Archive for the ‘random happenings in my life’ category

Baseline in Phnom Penh

October 1, 2012

“I just take out the trash,” said the ministry official,

while the angry doctor played his cello angrily for the greater good.

Outside, a castaway cigarette burned like a bug on the ground.

A lizard ran away from my camera flash.

Sodium lights glowed through the membranes between the

spines of umbrellas and bat wings.

I rode alone with other people’s images

until I didn’t know when I’d lost my own.

At home, I enjoyed a glass of wine,

yellow and warm, almost hot in the tall, clear glass,

like sweet piss.

I thought our words sounded alright for now.

High Road

January 3, 2011

Bob told me, “Sure, the Chinese worked on the Union Pacific.” He was the museum director at Rock Springs, the site of the worst massacre of Chinese in US history.

At that point, I had read thousands of pages about the Chinese involvement in the construction of the US’s first transcontinental railroad. All sources had been clear – while the Central Pacific, building eastward from Sacramento, had employed primarily Chinese workers, the CP’s rival, the Union Pacific, building westward from Omaha, had employed largely Irish workers and no Chinese. Less than a week before, I had looked at original Union Pacific payrolls in Lincoln, Nebraska and had found no Chinese names.

“Do you mean the Chinese started after the transcontinental was completed?” I asked.

“No,” Bob said.

“But-”

“You can believe me or not, but I know what I know.”

“It’s just surprising to me, because I’ve read a lot so far-”

That’s when Bob blew up at me. He had spent years in the archives, he said, and he knew he had read about Chinese helping build the original Union Pacific, though he couldn’t say exactly where, and who did I think I was?

I was researching the experiences of Chinese and Irish workers on the transcontinental for my senior history thesis at Princeton, but I was also interested in connections between past and present that wouldn’t fit into my 100-page thesis. I liked the idea of the dead speaking indirectly to the living, through written history and also more informal means, creating resonances and myths. A grant from Princeton to travel from Sacramento to Omaha and back not only allowed me to visit local historical societies, archives, and museums but also let me learn about the attitudes of museum staff and archivists, who generally told me more about their own perspectives than about the history I was researching.

But it wasn’t so easy to separate perspectives from the history, nor was I supposed to. A few years ago, I had figured out that in order to write a good history paper, I should analyze perspectives on events rather than the events themselves – then no one could say I was oversimplifying.

In this mindset, I listened as the archivist in Elko, Nevada explained that the Irish couldn’t be blamed too much for their intolerance of the Chinese – racism was biological. You see it in dogs, and even insects, she said. I had been finding that 1860s accounts frequently compared the Chinese to insects, “swarming” around work sites. I planned to research how such myths and metaphors – bug-inspired racist views and views about racism – were formed, and how they developed.

UPRR Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa

My own myths about the railroad began early. On family vacations in the Sierras, my mother would point out tunnels in the mountains and tell me Chinese workers had built them; I learned about the Irish contribution from Laurence Yep’s young adult novel Dragon’s Gate. My Chinese and Irish ethnic heritage helped me remember the importance of both groups for the railroad. For a creative writing project at Princeton, I wrote about workers comparing fiddles and erhus (Chinese violin). For my Visual Arts minor, I painted these strangers’ bodies mixing in the earth.

With the research grant, I was excited to learn more of the actual history, follow in the workers’ dusty footsteps, and share their experience not just through documents but also through the very country where they had worked. I told a friend that it was going to be like cowboys and Indians, but more politically correct.

The problem was that the more PC the story became, the less of a story there was. My examination of different perspectives seemed to rob me of any coherent narrative. I was sure that in my thesis, argument and analysis would take the place of narrative structure – as made sense in academic writing – but meanwhile, my ideas about fiddles and erhus were deflating. I was ready for some excitement and almost jealous of the hard-driven workers, who didn’t have to deal with competing historical claims.

Dutch Flat, a Central Pacific semi-ghost town in the Sierras

Sources agreed that most Chinese who had come to California, the “Golden Mountain,” as it was known in Guangdong, shipped their bones back to China, making a final statement in death. Other stories were less verifiable. Did the rival companies’ teams of Chinese and Irish really try to explode each other with dynamite? The first such report appeared years after the two companies joined rails. I became increasingly skeptical. I had set out to find a Golden Mountain of information, and now I was so buried in my research, as the Chinese had been in the Sierras, that I couldn’t remember how large the whole mountain was or even whether I’d found it to begin with.

