Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Interlude: The Comfort of Culture

This was written for a Multicultural Education class after being asked to define who I am as a cultural being:

Walking into the convention hall in New Orleans created a wave of emotion that produced both an excitement in my stomach and a calming sedation to my nerves. The signs for each of the fifty states were scattered amongst more than 9,000 chairs. Beach balls and balloons flew above the crowd of energetic teachers, some dancing to the blaring music. At the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly, things were not always this engaging, but throughout, I continued to feel the purposeful conclusion that this place was exactly where I was meant to be.

My best friend took me to a party in Cleveland with her fellow art students and her fiancĂ©. The house was beautifully decorated with what I am sure were meaningful pieces, which were the subject of many conversations. I paced through the crowd and worked my way into several discussions. Leah and I had been best friends at Oberlin, but I did not know anyone in her new art therapy community. As they spoke of school, Cleveland, art and politics, I felt out of place. When questioned, my answers were as short and vague as possible. I could not stand the reaction on their faces when I told them I was from Kansas. I went to the bathroom and cried before stepping out into the cool night, where a shirtless man grilled hotdogs with one hand and smoked a cigarette with the other. He was humming a country song and greeted me with kind eyes. “From Kansas, then?” He confirmed with a smile. “I did some work near Wichita. I’m from Nebraska myself.” I spent the rest of the evening outside talking about farms and turnpikes.

In elementary school, everyone brought religion with them to the classroom. The teachers spoke of God often and church was discussed as if we all attended together. I was an extrovert raised in a liberal, protestant family. Occasionally I said, “Oh my God,” and got severely punished. Once I said, “Jesus Christ,” and was not allowed to attend music class for a week. We held fake presidential elections and out of 400 students, mine was the only vote for President Bill Clinton. I did not realize this until later, but I was living in the same city as The Assemblies of God and Ku Klux Klan headquarters. Looking back on those experiences, I now realize that the public school was really only public for one religion and one race.

My grandma spent several months out of the year in Japan with her family. She lived in central Kansas since the end of the Korean War, but fell back into her heritage when on the phone with her sisters or back in Japan. In Kansas, she made fried chicken. In Japan, she made sushi. When I was 16, I had the privilege of accompanying her with my parents and brother to the country that holds the majority of my extended family. She was a different grandma during that visit. She cried, laughed and scaled a fish like a cat. She spoke about her diseased brother and father, who both died in World War II. I had sung my whole life, but it was not until Japan that I found out that her mother was also a singer. It ended up being her last visit to Japan before her death. I cried upon departure more than I had ever cried when we moved every few years in my childhood. Still today, I have dreams of getting on a plane and just going to be with my family. I have never felt so safe and secure as I did with them, and we did not even speak the same language.


I illustrate these four experiences as examples of my cultural encounters. There are more experiences on which to elaborate, such as arriving at Oberlin and living amongst fellow liberals for the first time, or writing a pro-LGBT rights column in my high school newspaper that subsequently got me in quite a bit of trouble. I am not sure which of these experiences defines my culture the most—the positive places where I felt comfortable, like I was part of a community; or the times when I was so aware that I was different. To truly understand my culture, I have to think about both sides of the spectrum. When I was comfortable at the NEA Representative Assembly, I was part of a culture of teachers. In Cleveland, I embraced my Midwestern roots. In elementary school, I identified with anything but the conservative, religious Midwest and southern cultures. In Japan, I forgot for a moment that I look nothing like my mother and relished in my Shinto, small-town Japanese heritage.

I spoke with a friend recently who is also from Kansas, but is currently living in Toronto. I had just returned from my vacation in San Francisco. We agreed that in very liberal places, we find ourselves defending, even identifying with the conservatives. But when I am home, it is the opposite. I separate myself from the norm and go out of my way to be politically and religiously different.

The only thing that connects the dots is music. From a Japanese lullaby to a southern gospel hymn, I bask in the musical culture wherever I am. Regardless of my feelings, I can separate that from everything else, and it is a way for me to fit in, always.

I could list aspects of my culture—my Asian upbringing, learning Spanish as a way to connect with my Mexican heritage, being active in left-wing politics and perhaps my most defining characteristic, my fierce loyalty, just like the rest of my family. As culture is about comfort in a community, though, it does not seem appropriate to just list my qualities, weaknesses and attributes. The reflection on stories, and the soundtrack with which they are associated leads me to a clearer picture.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Interlude: The E-Words

There are two nasty E-words that bring out the conservative in me. Somewhere in my bloodline there is a chip off the right wing that works its way through my intellect when confronted with these annoying states of being. These E-words cause me to temporarily denounce government assistance, refuse to pay my taxes and consider visiting the local gunsmith. I can usually force the ridiculous opposite back to the dormant part of my personality, but this past year has proved challenging as I find myself continuously circling back to a basic fact: liberal ideas and policies are not perfect.

