

Let me tell you a story of an exile. Back in early twentieth-century Japan, a man translated Marx into Japanese and was banished from the country for leftist activity. But in Japan at that time a man’s son could go into exile in his place, and so Takashi Ueda Ohta left the country of his birth forever and set out to travel the world. He eventually met and married Virginia Berry, an American woman, and together they moved to Munich, where their daughter, Toshi Aline Ohta, was born. The Ueda family returned to the United States and settled in New York City, where Toshi met and married the singer and musician Pete Seeger, and they became legends in the folk music community, living a long, joyful, engaged, hard-working life together that touched millions of people across three generations and around the world. Toshi Aline Ohta Seeger’s life was predicated on her father’s voluntary exile. But she went on to carry the best of her grandfather’s values to the world.

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406. Of Piercings, Pain, and Authenticity

In Books, culture, Family, Immigration, India, Stories, United States, women & gender on January 7, 2018 at 2:27 pm

(from indiaparenting.com)

For the past nine days and counting it has been a low-grade irritation at best; at worst, almost as excruciating as the opening scene in Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s novel, Ambiguous Adventure (L’Aventure Ambiguë, 1961), in which the young protagonist’s teacher, to drive his Qur’anic lessons home more deeply, grips Samba Diallo’s tender earlobe between the nails of his thumb and forefinger and pierces right through it. As the tenth day dawns, my dwindling hopes are at vanishing point, and there is no consolation. What else did I expect?

Let me start at the beginning. It’s about ear-piercing. In India, at least in Dad’s generation, ears were pierced at birth, during infancy or in early childhood, boys and girls alike. But mine were not done, and for some reason I can’t remember, I wasn’t inclined to get them done when I came of age. As I grew older, I came to consider it a barbaric practice, or so I retorted loudly whenever someone asked me why my ears weren’t pierced. For was ear-piercing different from any other form of ritual or cosmetic body-modification? Why would one want to violate the body’s integrity by piercing and scarring it?

Then I started getting earrings for presents. Dad returned from his first trip to India after our immigration to the States with beautiful silver necklace-and-earring sets, of which I could only wear the necklaces. And when Andrew and I went to India after our marriage, various relations wanted to present me with earrings fashioned from family gold, and were downright annoyed with me for not having pierced ears. What Indian woman didn’t have her ears pierced? Just more evidence of my cultural inauthenticity.

After dear Leela-kaki in Pune presented me with a pair of custom-made gold post earrings, my cousin Kalyani, with her characteristic no-nonsense efficiency, took me out into the alley behind the jeweller’s, where they did the job unceremoniously over an open flame. We continued on our travels with my newly-pierced ears, in the heat of May.

The outcome was predictable, I suppose. It was impossible to care for my ears properly while on the move, and they became infected. I can’t remember when I took out the earrings, but I kept them in until the situation was untenable. Upon returning to the U.S., I made the mistake of not leaving them in permanently, so every time I put on a pair of earrings, my ears would bleed afresh. Eventually I gave it up as a bad job and decided to let the hole seal up.

Ten, fifteen years went by. After Nikhil graduated from university he started going to India quite often and bringing back beautiful earrings for me, so I decided to try again. But when I got to the ear-piercing place at the local mall with my gold studs from India in hand, I found that they wanted you to purchase special earrings from them, and so I changed my mind and came away with nothing to show for it.

Fast forward another decade and my dear friend Marianne presented me with beautiful silver earrings, expecting me to put them on right away. Like everyone else, she had simply assumed that my ears were pierced: whose weren’t? I determined then and there that I would get the deed done this time, come what may, as a Christmas present to myself. Well, I did, and “what may” has now come to pass.

On my first free day after Christmas I set out for the mall, resolute. When I got to Claire’s, recommended because they regularly pierced children’s ears, I saw a pre-teen girl perched on the high stool waiting, her mother by her side, supporting her in this small coming-of-age ritual. Slim and leggy, like a young deer, she was shivering with equal parts eager and anxious anticipation, anticipation of the piercing itself, to be sure, but also of the solemnity of the occasion, of the adulthood into which it was initiating her, and all that it signaled, both pleasure and pain. I told her that I was nervous about my own coming ordeal, and was watching her carefully. If she cried, I would run a mile. She giggled, shivered again, and came through the ordeal sporting pretty pearl ear studs. Wreathed in smiles, she leaped off the stool to join her mother in shopping for new earrings. Her life was all ahead of her; what was I thinking, undergoing this ritual at my age? But now I was trapped: it was my turn.