Rock Springs jolted everything back into perspective. By the end of my exchange with Bob about whether Chinese had worked on the Union Pacific, he was no longer shouting at me, but we were both tense. And I’d found that under a pile of differing perspectives and grey areas, I was certain of some facts: for example, I was sure that no Chinese workers had worked on the Union Pacific until the lines joined. Bob insisted he knew local history like no one else. Backtracking, we agreed to disagree.

“You know, it was really the Chinese who treated other Chinese the worst,” Bob said as I left. I decided not to reply.

When I returned to my hotel, I confirmed from my notes on Union Pacific correspondence that the UP had discussed hiring their first Chinese workers after the Golden Spike ceremony joined the two companies’  rails. I was relieved to be right but found it strange that my worst experience of the trip had occurred on the site of the worst Chinese massacre in US history – here was some resonance with history, which I’d craved, but it was hard to enjoy even petty resonance with a massacre. And my flawless paper plan to look at perspectives, not facts, was shot. I had stood up for what, from my perspective, seemed to be the facts. Or maybe I’d stood up for the facts themselves. I wasn’t sure.

Fireflies and mexican wrestling masks

February 8, 2010

My first post in a long time – fall semester was quite busy. I meant to post this in October and just never did. Please read it as if it were written back then:

While a lot of things have happened, two relatively insignificant events are probably two of the most interesting – to me, anyway.

1. I saw fireflies for the first time.

When I say I saw them for the first time,  I don’t know how literal I’m being. I’ve probably seen them before, given that I’ve been at Princeton for two years, including during times when it’s been hotter than it’s been since I’ve been back this year.

What I mean is that if I did see them before, I never realized what they were. It sounds ridiculous, and I’m someone who prides herself on observing the world very closely as an artist, etc. Maybe I didn’t notice them before because I didn’t realize that fireflies flash – I thought they emitted a constant glow – and I didn’t realize they were so bright and neon when they were “on”… Anyway, somehow, if I did see them, I didn’t realize they were fireflies. Maybe I thought I was just “seeing things” and dismissed them as those random flashes of light that everyone just sees from time to time. (I’m not crazy, right?)

All I know is that when I did see them, it made my week. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to linger outside while it was still warm enough for fireflies, nor did I particularly want to be fed upon by the other insects that also like to come out at warm dusks. I last saw them just before a thunderstorm a few weeks ago. Even though it was completely black out by that point, and I’d noticed that generally they tended to disperse after dusk, that night, they were still flashing over any clumps of grass they could find, as if heralding the storm… it’s easy to get poetic about fireflies, which is one reason why I love them.

Another reason I love them is that if I managed to overlook them for so long, then maybe there are more “things in heaven and earth” that I’ve been overlooking. As someone who always hoped she would stumble into another world like the Narnia kids did, suddenly discovering fireflies almost give me the hope that there’s still the chance – though if everyone else had always seen them, then maybe I’m just oblivious. But it’s true that the people who pointed them out to me are the ones who had grown up with them, and, to take nostalgic sentimentality along another line, I wonder how many of us would see fireflies if we hadn’t grown up knowing to look for them.

It would be fun to have a firefly party. Cocktails by bug-light. Except you would end up with a room full of dead bugs. Maybe they could be displayed in jars, rather than loose. Or maybe there could be a party game to catch them all again.

2. I wore a Mexican wrestling mask to lawnparties. Lawnparties are a grand old Princeton tradition where everyone dresses up as preppily as possible and parades around the eating clubs, listening to rather bland live bands and drinking. Boys in pastel polo shirts and loud plaid shorts, girls in summer dresses and large sunglasses. It is an exercise in testing the boundaries between irony and pure, genuine enjoyment of Princetonian privilege. “Oh my gosh, you look gorgeous! I love your dress! How are you?” Masks are on. The mask metaphor is a cliche, but it’s a fun one to exploit when one’s good friend happens to have given one a Mexican wrestling mask over the summer.

monster me

I’m happy to say that I turned a few heads.

Coming up: More overdue thoughts and my recent adventures in Oxford!

The rest of my NAM pieces and other tidbits

August 25, 2009

Finally, I have time to post again. My last few weeks at NAM were busy, though lots of fun.

