See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Tag Archives: Franklin

Birthright

My son,

You became an American citizen about a year ago. You don’t remember it now, you won’t remember it when you finally read this, and it didn’t mean to anything to you then. You had no say in it. At the insistence of your doctors, they ripped open your mother’s womb and plucked you out and forced you into the world. You screamed and you screamed and you screamed and that, that, was the moment you became an American. This is an identity that came to you by law and custom, but most importantly by birthright.

So to it was the moment you became Chinese. You are Chinese because I am Chinese, because my parents are Chinese and on and on it goes into a past none need account for. You have a claim to our language and our culture, to our rites and rituals, to claim your identity and your place among us by birthright.

So to it was the moment you became Hmong. You are Hmong because your mother is Hmong, because her parents are Hmong and on and on it goes into a past none need account for. You have a claim to their language and their culture, to their rites and rituals, to claim your identity and your place among them by birthright.

A wooden train car with a Hmong pattern, a Chinese name, and a white American star

Three gifts of identity

You are all of these things and you have a right to these things, because we gifted them to you irrevocably the moment you were born. People, even people who love you, will try to take them away from you. They will insist you must be American or Chinese or Hmong and cannot be all three and they are wrong and you must never forget that they are wrong. Your birthright to these identities cannot be invalidated. But they can be stolen away.

What I need you to understand my son, is that people who have never met you will hate you. They need to hate you because your birthright is to have your feet planted in many worlds and they must find a way to exclude you and to do that, first they must hate you.

By law and custom you are American. You are American by the blood of your parents and you are American by soil on which you were born. Just for that, that, people who chant slogans about blood and soil already hate you even though they have never met you and will never meet you. They know that your birthright enriches you, and they hope to steal it to enrich themselves. It will never work, but they will still try.

This is a destiny that was laid upon you when you were born. With the life you didn’t ask for you were given gifts you did not earn and enemies you do not deserve. But you also have help.

Before I was your father I was your uncle’s brother, your yeh yeh and your nana’s son. I was born to a life I didn’t ask for, given gifts I didn’t earn, and enemies I did not deserve. With these I made friends and I loved and I did good in the world.

Before your mother was your mother she was your uncles’ and aunts’ sister and your tias and yawg’s daughter. She was born to a life she didn’t ask for, given gifts she didn’t earn, and enemies she did not deserve. With these she made friends and she loved and she did good in the world and eventually we met.

When your mother and I chose to marry we bound our families together, like it or not, got new enemies like it or not, and got new friends like it or not. Because these are bonds of love, and while loving someone is a choice, it also transcends choice to become something greater – a responsibility willingly borne beyond the whims of want. And we were cherished and known because true friendship and family is the greatest force of the world.

And so to you, we give you still more gifts. Family and friends, relatives and cousins and aunts and uncles and those who are strangers by blood but are still aunts and uncles. They all know your name. They will love you and they guide you and they too will help you defend your birthright.

A painted wooden locomotive shape reading

Gifts of family and friendship

We have given you all these gifts because they are yours by birthright, absolute regardless of whether you deserve them. But I hope, my son, I hope and I trust that you will rise to deserve them. Right and responsibility exist in tandem with each other, and they always have for you. The destiny that laid on you at your birth is also a debt that I hope you will choose to acknowledge.

You have been given worlds to plant your feet in so you may grow mighty and true. You have been given companions to nurture you and guard you from harm. You have been given love, so much love, so that you may love and be loved in a world constantly short of it. When the choice comes, I hope you choose to take advantage of these gifts, and when the choice comes, I hope you choose to not only be powerful but good. To be true friend and family, secure in your rights and happy in service to others.

You are my claim against the world, because I love you more than you any merit you can earn. And you are my gift to the world, because I believe you will choose to honor your birthright. That you will choose to walk the worlds in right and in responsibility.

Be powerful my son. Do good.