It was a straightforward procedure, except for the numerous forms I had to sign releasing Claire’s from legal responsibility for anything and everything that might possibly go wrong. Besides whether to stay or to run a mile, there was just one choice to make: which one of their selection of post earrings I wanted put in my ear while the piercing healed. But I made the wrong choice.

I was all set to go ahead with a low-priced pair featuring gold clasps and a clear shiny stone of no particular value when the manager arrived and came on strong with a recommendation of the diamond earrings. They were “only” 40-odd dollars more, but they were smaller, sat closer to the ear, and came with a full replacement warranty should they break or get lost. Best of all, they were nice enough for me to wear them all the time as my default pair. Stupidly, I relented. After all, this had been a long time coming; why economize now?

But from the second that I heard the click of the hole punch, the problems began. One side felt relatively normal after the initial sharp pain of the piercing, but the other one felt wrong from the start. Both ears were soon red and swollen, accompanied by a persistent dull throb. I followed the cleaning and care instructions religiously for several days, but to no avail; things only got worse, to the extent that the sharp diamond studs were actually starting to get absorbed into my ear. I looked it up and found that it was called embedding; now that was truly frightening. A week out, I went to my doctor, who took one look at the studs and told me that they were on too tight. The problem, we soon discovered when we went to loosen them, was that the posts were too short and they were already on their loosest setting. She prescribed an antibiotic and recommended adding a saline wash and a thrice-daily heat pack  to the treatment regimen—if I didn’t want them taken out, that is. She said there was only a slim chance that things would improve, but that it was up to me how to proceed. So here I am four days later, and things aren’t appreciably better, although I keep telling myself that there is a slight improvement and I’ll give it just one more day.

Why didn’t I simply ask the doctor to remove the earrings and be done with it ? It was because I would have to give up on wearing earrings for the rest of my life (not to mention leaving scars from two failed attempts on my earlobes). But why was this such a daunting prospect? After all, I haven’t worn them all these years and here I am in my sixties. Was it because deciding to let go of the idea of piercing my ears once and for all would force me to accept that the time of self-adornment was over for me? Or because now, all those earrings lovingly given to me as presents would never be worn? Or was it because I would have to acknowledge one more sign of my ethnic inauthenticity? All of the above, I think, but there’s something more.

(from india24)

As postcolonial theorist R. Radhakrishnan concluded in an early essay, “Is the Ethnic ‘Authentic’ in the Diaspora?”, the answer is inevitably Yes: the culture and consciousness of those living outside of their country of origin are bound to depart from its norms. Migrants, minoritized and marginalized in their new environment, often cling all the more to their ethnic identities unquestioningly, frequently shoring up outdated identities in the process. We can all think of examples of ethnic  subcultures in the New World preserving beliefs, practices, and cultural forms (including language) that have long been obsolete in their home countries. But is that the point? After all, people who have never left their country of origin also flout its cultural—and its political—norms. One can be out of touch and uninformed no matter where one lives; conversely, one can remain current with and critically informed about one’s country and culture no matter where one lives. But what does any of this have to do with my inflamed ears?

Going back to the young Samba Diallo in Ambiguous Adventure, one can safely say that the painful corporal punishment meted out to the boy in his religious tradition was extreme, even barbaric. However, in that powerful and haunting novel, the pain that Samba Diallo was to encounter later, as a young man, was far more excruciating—the pain of cultural alienation. Realizing that in order to survive under French colonialism, they would have to adopt the tools of their new masters, his family made the decision to give their beloved son a French education, and with it came the wrenching loss of everything he held dear, alienating him from all that made him who and what he was. I suppose that, deep down, I fear that loss for myself, even though I know that true authenticity is not something worn on one’s sleeve—or my case, in one’s ear—but something deep and inward.

In my heart of hearts, I believe that my ears are inflamed simply because I am allergic to earrings. My body reacts violently to any foreign object piercing holes in it, even if it is made of pure gold. I can keep delaying the inevitable, loth to relinquish that last flicker of hope that my system will finally accept the intruders; but in the end, I will have to accept what I knew all along: that this will never happen, and being authentic, being true to myself, means acknowledging and accepting this fact.

In the meantime, I will continue with the treatment regimen three times a day, continuing to kid myself until I can do so no longer. And when that time comes, there will be no consolation; what else did I expect?

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