Here are the rest of my NAM stories from this summer. I definitely feel like I know more about how various organizations work. Yay!

http://news.newamericamedia.org/news/view_article.html?article_id=b88471def91d2e8e23483276e5abca29

A few other papers and senior-focused orgs have picked this one up.

http://news.newamericamedia.org/news/view_article.html?article_id=e962932d4d63900c3af60fb3a6142983

Since my photos didn’t get used with my HSF story on the NAM site, here is one:

Healthy San Francisco Silver Avenue Clinic

Someone from CNN booking emailed me after reading my HSF story, asking for a pre-interview on skype. We skyped last Thursday, and she’s forwarding my contact info to the editorial and broadcasting teams (no guarantees that they’ll contact me, but they now have my info), and she told me to email her if I’m interesting in contributing writing/reporting for them!! (She thought I had an interesting perspective on health care as a college student..)

Healthy San Francisco Silver Avenue Clinic

I wish I liked taking photos more. It always feels so much more intrusive than reporting to me, or less respectful, even though I ask permission.

http://news.newamericamedia.org/news/view_article.html?article_id=e91ffed0c73d55bce8709338dae45caf

http://news.newamericamedia.org/news/view_article.html?article_id=06e2f6b0dc04931447885cb20d905df4

This story of mine broke before the Chronicle’s story about the Nichi Bei Times, first in the Nichi Bei Times itself and then on the NAM site, and a few other Asian American news sources picked it up. In fact, looking at the way the Chronicle structured their story and the information they included, I wonder whether they used my story for guidance.

I also got an email from the Asian American Journalists Association, for whose listserv I’m registered because I got a grant from them for my NAM internship, called “Save the Nichi Bei Times.” AAJA asked for members to support the new Nichi Bei Foundation and referenced my article. In other words, I got a general, anonymous blast that referenced my work! It was great seeing that someone was actually using my reporting to promote a cause. If my job is to be simply shifting information around, and maybe also digging up something from time to time if I’m lucky, it’s good to see that the shifting might matter.

Other NAM news:

Shane Bauer, one of the three hikers detained in Iran after accidentally crossing the Iran-Iraq border on July 31, is a freelance journalist who contributes to NAM. So the day the story of their detention broke, CNN and two or three other mainstream news organizations burst into NAM’s little, very-non-mainstream office to interview our director and others about the detention, and other media kept the phones ringing all week about the story. Iran has released little information about the status of the three since detaining them.

Random: someone recently found my blog by searching “What do dolphins eat.” Alas, poor searcher, my blog has given you only more questions, and no answers. Though I might suggest “fish” as an answer. This blog has also been the destination of the searches “what do ladybugs eat and drink” AND “what do deer eat.”

On another note, how did I manage to see 40 or so meteors the Wednesday before last and forget to wish on a single one?

NAM 7 week update

August 4, 2009

I think I missed a great editorial meeting last week. As I tried to get off the phone with Dell tech support, I wandered in and out of the meeting and heard something about an upsurge in leg extensions and other cosmetic surgery among Asians – someone asked how they did it, and someone else explained that she thought they broke the leg, and then added titanium piping. Then Dell told me I had to install something I didn’t need on my computer. (It turned out that one of our writers is working on a story about a dramatic increase in middle-aged Chinese-American men getting plastic surgery to compete better in a difficult job market. Their wives used to encourage them to come in – now they’re doing it on their own!)

When I got back to the meeting, I heard someone saying, “It’s a little late. I mean the movie came out two weeks ago,” and someone else saying, “Yeah, but he has a pretty unique perspective as a bank robber himself.” I correctly concluded NAM has connections with a bank robber who reviewed Public Enemies:

http://news.newamericamedia.org/news/view_article.html?article_id=919ce62e8dfd7bacffeb666a487d15af

I recently had to do a lot of outreach for these roundtable discussions on women immigrants that New America Media was hosting in Washington, D.C., Chicago, LA, New York, and Miami. As an offshoot of the discussion, NAM decided to post blog entries by various contributors about their women immigrant relatives. Since I’d written about my grandma leaving China after World War II in my Writing About War journalism class last semester, I modified that piece and they posted it:

http://blogwire.newamericamedia.org/2009/07/justine-drennan-on-pei-fen-koo.php

I mentioned looking for a family to interview about long-term care of a family member. I arranged to go meet the Waltons in Berkeley – Carol takes care of her husband Ortiz – and went to interview them last Friday with Paul on the video team. We got there 30 minutes early, and as we were waiting outside the house, a firetruck and ambulance came speeding down the street. Paul said, “They better not be coming here,” but sure enough, they stopped right next to us and five or six officers and medics went into the house.