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Parallel Invaders, Post-Trump Redux

Much of my life has been a desperate chase for a particular feeling. It’s that moment where the ground shifts underneath me and everything becomes more clear than it was before. It’s as unsettling for me as anyone else, but I still love it. It’s my thrill seeking behavior, my only drug. I’m intellectually bungee-jumping and using this blog as my GoPro. Worse, I keep inflicting it on others, like these (fictional) cartographers did to C.J. Cregg:

I took my first bad trip late on November 8th, 2016. I’m still reeling from it. I’ve said it again and again today: the world has shifted underneath my feet. I have found myself in a place of fear and anxiety that exists entirely in the world instead of the recesses of my defective mind. My fear is bloodless and serious. It is measured, weighted and proportioned to the situation. I am afraid of a small but real subset of Trump supporters. True lunatics that I now estimate to be more frequent that previously supposed who gathered under a now victorious banner of repeatedly promised, repeatedly delivered bigotry.

I’m afraid of one of them burning a cross on my lawn.

That is probably not going to happen. I’m actually in pretty good shape. I’ve got a law degree and the self-protective powers that implies. While Michigan as a whole is probably going to end up in Trump’s column, my precinct is in Clinton’s. My neighborhood is getting browner, younger. It has long been wealthy and safe. The more likely result is that I face just a few more slurs, a few more but still blessedly rare moments of explicit bigotry as my son grows up through a momentarily wobble as the long arc of the universe bends towards justice. But that risk of actual racial violence, that low probability tail risk, involves an event so catastrophic the only rational choice is to take it seriously. My son is due to be born in the first 100 days of a Trump presidency. All existential risk has to be accounted for, and this risk is real.

The risk of being a direct victim of racial violence is real and is executed along a simple mechanism. There are some lunatic white people who hate people who look like me and want to start a race war.They have been partially held in check by strong signals that the rest of America, including the other white people, are not with them, that they do not have a permission slip from the powers that be to do what they want. That, no matter how much they didn’t think people who look like me belong in America, enough people who do think I belong in America were standing in the way. They are now receiving the opposite signal. It could very well be illusory (it isn’t) but that doesn’t matter nearly as much as what they perceive it as. So now I have to worry. Not just about my preferred direction of policy or American identity, but a more basic question of trust and safety. And I don’t know what these people look like. Well, actually I do, it’s telling them apart that’s the problem.

In this post I wrote about how many women reasonably perceive all men with great anxiety because the sexually dangerous men look exactly like the men who are not. Meanwhile, most men instead live in the parallel universe where sexual assault doesn’t happen – and predators use our ignorance to slip in between. I had no idea then I was writing a metaphor for my own sudden transition from a parallel universe where racial violence was mythical and rare to the reality that I am surrounded by the threat of it. I will look every at every new white face with apprehension. I will always be wondering if it is this one that will turn out to be the dangerous lunatic underneath a genteel surface. I don’t like it. I desperately want to go back to the moment before I fell into this awful world. But it’s real, the race warriors are real, and the unfairness to every decent white person I meet is also real.

This would have been true even if Clinton had squeaked out a win. Over fifty-nine million people sent or cosigned a signal that I’m not part of real America, that my job creating immigrant mother is a threat to their livelihoods, that my to be born an American son is a threat by his very existence to their children because of our skin.

I am faced with a choice of leaving my state, maybe my country or facing down the risk of racial violence every day. Of forcing my family to face that risk as I let my loud mouth attract unwelcome attention. If I have to leave America it isn’t because of disgust, but fear. I love my country. I love America. But the America that I’ve been standing in this whole time isn’t the America I thought it was, but instead the America with the shadows colored in, hiding predators. I have a duty to help bring the real America and transform it into the fantastical one, and I have a duty to keep my family safe.

I know I am not the only one who has to make that choice. And I know for many who do not have to make that choice, this sounds like the ravings of a bitter madman. But please, take our fears seriously. We’re not delusional – we just now stopped having our delusions.

It Has All Been For This

I try to tell the truth. I don’t just mean “don’t lie” and I don’t mean “preach the good news” or even “speak truth to power”. I mean that I’m constantly trying to understand the world and then convince other people to understand it too. I’ve been doing it for a painful lifetime. But what has it all been for?

Truth telling is one of America’s great fetishes. Mind you, this is not the same thing as actually valuing and rewarding truth telling. No, plenty of research has proven that truth telling is worse than useless. In fact, it repels people away from you and your ideas. So while I’d love to believe that my truth telling comes from pure motives, I am certain it does not. Maybe it’s a desperate grasp for power in dangerous world. Maybe it’s self-destruction, Churchill’s black dog now hunting me.

