Thursday, July 9, 2015

empty utah (the suburban turn away)

we are staying with my parents in utah this summer. every day i feel two sorts of emptiness, one i crave, the other i detest. the emptiness i hate is the controlled emptiness of house fronts and front yards. it is just display without welcoming, showing off without any compensatory flair or friendliness. blankness is the ideal, erasure of uniqueness and difference. if one has to venture out to the street, one hopes one doesn't have to run into other people. humans are just bothersome here, unless of course one knows them. with the high turnover in this suburb, strangers are pretty common. if only one could totally ignore them -- and one does as often as possible -- but when they are very close, well, it looks un-nice to not look or say something to the pitiful things. 

i recall our first summer here, in 2012, the people across from us succeeded in going the entire summer without once looking at or saying anything to any of us. well, i think one of them finally broke -- was it the old man who slept in his car, or the mother? anyway, it was remarkable. eye contact here and in the walmart we often shopped at was significantly less than in the connecticut suburbs we had come from.

if people's demeanors are closed tight, people's yards say nothing about them either. every yard, a tightly managed, anonymous grid of sprinklers, grass, mulch, shrubs, and flowers, is more or less like the others. how did this nation fuelled by freedom come to detest difference, even trivial differences like the sort of grass one grows, so much? i don't think it is because everyone has the same tastes. it must have something to do with the historical growth of the housing market after world war 2, when house values were tightly rigged to sameness (including racial sameness -- no black folks in levittown). so to enforce and maintain this value, an unimaginable rigidity is complacently agreed to. people from the HOA come around with cameras, scanning for weeds, brown patches in the grass, any sign that one's discipline is slackening. and then they send letters.

it is only because mom and dad, in their 80s, received a warning letter recently that i have begun pulling weeds too, in odd moments tending the kids outside. 'weeds.' yes. infiltrators from nature.

the two little boys hang back from the wild emptiness of sky and skyline -- they're not used to it, especially pax, his first time in the US, stands on the porch unmoving, staring out at the valley. does he see the mountains beyond the lake, darkening blue under clouds, the lake a milky grey green? or just the sun-blasted blankness of grass and asphalt?

but i love this emptiness, total exposure to the sky, i can see for miles and miles. thank god there are a few empty lots left -- they are filling up fast in saratoga springs -- for here i can admire the wild plants that occupy them. this morning i suddenly realized i was standing near a thistle bush taller than myself! it was magnificently prickly, older leaves withered and grey with dust, purple heads nodding from thirst, an incredible life force in this dry place. gazing over their many colors in the waning light of the sun as my boys play in the sand, my eyes lift to the yards around us and wonder at their utter drabness and uniformity, flat green, sharply defined boundaries, all 'weeds' promptly eliminated. at least here and there these extravagant and spiny and fragrant 'weeds' may still flourish, in every hue.

and the sky. oh it wells with massifs, from horizon to horizon an ever-shifting array. clouds that touch, frighten, beckon. wild winds whip up, and i love that too -- a brown bag whips over a rooftop, a trash can booms to the ground. i feel for the people seatbelted in those gleaming silver tubes that pass unceasingly overhead -- but down here the sky and wind is a glory i feel deeply. if only i didn't need to look down at those closed-tight houses and pinched faces. even kids -- skateboarding, riding scooters -- only allow themselves furtive glances. we're  a free people indeed: free to maintain property values, free to keep our yards absolutely weed-free.

if i could buy a house it would be one of those tiny square ones in provo built after the war, so charming, i don't believe builders today would ever allow themselves to think humans could actually survive in such confined space. we americans have ballooned not just in body but in spatial expectations. back then these little houses were just 'houses,' an ordinary living room and ordinary kitchen, space enough to do what needed to be done, and that was enough. it's all anyone really needs, right? . . . . gradually class gluttony set in. cross the lake back to where i stand, and the result is clear: massive houses beyond any real need.

and a turning inward that allowed reagan and his (non) conservative values of selfishness to triumph, a revolution whose repercussions reverberate even now through this cruel society, a society which in huge living rooms before huge televisions can allow itself to imagine that all those black men languishing in prison and shot down by police must have deserved it, whatever violence was done to them. they're violent people, right? the suburban turning away from others -- especially different others -- furthers this cruel indifference. invading foreign countries on the pretext that they 'threaten' us is another dismal result of the suburban revolution. it's always the same excuse: we feel scared! doesn't that just justify everything?