They came out a few minutes later – it turned out the husband had had a fall, and then the wife had passed out as she was trying to help him. They were okay now, but we told Carol we’d come back and interview them another day, after they’d got some rest. That this had all happened just when we came to interview them about the difficulties of being old and ailing without support.

We came back on Monday, and in our interview, we learned that Ortiz Walton is a fairly famous jazz bassist – the youngest person and first African American to play in the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, who has since then written about called Music: Black, White, and Blue in America, and held benefit concerts to raise money to support voting rights, and started a foundation for vulnerable students with his wife, and received a doctorate in Sociology from Berkeley, and been mentioned by Duke Ellington in his book, and been called by Max Roach “the greatest jazz bassist of all time.” And so on. My feature on them will be going up soon, but it was an all-around surreal experience.

SF Gay Pride Parade

June 30, 2009

This was my first year going to the parade, though we missed most of the actual parade. Last year, I just went to the “Pink Party” the night before the parade. Both times, I’ve seen my share of naked men and strap on…fairy wings.

Technology-phobic as I am, I wish I’d brought my camera – which I have just rediscovered, since I needed to photograph the guy I interviewed last Friday for a story about his work employing at-risk youth at a recycling plant.

I wish I’d got a photo of the naked guy painted completely – completely – blue and wearing an large feather headdress. Chelsea, who interviewed him for her radio broadcast, said he called himself an “Apache.”

I also wish I’d got a picture of the older man covered in naked Barbie dolls, along with a large, erect, wooden phallus that thrust between the hapless dolls strapped to his belt. I wondered whether this was the same man who my mom knew in her San Francisco General Hospital days – the one who swallowed Barbie doll heads, and, since he was frugal, would boil them after pooping them out, so as to sanitize them, before swallowing them again. Chelsea interviewed this man as well – I believe he called himself the “Objectifyer.”

The weather was ideal for wearing nothing, or close to nothing – about as warm as it ever gets in San Francisco.

Chelsea also interviewed an Human Rights Campaign volunteer, who complained that she wasn’t getting many people to support an anti-hate crime bill. Most older people there, she said, had signed up with the HRC in the nineties, but now the younger ones couldn’t be bothered. I wondered whether there was another reason she wasn’t having much luck, as an HRC volunteer in particular.

Last year, I’d been planning on going to the parade (I don’t remember why I couldn’t), and I’d signed up to do voter registration with the HRC. I figured there was no way Prop 8 could pass (back then, despite Schwarzenegger, I mostly believed that my state had some common sense), but I wanted to help make sure. Then, the day before the parade, I read in the paper: “LGBT groups protesting the Human Rights Campaign.” It turned out that the HRC had recently promoted a bill that would give equal workplace rights to L’s, G’s, and B’s, but not T’s. Their rationale: something was better than nothing. Not in the eyes of transsexuals and most others in the LGBT community.

For fear of being spat upon, I decided not to volunteer with HRC. This year, I felt a little guilty about not volunteering again.

I asked the volunteer if the whole affair had blown over yet. She gave a very long spiel about how they realize they made a really, really bad mistake, and they have apologized profusely, and they want to make it absolutely clear that this new bill they are promoting includes rights for everyone. Then she asked us for donations, and I assuaged my guilt and also felt a little glad that I wasn’t volunteering this year, either.

I did see this guy, or one much like him

I did see this fellow, or one much like him

Anyway, as all the headlines have declared, everyone seemed to want to celebrate extra hard in the face of the Defense of Marriage Act, no fix to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, etc.

P.S. If you are seeking to attract quantity but not quality readers to your blog, tag every post with “sex.” I got seven hits in the first hour after I published my last post, all from people searching “sex.” I’d never got hits from a tag before. Will people have learned their lesson? And/or will the title “SF Gay Pride Parade” be less intriguing than “Dirt makes everything more interesting” to those who search for “sex” on WordPress? (Likely.) Find out in my next post!

Dirt makes everything more interesting

June 28, 2009

I mean this somewhat more literally than you might think.

It’s always been a matter of pride to me that I’m not very squeamish about insects, hygiene while camping, gory details while I’m eating, and other “dirty” things. The other day at work, Mei Mei offered me a pocky (for the unAZNconscious, a chocolate-covered cookie stick), and because I was on the phone at the time, I left it on my open laptop. When I got off the phone, it had melted onto the plastic above the keyboard, but I pulled it off and ate it anyway, and then scooped up the remaining chocolate and ate that too. I said something like, “Whoops,” to acknowledge to the horrified Mei Mei and to Pelushi-girl that my action wasn’t really socially acceptable. Pelushi-girl said, “Ewww!!”

