[postcards] Reflections on Winter Break 2016
[postcards] Reflections on Winter Break 2016
This past winter break, I had the privilege of taking a trip to Asia with my family. Over the course of fourteen days, we visited the hot springs of Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu, the ruins of Angkor Watt in Cambodia, and the ever entrancing metropolis of Seoul. While on the eleven hour flight back to Los Angeles, I scribbled these reflections down to share with friends and family. As a warning, this post ambles around from topic to topic with no grand design. Each of the nine sections more or less stands on its own.
We sat in the cozy Japanese style dining room, all six of us in traditional, long flowing garb cut out of beautifully patterned cloth. We had just finished dinner and we were laughing over some silly joke my father had just made. Suddenly he upped the ante by standing up and in an exaggerated fashion, begin to act like a wrestler, powerfully setting his stance and crouching with a comic expression on his face. I’ve always likened my father to Robin Williams. They both have that genius ability to use the body and physical movement to make people laugh.
I share all this because while thinking back on this moment in the dining room, I’m reminded of my sophomore year theater class. Our acting instructor Mel Gordon often told our class that “we all want and love to play, it’s just that as we get older, we sometimes forget how.” I think both Robin Williams and my father are masters of Play. They both remember and know how to access the child within.
I have a deep appreciation for how amongst family- strange noises, random outbursts, ridiculous non-sequiturs, and all sorts of childish Play- can effortlessly provoke stomach clenching laughs. I miss these sometimes when I am working or back up at school. Silliness and play are a wonderful respite from the ardors of Becoming. They are essential elements of Being.
The hot springs of Japan were rejuvenating. I recall vividly the dark green tones of the distinctive forest foliage and how the cloudy steam floated into the air out of the clear emerald blue pools surrounded by dark igneous rocks. After a few days though, we grew restless in this peace and calm. On the fourth day, we headed to the airport and boarded a flight for Siem Reap.
Siem Reap is a small tourist city at the northern shore of the huge Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia. The landscape is full of swampy grassland and spotted with tropical trees and vines. While in this particular region of Cambodia, I encountered two main thoughts.
(Before continuing, I want to recognize that pain, difficulty, and challenge, are understandably things from which we as humans fiercely and sometimes almost manically recoil from. When I first engaged with conflict theory my sophomore year, it was very troubling. It made me more timid, pessimistic, and selfish. But I think it is important to press on despite the instinctual reaction to shy away from it. By facing reality squarely, we eventually arrive at a resilient calm that is far superior to the fragile calm that ignorance occasionally brings. We all begin wide eyed and terrified at the complexity of it all, but with some courage and perseverance, we slowly grasp the underlying mechanics and recognize the potential for change. We slowly recognize our enduring and powerful agency.)
Claim 1. We are not born into this world as anonymous agents, living among other anonymous agents on a horizontal plane. The world we entered already had seven billion people living within it. These many existing agents over hundred of years formed alliances and identity groups. When we enter into this world, we are randomly deposited into one of these groups/alliances. The conceptual vocabulary of ‘the individual’ and ‘society’ is common and embedded in how many of us think. But I think it’s helpful to substitute some synonyms that more accurately reveal the truth of our condition. We gain insight into our world and lives when we recognize that we are not ‘individuals’ living in a ‘societies’, but ‘members’ living in ‘communities.’
Claim 2. These groups are competitive. They vie for resources. They erect ideologies. They build a system of values and beliefs. They oppress. They exploit. They all possess basic morality, and therefore must cleverly design ideology to justify any behavior that violates this.
Welcome to the jungle. I note that this paradigm like any analytical framework, is only a tool. It exaggerates certain aspects of social life and downplays others. But from my personal observations, many of us have not even had a basic encounter with this idea of social communities in competition, and therefore we are often paralyzed by what we perceive to be ‘personal troubles’, unable to recognize how they are ‘issues’ connected to larger structural currents and battles of History.
The primary alliances which humans have formed and dug themselves deeply into are along lines of race, class, and gender. This is perhaps the central lesson of contemporary sociology. I note that a more complete analysis would recognize the intersections of race, class, and gender- as well as also take into consideration sexuality, religion, and nationality.
You are not simply an individual who interacts with other individuals. You are a member of a race/class/gender group, and your group is located within a particular hierarchy, a hierarchy that is being constantly contested and undergoing change. Based on where you land in this hierarchy, you have more access to resources that are necessarily limited and scarce. I mean this in a very literal sense. Food, clean air, vagina, penis, the psychic benefits of status, freedom from police violence, luxury commodities, political office, real estate along Newport Coast, and leisure time.
For those who are fortunate to have landed in a group that is located higher in the hierarchy, this news might be reassuring. You have to be both stupid and unfortunate enough to commit a series of serous mistakes to experience downward mobility in your lifetime. But otherwise, you are more or less secure. For those near the bottom, this may be cause for despair. Your life from day one has been an uphill battle. It will continue to be an uphill battle. The opportunities and openings are slim.
But I’d like to briefly complicate these initial reactions by remarking upon one of the greatest paradoxes of Life- that being the positive relationship between hardship and beauty/strength. As Nassim Taleb the author of Black Swan puts it, we humans are ‘anti fragile.’ We grow through pain. We become more complex and more interesting through it. So for the downtrodden do not despair. You are more sensitive, more aware, stronger, and more human. And it is precisely these gained qualities that guarantee social flux.
Having discussed briefly this notion of “race, class, and gender” group formations, I suggest to the reader the idea that we all carry physical and psychological injuries along these lines. In the next few sections, I focus only on the injuries of class.