but it is a fear that is only sustainable by not knowing about the world beyond, by fearing the poor and weak enough to avoid them -- and so believe them dangerous. the emptiness between us is politically crucial to our empire. without this emptiness and separation, no ignorance, without ignorance no fear, without fear, well, i am afraid budgeting priorities would, what can i say, shift a little, right? at least during the cold war the USSR was a real rival, a powerful enemy. now bands of ragtag terrorists here and there, with a combined GDP in the territories they rule generously estimated at that of wyoming, can fuel -- with the addition of that amazing additive, fear -- weapons systems worth trillions of dollars that run over decades and do nothing to stanch our fear!

this emptiness is not mine. but for seven weeks before going back the way we came, to china, i'll drink in the wild emptiness that remains above me, swirling, conspiring, soaring -- brooding. this sky, this dear utah sky, sky that is my religion.

Friday, June 19, 2015

on charleston and the self-defense lie

when i bought the gun to guard against other drug dealers ripping me off my intention was to defend myself.
when i bought a gun to scare george zimmerman with a warning shot on the highway, i meant to defend myself. he had threatened me. i felt in danger. therefore my shooting at him was an act of standing my ground. my lawyer thinks i have a case.
when i bought a gun to not be pushed around and then shot someone talking smack about me, i was defending myself. myself and my reputation.
when i bought a gun to feel safe on the walk home from work and shot a homeless man, i was defending myself.
until the moment i realized i had made a mistake.
when i bought a gun to stop the black invasion and pollution of our pristine white culture, i was defending myself. and all of us!
when i bought a gun to protect myself in church and shot a white person who walked in, a white person who it turned out was hoping to hear our choir, i was defending myself.
they said i was a hero, an example of self-defense. i had set a precedence, even if the target had been mistaken.
i didn't feel like a hero. i felt like i had let go of Jesus and let myself be taken in by idol-worshipers. people who believe possession of an archaic instrument is proof of individual existence and power.

everyone who buys a gun is doing so to defend themselves. and everyone defines 'defense' differently from the next person, as well as what is so valuable it requires defending with guns. and in the heat of the moment (of fear, of rage, of jealousy), an act of violence can be justified as an act of defense. what counts as defense entirely depends on the mood, the situation, the mindset. murdering people in the next car can be defensible -- if you are feeling defensive. isn't that easy?

this (il)logic works for national policy too. our attacks on panama, grenada, iraq, vietnam, were all defensive in nature -- if one considers an act of violence based on paranoid fear to be 'protecting oneself.' once you are occupying another country, the need to defend yourself so constant and wearing you might actually forget that it was your act of aggression in the first place which invited the counterattack. but that is all too complicated. what matters is not how the other person (in this case, the iraqi who just fired at me) felt: what matters is how i feel, me, me, me! and i feel in danger. that's it. wonderfully simple.

we're americans. no matter who or how many we kill, we are always just defending ourselves.

with defense like this, who needs aggression?

all we have are 'laws' such as stand your ground which depend on the scientific standard of 'feeling threatened.' that's it! feel threatened, and you can let loose. feel the victim, and do whatever you like. the law lets me! it incentivizes victimhood. HE pushed ME. so of course i drew. i felt scared.

so when the sikh taxi driver pulled up alongside me, calling up images of osama bin laden in my mind, and causing my palms to sweat, what i did next was just defending myself.

supporters of the law may say: but the judge will never buy your explanation. clearly the taxi driver was no threat. ah, but it is irrelevant: the man is already dead. the absurd law had already planted its seed in the uninformed mind.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

water delivery

today i held open the door a little listening for the water delivery man. he stopped several times on landings. when he got to the top i saw he was a woman, in calf-length jeans, sweating and hefting the two huge jugs down onto the doorstep. she had delivered to us once before. she was muscled but not as massive as the average man in such work. she did the same work with fewer muscles: she is tougher. i asked if anyone had referred to her as 'nu hanzi,' something like 'female tough guy.' she laughed and said, maybe one or two. when i handed her the money, plus two extra yuan for the five floor climb, a tip we have pushed on the delivery people, she wiped her forehead and said, 'i feel bad.' (bu hao yisi). no, i said, that is tough work.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

suburbia, segregation machine?