That incident, along with the Sandman “literary graphic novel” series I’ve been reading, got me thinking about dirt in culture. Sandman is full of mythology, fairytale, and, best of all, different places and eras. Reading the series reminded me that I’ve never really liked ancient Greece and Rome. Of course they were incredible, way ahead of their time, and all that, but I think that’s part of the reason they don’t draw me the way the “Dark Ages” do. The artifacts from the “classical period,” if not the period itself, seem sterile – full of clean, standardized, white statues (often with smooth, blank eyes), and pure philosophy. Everything is visible – nothing hides behind hills or fog or darkness.

The Emperor Hadrian as Mars - all out in the open

The Emperor Hadrian - all out in the open

The Dark Ages, on the other hand, are compelling for me because they are dark, and therefore mysterious – centuries in need of a candle, full of things that go bump in the night… and dirt. Dirt seems to cling to both the artifacts from the period – tapestries and carvings going brown around the edges – and the ideas, which are messier, less rational than those of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Somehow, the dirt makes the era more friendly, just as the  traces of pocky chocolate and crumbs in my keyboard personalize my computer.

a delightfully grubby page from the Book of Kells (the gospels, transcribed by 9th c. Irish monks

a delightfully grubby page from the Book of Kells (an illuminated copy of the four gospels, transcribed by 9th c. Irish monks)

In Purity and Danger and other works, anthropologist Mary Douglas argues that many cultures’ ideas about pollution match Lord Chesterfield’s quip: “Dirt is matter out of place.” For example, in Leviticus, certain animals are considered “unclean” because they possess features that, according to Hebrew cultural categories, do not belong together or are out of place. Pigs are unclean not because they carry lots of diseases, eat garbage, etc., but because they are hooved and yet do not “chew of the cud.”

Things are often most interesting when they don’t fit into categories – when they’re dirty. I dislike classes and disciplines that think grouping and assigning labels is enough, without get one’s hands dirty and using those labels to make arguments and determine causality. But my complaints about academic categorization may get their own post later. Now, my focus is dirt. Part of the reason I’m majoring in history is that, more than in science – more even than in “social science” – things in history can’t  be easily categorized. History is dirty.

Of course, I’m lucky that I can look at dirt so theoretically. Maybe if I lived in a mud hut, I’d feel less positively about dirt (though maybe not – I’d probably be even less squeamish, and maybe feel closer to the land?)

Dirt is part of the reason that the Lord of the Rings movies are vastly superior to the other recent fantasy movies. I remember listening to two middle aged women on a train complain that they couldn’t stand to watch LOTR because all of the characters looked like they needed to take a good shower.

But that grubbiness is part of what gives the movies their grit and makes them look real, rather than made of plastic, or worse, made of a substance as intangible as “computer” (although LOTR is sometimes over-digitized, too, as with the Ents and especially the ghosts of Dunharrow.)

Saran-wrap ghosts :(

Saran-wrap ghosts 😦

In movies like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Golden Compass, on the other hand, everything seems a little too bright, smooth, and shiny. There’s nothing rough and knobby to grab onto or feel friction against or engage with. Everything just glides by.

Are they not all remarkably well-kempt?

Are they not all remarkably well-kempt?

Characters from Lord of the Rings are dirtier in their promotional photos than characters from The Chronicles of Narnia are in their actual fight scenes. I’ll give The Golden Compass characters more of a break on dirt-defined-as-physical-muck, since there’s less of that in the arctic regions. However, there’s no excuse for the series’ general lack of grittiness and dirt in the Lord Chesterfield sense – especially given that a main idea in the series is that Dust can put destiny itself out of place.

Another reason that dirt is interesting could be the  “fascination of the abomination,” as Conrad calls it in Heart of Darkness. Things can be so gross that you want to look.

Some kinds of sex can work like that. Sex, always an act of joining things, could easily lead to Douglas’s unclean “hybrids and other confusions.” Maybe that’s part of why sex is generally treated with so much discretion. The Bible’s idea of correct sex – the coming together of two to make one – is in a sense a completion, and Douglas argues that completeness is associated with holiness in the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, sex has to be handled with care, because if the two aren’t well-matched in the view of the culture, as with bestiality, incest, etc., everything could be thrown off balance. It makes sense that sex, and especially nonstandard sex, is often called “dirty,” and that when we want interesting details, we say, “Give me the dirt.”