I forget who it was who wrote about writing to be breathlessly productive. I think if I passed away too soon, I’d leave with too many secrets.
Most of you know that I hold our graduate students in very high regard, and most of you have interacted with me in meaningful ways, many life-altering and others ordinary. From each interaction I have learned something about both the fragility and the resilience of young adulthood. Not long ago I was your age (sigh), and I well remember the unquashable optimism I felt for my future, even in the face of significant challenges. I wish that optimism for you, together with the certainty that, come what may, you will rise to each occasion with strength, intelligence, and integrity.
I always like being in Shanghai, because it makes me aware on many levels that my entire family is native to the region. I feel like I belong there.
On a visit to Shanghai in the fall of 2010, my parents got a hold of some tickets to the Shanghai Expo. Hearing it was all the rage among the Chinese, we took a day to visit before going to Hangzhou.
The whole place, the whole enormous nationalist fantasy park-cum-soft power demonstration arena, was divided into regions and “pavilions”. We spent all day assiduously avoiding the United States Pavilion. I thought it would be boring. I was a month into living for the first time since my childhood outside of the US, and I was hungry for insights about other places, sometimes waiting in line for an hour just to see some attraction that we thought might be novel. Some of them were cool, few lived up to their hype, but we weren’t able to see that many.
We gave in at the end of the day. The US Pavilion was set up by the State Department, with sponsorships from some of America’s largest companies. It was different from a lot of the other pavilions. It didn’t seek to dazzle, really. For most of the time you spend in it, you sit on some benches and watch a movie that looks very much like a political advertisement designed by the Obama campaign. Not too far off, really. It was shot beautifully all the way through, extolling the virtues of American innovation and free market capitalism.
Every pavilion had its own charm, quirk, or secret. The US Pavilion had a cameo appearance at the very end of the movie by President Obama. He said something at first about America being an open, compassionate place, which I thought was diplomatic, but then he went on.
He said something to the effect of, “… and maybe, one day, you, too, can bring your family to the United States and make this country your home.”
I found this strange at first. “Hey, citizens of our geopolitical rival. Come over to our side.” But again, I gave in.
It’s really important for me, on days like today and certain ones over the last several years, that I can understand how moved I was that day in the dark movie theater, watching an American leader tell me and tell my parents that we found a home.
- me: wait, you went skydiving
- me: uh how was that
- Juliana: fun!
- Juliana: i had to really psych myself up for it though
- me: lol were you not excited?
- Juliana: my dan3 zi1 is very xiao3
- 胆子 = courage, 小 = small
Also three years ago.
Lately, I had a conversation with my sister. It went like this:
Juliana: just WON a game of ssb brawl. <3ing
David: sick game. always gives me a blister on my left thumb.
Juliana: ME TOO!
Juliana: also, you always made me play until i blistered my left thumb. thanks.
David: that can only be attributed to noobdom.
Juliana: we’re not on speaking terms anymore.
Obviously, these marks don’t just leave a physical memory. Let me give a list of the ones I have.
- blister scar on the first segment of my left thumb. Only Nintendo controllers do this.
- knee scars, still red. It’s been almost three years since biking in the Dolomites.
- surgery scars. I had a surgery done in third grade that should’ve come much earlier.
- acne scars. I had no help through puberty.
- writer’s callous on my right ring finger. Like my writing, it developed early, but never got very strong.
- left tibia that sticks out a little. When I was playing soccer in middle school, my knee got swollen. It was diagnosed as Osgood-Schlatter disease, but the inflammation has stopped. There’s still a little pointy bone there.
Something I wrote three years ago about my grandmother.
After eating with my parents today, my dad coaxed me to go visit nai nai with him once before school. My mom offered to take home the leftovers from lunch, but I gave her a confused look, so we all went. I never knew what the deal is with the two sides of my family.
We ran into her on her afternoon walk, outside the Selfhelp building she lives in. She smiled such a big smile, the kind that consumes your face from the eyes outward. I don’t get moved the look; I think about how I’m going to inherit her protruding eyelids. She said it’s so nice to see us. And that I never seem happy seeing her. I feign a smile and say hi.
She’s so happy. She lives alone, but is not lonely. I don’t think she’s seen her spouse in years, maybe at least decade even. I don’t think they talk to one another. For most of my life, she’s been around my neighborhood, visiting us and our cousins, being warm and saying nice things. She brought me and my sister to church every Sunday for a several years when we were young. She bought me my first Bible when I had to memorize the names of all the books for Sunday school. I think she’s not lonely because God is with her all the time. She brings Him to her when she chants the (Chinese) name of Christ almost every other minute.
She used to babysit me. We would go around Flushing, and she’d put quarters in the rocking Mickey Mouse and Daffy Duck because my parents thought those games were too pedestrian. When I grew up, she’d remind me of those adventures literally every time she saw me. Recently, she does it less because I made a note of it to her, but she still brings it up self-referentially. I don’t think it comes from senility, we just don’t have that much to talk about. She told my dad to visit ye ye when he’s in China, but ye ye passed away a few months ago. I never really knew him.
She asked me if American schools teach me how to treat one’s family, beyond worldly matters like history and politics. She warned me about high maintenance girlfriends. She reminded me about my dad’s temper and how he’s gotten better. She said my mom is very frugal. When she chanted Jesus Christ, my dad brought her a chair to sit on. She said that God was giving her a chair because she loved Him, but my mom just laughed, derisively.
I know better what my other family members mean to me. Not her.
I’m working on this blog again, partly by migrating things from my old blog. This post, titled “The thing about expats”, was posted on September 6, 2010, when I had just arrived in Seoul to teach not English. Apparently I wrote it during a time when I thought two spaces between sentences is a good idea…
I hang out a quite a bit with American expats like myself, almost all of whom are teaching English.
Aha, so there you are on tumblr! You did a great job, David, not just moderating this one panel but with the whole conference. As I recall, you didn’t sleep for like weeks leading up to the big day, actually all the organizers were pretty much tapped out for energy, it takes a lot out of you to pull together a big event like this. I’m sure you guys blew off some steam when it was over. I’m guessing you’ve graduated by now. That night, we went for Cuban food and margaritas; then I hit a dinner party some friends were throwing; then broke off to an after-party till like 6am. Getting home just as the neighbors are heading off to work; good thing bloggers aren’t seen as youth role models.
Haha, the weeks leading up to the conference are so blurry now in my memory. Even the day of… Thanks, though. And yep, I’m graduated. Still find myself blogging on the internet, invariably about Asian Americana.
I went back to NYCAASC this year in April to do a panel. Felt much the same way; connected with some old peeps, got drinks after.