suburbs are machines for segregation in two ways: one narrow sense, a racial and class sense which could potentially be overcome with enough political will, and one wider sense, built into the structure of the suburban form itself.

growing up in Madison, CT, i was well aware that the poor and colored were excluded from our grassy, shaded suburban world. a token few urbanites were selected from New York City to attend our high school, a charitable gesture which salved some guilty white consciences, i suppose. but i never linked this obvious residential exclusion with the triumphal narrative we had learned in school, that the civil rights struggle of the 50s and 60s had broken down color lines and brought an end to Jim Crow.

it is only some book-learning of the last few years that has made me conscious of the fact that as society was desegregating its lunch counters, hospitals, and schools, it was re-segregating residentially. and as towns segregated -- suburbs, i should say -- using seemingly race-neutral tools like local zoning authority -- schools followed, resegregating in fact even if legally, whites-only schools had been prohibited.

sometimes it takes a book or two to see one's own experience in a new light of understanding. our segregated lifestyle was so evident in the attitudes of me and my classmates. i will never forget bussing down to NYC to watch Cats (the musical) in 6th grade, driving through Harlem, and the snickering from some boys over the black woman standing on a sidewalk, in mini skirt and high heels. 'hooker,' one said. one word, two snickers, three knowing looks -- not much, maybe, but kids are not dumb. even if i didn't quite know what 'hooker' meant, a kid could tell there was a world of contempt behind that simple word, and a world of history behind that contempt. so what if it took me 30 years to begin to comprehend?

'consumer's republic' but lizabeth cohen, about new jersey's suburbanization, really opened my eyes to how the country was re-segregated in ways even worse than jim crow. for one thing, suburbs found legally safe ways to exclude. they didn't need covenants that said, 'no blacks, no jews.' they just said no apartments, minimum lot size of one acre, and voila, no blacks need intrude. all perfectly legal. older cities had been unequal, with rich and poor, black and white neighborhoods -- but at least they were under the umbrella of one city hall, so negotiation could take place between factions and groups, and rich neighborhoods couldn't utterly segregate themselves off from the rest of the city.

it is clear that from the start, suburbs were meant to keep out black folks, and other undesireables. it wasn't just the william levitts and other developers. it was real estate agents and the federal government itself, whose agencies steered mortgage money and guarantees to white suburbs and steered them away from cities. if the house became ordinary people's most valuable consumer item, and as housing prices appreciated from the 50s all the way to 2008, then clearly for most americans, owning a suburban house was like an escalator riding up floor after floor with each passing decade, making their owners wealthier and wealthier. if one is kept off the escalator on the first floor and trapped in poor neighborhoods as renters, then guess what? 50 years later, one's family and descendants are going to be far poorer than those who were allowed onto the escalator.

or you could ignore this history and simply say that black people are innately lazy and inferior, always looking for a handout -- ignoring the ways white people benefited from government largesse, the largesse that built white-only suburbs back in the 50s and 60s. so blacks gained the right to be served lunch at woolworths. at the same time they were kept out of suburbs. which one matters more? woolworths may be important symbolically, but the suburban house matters more economically.

suburbs don't have to be racially and class-exclusive. they could be more fair. it would be difficult, since the underlying premise of home values is that proximity to poor or colored peoples hurts the value of one's home. this twisted sense of value would have to be overcome for suburbs to be more fair. but it is possible.

but even if we overcome this racial and class segregation, i believe suburbs as an urban form are still deeply segregationist.

suburbs in general put a premium on spatial separation. the further we are from our neighbors and from cities, the higher the value. distance is the highest value.

but most of the world does not work that way. in most of the world various classes, tribes, sects, and races negotiate resources through contact. this contact may be troublesome and even violent, but at least there is contact. suburbs represent a sort of retreat from contact.

how can people ensconced in this sort of retreating mentality be expected to understand people who are different, much less embrace difference? it is not impossible. i don't want to say an urban form totally determines individual thinking. i grew up in the suburbs, and i enjoy contact with different sorts of people and cultures. but i had to break out of the suburbs to do so. the whole form, unfortunately, is premised on separation, control, exclusion. it is an apartheid system that does not announce its apartheid logic. code words like 'small-town character' and 'lot size' are used instead.

actually, small towns used to have people of various classes living in one place. postwar suburbs were not so accepting of different classes.

suburbs indeed became machines for segregation. and they still are.