Stewing over my inner fanatic is part of that imperfection. If I were a true socialist, a real-life, in-the-flesh-and-blood left-winger, I could meet every republican argument with a viciously non-violent defense. It would be like college again, standing on picket lines for things I believed in, no matter what, no questions asked. But it was in my last year at Oberlin that I learned the E-words and realized their unfortunate effect on my political beliefs. Soon, experience would support my idealistic views but also fuel my doubt. Empathy and understanding make things so complicated. As I look into the eye of an adversary, blabbing my reasoning with complete conviction, in the back of my mind I’m really thinking, “Well, they do have a point.”

Elitism is the first of the two words with which I wrestled in college. Being from Kansas in a East Coast/West Coast student body was not easy. I was constantly trying to explain why Kansas is not such a horrible place to live. We are not stupid, nor are we all bigots. Yes, I know we have that issue with evolution and the whole Fred Phelps debacle, but that does not make us merely a fly-over state to be ignored and/or rejected. Eventually, instead of convincing others of my state’s deep-down, historical liberalness, I found myself defending the very same conservatives with whom I spent most of my teenage years arguing. The most shocking elitist comment was actually from a fellow Midwest democrat who was trying to convince me to donate to the Democratic National Committee. “You know,” he said. “Even the worst democrat is better than the best republican.” Whoa. Fail. Goodbye and thanks, but I will just be giving my money to the National Education Association, thank-you-very-much.

I shutter when I think of the liberal church elitism I ignored for so long. There was a definite Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender caste system which easily pulled “T” from the LGB(T) rights priority list. In the end, it was petty issues about money and who is friends with who that dictated my former church’s future. Needless to say, we did not have enough money nor were we friends with the “right” people. The rainbow flag and mediocre website appear as a justice-promoting liberal agenda, but hiding behind it there are a bunch of rich, elitist ass holes that will only give to charity if there is drinking and entertainment involved.

But I’ve written about “Why I chose Kansas” and conceived this blog due to my dechurching-by-the-elite. The second E-word is dominating my conscious right now: entitlement. That is the word that bothers me the most. No one is safe from the doom of supporting statements such as, “This is what I deserve” or “Now it’s my turn.” It is so easy to be swept into the idea of entitlement. That just supports the conservative notion that people grab more than they give and are inherently accustomed to taking advantage of the system.

Normally, I stand by what I consider a majority. Some people do use government assistance as an excuse to be lazy, drug-addicted fools with way too many children and a general lack of responsibility. My belief, or currently, my hope is that more people benefit from the system than use it for evil. But it is a malicious, premeditated crime to take advantage, and I know this because the lies are personal and I can feel the money slipping from my own pockets, taking a bite of my liberal soul, as well. These people, few or many, have weapons, should I not protect myself with a gun? They rob others of health and stability, should we not also take that from them? Why are we delivering sustenance to their doorstep, implying, “Sure, go ahead and make babies, we’ve got room in foster care. Drugs? No problem, it’s a disease so we’re all right with it. No job? Don’t bother looking, you don’t have to. Oh, and you want to live here for free? We can make that happen…”

Goodness gracious, I sound like Sarah Palin. I’m fresh off a personal experience and radical self-righteous rants seem to be emerging on the other side of my political spectrum. It is not just the government, either, enabling the criminals to remain criminals. And perhaps some of them really are in need of treatment and a boost in self-confidence. It is when they act like I owe them something, like WE owe them something, just for existing that makes me furious. It makes me furious because it is not just me, the middle class, white American they are robbing; it is the hardworking low-income community, the children living in poverty and the parents desperate for jobs. They are making us all look bad.

After processing these strong, uncomfortable urges to crawl on over to the dark side, I can only come to one conclusion: political beliefs are rarely 100% reconciled and political action is sometimes only mildly justified. So I just have to turn on Rachel Maddow and hold tightly to my ideals. I have to remember that even if only one child does not go hungry, one person gets the job opportunity they have been waiting for or one family gets the help that they need, it is worth it. All the heartache and doubting is overshadowed by the people who can gratefully live a better life today than they did yesterday. I push the criminals out of my mind and concentrate, hard, on what matters most…the children who are better off due to federal funds, and the parents, who did in fact access the system for good.