Current class configurations, supported by the mythology of a total free market and the meritocratic “American Dream”- leaves many Americans anxious and insecure in regards to their status and self worth. I don’t mean that your average lower/middle class American trembles, stoops, and averts their gaze in their day to day. Class anxieties required one to look a little deeper. It manifests in our consumer behavior. It manifests in our unhealthy preoccupation with ‘prestigious’ jobs. It manifests in our Image heavy and Reality absent social media profiles. We aspire to be envied. As John Berger the art critic observed, we seek Glamour. Class is our injury and status is the balm we seek.
At the J7 hotel in Siem Reap, over thirty Cambodian employees stand in rapt attention to foreign guests. These employees are beautiful and divine human beings equal in rights and dignity to any, yet given their particular position within structures of race class and gender, many of them (non-wealthy) lower themselves before members of the white and wealthy developed world. They are initially entranced, impressed, beholden, and admiring. I’d like to explore this psychology of the oppressed further, yet my focus here is on the Visitor. (For more reflections and analysis of the oppressed, I’d suggest the work of Franz Fanon. His books ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ and ‘Black Skin, White Masks’ gaze deeply into the psychology of the colonized and they are deeply liberating.)
The Visitor bathes in his sudden status. He feels his shoulders relax in the affection and attention of an entire people. Nine thousand miles away when he is back in his homeland, he is just another rat in the race, a middle class homely looking chum who is anxious as the rest of us. But for a few days in Cambodia, he revels in the warm poultices place on his wounds. Here, he is rich. He is wealthy. He is important. He is relieved. Consciously, all he knows is that he loves ‘exotic’ vacations and how ‘relaxing’ they are. He is oblivious to the deeper psychological burdens he has been tiredly carrying with him, and how this ‘exotic’ place is a much needed respite from all that.
After the third day in Siem Reap, we took a red eye flight to Seoul.
I feels so fortunate that I may claim Korean American as one of my many identities. (I also find identity as an American, as a Berkeley student, as Californian, as a person of faith, as a lover of theater, and a businessman.) It comes with its own challenges like having to still fight for my place in America, but I gladly note that having access to two worlds more than compensates for these obstacles. I feel like I’ve been given the gift of two lives and that this has given me opportunities to understand our condition more deeply and with more clarity. There is after all, no perception without contrast and so to be in between two worlds, is to be able to see each world.
It seems to me that race class and gender are not the only injuries of our time. We also suffer from the prevalence of “lookism.” Lookism is an unhealthy obsession with beauty, a slightly pathological attention to aesthetics and a pathological ignorance of substance. Let me clarify what I mean by this.
Never before in the history of humanity, have we been so bombarded by Images. These Images are manufactured and unnatural constructions. Perfect beauty used to be rare and uncommon, yet as our culture became increasingly commodified and the mandates of profit ever stronger, marketers realized that humans can be prodded into purchasing items by inducing mild dissatisfaction. One way to create widespread, mild dissatisfaction is to bombard people with beautiful Images. Even though each image is the product of extensive repair and artificial adjustment, the final product masquerades as natural and expected, necessary, and of course more happy. Ted Chiang, one of America’s greatest science fiction writers describes this phenomenon in his short story “Liking What You See: A Documentary”. Below is an excerpt from one of his fictional characters. The character is sharing his thoughts on why he supports high-tech neural implants which physically prevent the recipient from recognizing facial beauty in their day to day life.
Think of cocaine. In its natural form, as coca leaves, it’s appealing, but not to an extent that it usually becomes a problem. But refine it, purify it, and you get a compound that hits your pleasure receptors with an unnatural intensity. That’s when it becomes addictive.
Beauty has undergone a similar process, thanks to advertisers. Evolution gave us a circuit that responds to good looks — call it the pleasure receptor for our visual cortex — and in our natural environment, it was useful to have. But take a person with one-in-a-million skin and bone structure, add professional makeup and retouching, and you’re no longer looking at beauty in its natural form. You’ve got pharmaceutical-grade beauty, the cocaine of good looks.
Biologists call this “supernormal stimulus”; show a mother bird a giant plastic egg, and she’ll incubate it instead of her own real eggs. Madison Avenue has saturated our environment with this kind of stimuli, this visual drug. Our beauty receptors receive more stimulation than they were evolved to handle; we’re seeing more beauty in one day than our ancestors did in a lifetime. And the result is that beauty is slowly ruining our lives.
How? The way any drug becomes a problem: by interfering with our relationships with other people. We become dissatisfied with the way ordinary people look because they can’t compare to supermodels. Two-dimensional images are bad enough, but now with spex, advertisers can put a supermodel right in front of you, making eye contact. Software companies offer goddesses who’ll remind you of your appointments. We’ve all heard about men who prefer virtual girlfriends over actual ones, but they’re not the only ones who’ve been affected. The more time any of us spend with gorgeous digital apparitions around, the more our relationships with real human beings are going to suffer.
We can’t avoid these images and still live in the modern world. And that means we can’t kick this habit, because beauty is a drug you can’t abstain from unless you literally keep your eyes closed all the time.
I suppose the takeaway is that we must 1) control our consumption of Images and 2) Remember to seek substance in all our relationships. I conclude this section with a quote by Leo Tolstoy, “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.”
I’m now back here in Berkeley, three weeks into the spring semester of my junior year. These thoughts above are just some of the things that have been occupying my mind during and after the trip. My biography limits me and I’m certain these above concerns and evaluations ring differently in every ear. But I do think that at least some of these ideas ring at a relatively similar pitch for us all. Many thanks for reading this postcard from my winter break. I hope to engage in further conversation.