it was overwhelmingly people living in suburbs who bought into the national security state, who bought into the lie that we could invade iraq, destroy its state, and produce not chaos but freedom and harmony. only suburbanites nurtured by reaganite fantasies could believe removal of goverment could result in utopia. only people totally removed from social reality -- whether at home, in troubled cities locked out of progress, or abroad, in places like south africa and iraq and palestine -- could believe that military or police force could magically solve social conflict.

maybe i am pessemistic. but i am not pessemistic about people. only certain institutions and systems. people can overcome the bad legacy of bad systems. but it takes effort.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

dark morning blooms

it  is something else the way a day born in tense darkness, when one lies awake not wanting to wake, can bloom into something bright and rich. 6 hours of sleep seems to be my destined limit, between me going to bed too late and the kids waking who knows when. i brought them downstairs reluctantly after 9. then a 6-year-old girl just back from England with her parents and little brother, appeared and treating pax like her same-aged brother, took charge of play. she comandeered him, placing him in front of her on the peanut-shaped 'niu-niu che' (wiggle cars, roughly translated), and zoomed about. one of his feet dragged. he was ecstatic. toby, on his own niu-niu che, was quickly drawn in. i egged him on, telling him to chase her, go faster, catch up to her!

i said they were taxis. toby tried taking on pax as passenger. toby and carrie (her english name) raced here and there, colliding, veering, swerving.

no, i remember how it happened. carrie started by bringing out a beanbag, which she gave to pax. who threw it in a puddle. she began putting it on his head, which he quickly threw away. soon he was laughing each time the beanbag appeared from behind, and we were laughing. then she actually spoke some english to me for the first time. i had kept using it with her sometimes, figuring she had to be understanding me, in england for 2 years. then toby began grabbing the beanbag from her, and she threw it at him, and he at her, and oh how perfect it was, toby laughing and running and pretty soon, racing the wiggle bike after carrie. grabbing things from other kids is a skill they have been teaching toby at an an, the school for autistic kids he attends half-day five days a week. he literally did not know that this could be a form of communication or play.

this is the second time in 2 or 3 weeks that toby has really played with another child in the yard. i could put it another way: this is maybe the fourth time in 2 and a half years that toby has played with another child here. at one point during their play, maybe when carrie picked up pax for another ride, toby turned to me and said, 'this is a little game!'

then in the afternoon, when we came back from the park, carrie appeared again, and more racing of the niu niu bikes, which roar their solid plastic wheels on the pavement. he was so happy.

i had wondered this morning whether the wiggle bike makers would export to the US. except for that thunderous noise. then a couple of hours later, at the park, i saw a kid rolling by on a niu niu che with soft-rubber-rimmed wheels. purring by. look at that, i said to sara.

i don't know if it was the wiggle bike racing, but when i brought the boys to the photo shop for residence permit photos (once a year), toby was relatively calm. i had been dreading it. last year was awful. he couldn't stand still. the photos show him nearly in tears. luckily the embassy rejected them (the wrong size), and they didn't end up as his passport photo. today he still fidgeted, constantly scratching his head or ear, but at least he was not losing it. pulling toby's wiggle bike across the street in a break in the traffic while pushing pax's stroller with the other hand, i was in a beautiful mood. 'let's go get a scallion pancake,' i said as we negotiated the awful sidewalk, an obstacle course of parked cars, missing paving stones, and odd inclines. toby had begun saying 'wanna eat something?' while in the studio, and even though it is something he says when he wants to avoid something, it is also true that sometimes he is in fact hungry. he just begins shouting it when there is something else he doesn't like.

we made our way home, toby munching the greasy thing in one hand and me feeding pax little bits. the crowded, badly planned streets felt comfortable, woven and interwoven complexly with people and vehicles of all sort, and i was happy, far from the predawn tenseness.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

black lives matter. except when they are flawed. in any way.

black lives matter, roars the voice of a movement.

large portions of white america respond: no they don't!

not if they were wearing the wrong article of clothing (trayvon martin's hooded sweatshirt), had a previous rap sheet (freddie gray), a warrant for child support payment delinquency (walter scott), had ever smoked pot, was walking in the street, had been suspended from school, was taller and bigger than average (automatically incriminating evidence to many white people of a generalized guiltiness), was selling loose cigarettes, was running away, was disrespectful, was carrying a toy gun, was the sister of a kid carrying a toy gun (yes, tamir rice's 14 year old sister was tackled by police after her little brother was gunned down). and on and on.