I remember meeting the black dog for the first time. It was after one of many sleepless nights at my first undergraduate college. My sleeping patterns had gotten so bad that my biology professor (bless his heart) had to call and wake me up so I could take an exam. Finally, I decided I couldn’t, wouldn’t live like that and I walked over to the student health center. While in the waiting room I look for more truth to assimilate and pick up a pamphlet on depression. I force myself to check off my symptoms. I check off all but two boxes. I see my black dog for the first time, promising the comfort of self-destruction. My past takes on a new cast. My new thoughts cannot be trusted. The black dog is always with me and speaks with my own voice.

* * *

I’m in my first elementary school. I’m perched alone on the smaller of two metal slides, with my feet planted on the top step. I’m watching my classmates run around the field. Someone asks me what I’m doing. I tell her I’m trying to understand why the boys are chasing the girls. I shift my posture and keep watching. They call me Mr. Detective. I’m outside, looking in.

I’m in my middle school. I’m talking to one of my few friends. I brag about being able to talk to almost all of the cliques in the school because I’m not part of them. But inside I know I’m an outsider everywhere and always will be.

I’m in my second elementary school. A special place for children like me, with brilliant but fragile minds, in love with the world. I recognize myself in all three traits. I open up so I can join the Community that will take me to high school and beyond. I have hope.

I’m in my high school. I’m nudging a friend to make the decision that will make her happy. I’m getting worse at listening and better at talking. I wonder again if I’m manipulating people or doing what’s right. I forget to wonder why I don’t take my own advice.

I’m in my room. My dad and I had another fight yesterday. Today he brought me Spider-Man. We don’t talk about yesterday. I read about Peter Parker failing his father figure, about him being hated by his city. I embrace the pain, the power and the responsibility.

I’m in a psychiatrist’s office. It’s been years since I beat back the black dog, but it’s back. I beg him to get rid of it. He tells me a truth: I want to change the world so I can be happy. I cry because then I can’t be happy.

I’m in my first elementary school. Someone is doing a presentation. The scotch tape and rulers holding up the prop stand keep falling apart and I keep scooting over to fix it. The teacher tells me to stop. I don’t. They call me Mr. Fix It.

I’m in a Christian home. I’m still not comfortable being one of them. I’m telling them that I’d be bored in heaven. I’m here to fix things. It’s my calling.

I’m in my home. I’m trying to save a friend again by typing the right words or making the right late night phone call. I know that there is a price and it may be her friendship. I can’t think of a reason it shouldn’t be me that pays it.

I’m in my high school. We’re asking if the Community and respect or the individual and self-actualization is more important. I say the right answer, that each serves the other. I instead try to love without being loved.

I’m in my room. I’ve been crushed by my consistent failures. My parents hate me. I’m angry at them for hating me. I’m angrier at myself that I have given them good reason. Then something touches me and I feel totally and completely loved. I call it God.

I’m in a psychologist’s office. I dropped out of college last year. The fog is lifting. I did the right things, wrong. I start to do the right things, better.

I’m in my second college. A long string of failed friendships-turned-romances is behind me. A cute stranger is in front of me. I do something new, something better. I ask her out on a date. I love her. I ask her to love me. She loves me. We get married in a house, in a church, and in a field. Friends and family tell me I finally did it right.

I’m in a physician’s office. A week ago she told us my wife probably miscarried. I don’t dare to hope. The physician spins the ultrasound’s display towards us. There is a heartbeat.

It has all been for this.

* * *

I have never in my life done something for a pure reason. My virtues have served as apologies. My generosities have been desperation. My love has come from self-hatred. But I’ve still done good. I’ve still loved the world. Purity is a crock anyway. Without purity I’ve learned and I’ve grown and I’ve grasped what power I have to change things and tried to change things for the better. I have engaged in the noblest work of lifetimes.

So here, now, I make my claim against the world, and announce my gift to the same. His name is Franklin, due in the second week of February. Take care of him, for I will raise him to take care of you. Let him be born free of kings and bound by righteousness. Help him serve and be served. Help him change and be changed. Help him love and be loved.

All that I am has been for this.