in short, the message is: unless the dead man was a paragon of virtue who never so much as spit bubble gum onto the sidewalk, even in rough neighborhoods where looking like a nice kid is to invite victimization, their life was not worth much.

surely not worth the trouble to figure out a different way to approach the situation than aggressively attacking. not worth thinking about a better way to do things. apparently, if one is black and has ever made any mistakes, small or large, one forfeits one's right to being treated as a human.

the movement hears these responses loud and clear. and rather than shutting down the movement, they only confirm what the movement is saying. which is that to most of america, black lives do not matter. all that digging for dirt to spread over the dead man's name is simply a thin attempt to justify the violence done to them.

but if white americans found that being suspended for school, talking back to a police officer, walking in the street, not paying for child support, wearing suspicious clothing, etc etc, was sufficient to be gunned down (or, as with gray, deliberately given a 'rough ride' while cuffed and without seat belts), i predict everyone would join the movement.

so far, since white people rarely have to face such brutality, it is 'better you than me.' being black means deserving a nasty end, since living in rough neighborhoods, there is always some dirt, some scrape, some skeletons to be dug up to justify the end of murder.

but even pot smokers, jay walkers, ex-cons, cigarette peddlers, men too big and tall and scary, and suspended students are loved. by someone.

i'm white. but i'm part of the movement. because no american should have to live in a police state. i wouldn't want it. so why wish it on anyone else? i don't care if they smoked pot or walked in the street or made me feel nervous because they were big. they are humans, and they should have the right to be treated as such.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

electric wave

last week i got an email from the school (shandong u, my employer) announcing yet another official 'scholarly conference,' and inviting papers for submission. the topic: 'the legacy and innovation of qilu culture.'  qilu is the province's nickname, taken from the names of two ancient kingdoms. rather than deleting the email right away, as i usually do when confronted with such officialistic hot air, i paused. could i find some way to plug my pet cause, tiny electric cars, at this conference?

i have researched traffic and how people negotiate the streets and sidewalks here. maybe i could find a plausible angle leading from that to my pet cause, and turn this propagandistic 'scholarly conference' into something interesting, even useful. . . my family and i have driven a little 3 wheeler for more than a year, logging almost 7000 kilometers so far. it is of crappy quality. the door hinges rusted to the point that a 3 year old pulled one of them off. but it is so handy, so practical, that i watch people here clog the narrow streets with SUVs with disbelief. they are chasing a 1950s American dream -- big cars, wide highways -- in the ever-more perilous, crowded, 21st century. and it just doesn't work well. sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, any empty space, is jammed with cars parked pell mell. and a minority of households own cars. these tiny cars are 1/3 the size, or less, of regular cars, yet can carry up to 6 people. and some of them -- not ours -- are solid quality.

the inspiration was an article on huffingtonpost last week which laid out the view of some american transportation experts that the future of city-center transportation is tiny electrical cars, someday driverless and not privately owned. apparently people will be able to 'call' one over, and tell it where to go, pay electronically somehow, and that is it. i thought: the city and provincial government are constantly threatening to 'do something' about the menace of these tiny cars, which are blamed for creating all sorts of problems. (a shortage of taxis makes these cars a sort of gypsy cab for the poor unemployed or retired, and they cluster near bus stations and such plaecs). but this nascent industry, which has shown impressive improvements in quality and function, could become a world leader away from the obsolete pomposity of the 1950s American dream.

so today while waiting for toby at his school, i typed away and completed almost 1500 characters. the target is 5000 or so. i will need someone to polish it, of course. my written chinese is 'rough' at best. but when i ranted on the topic in my urban anthropology class on monday (our topic was the development of the american suburbs in the 1950s), they got it! with a laugh. these little cars are ridiculous. and surely face-deflating. but they are fun and practical. you can park underneath a UPS van, practically.

so, while i doubt i will be lucky enough to present my paper to just the right official, or even anyone paying much attention, at the very least i may be able to meet some academics or officials interested in this issue. and know that i have done something to advance the electric wave.

if only i could find some time to research the topic more deeply . . . no. not going to happen. not with two small kids.

so it's settled: a paper presented at a windy, propagandistic conference on the eternal glories of confucian culture will have to do.