Posted tagged ‘history’

About the cheesy url—first world problems!

October 16, 2011

Growing up in California and wanting to go on an adventure, I was kind of stuck. While my East Coast peers dreamed of riding out West, across the now long-closed Frontier, I learned it wasn’t fair to call it a frontier, since Native Americans already had been there for a long time—though saying they’d always been there was racist and suggested their culture was timeless and static, while Western culture was constantly advancing—Westward ho! I wasn’t allowed to read Little House on the Prairie for the same reason.

Later, my East Coast university roommates were shocked to learn I’d never pretended to be a pioneer. Why would I? I was already West. My family and I had arrived, geographically, and—unlike the Joads—more or less economically.

Instead, I’d pretended to be a vaguely medieval vagabond, until I realized that even progressive Robin Hood perpetuated Anglo-centric and fundamentally conservative ideals. When the real world got too messy, I slipped into other worlds, which seemed safer until I learned the Narnia books were a huge Christian allegory.

So instead, I imagined leading a revolution, only to find myself wishing that California’s rather inefficient government were a little more totalitarian and worth overthrowing; that I had fewer choices, so that the choices I made would matter more. (Picking classes was never epic.) I thought I would have abandoned all my worldly and civic goods to go on a secular pilgrimage in quest of a narrative.


I knew I must be pretty spoiled to want fewer rather than more resources and freedoms. These were what they called “first world problems.” I had an upper middle class resource curse—a glut of freedom, and nothing to do with it besides daydream. I’d learned what values not to hold, which gods not to worship, but to replace them, I had only fiction to draw from. And despite my “wealth of opportunities”—or, I thought, maybe because of it—I felt I had few chances for a fiction-worthy adventure.

My East Coast university’s lecture halls and Jingle Balls weren’t quite the right kind of adventure. Still, they fit into the narrative of imperialism and the male gaze that I was learning to differentiate myself from in seminars. I gained friends who wanted to be pioneers—the kinds from both the 19th and the 21st centuries (both types aiming to go West). They helped me, at least comparatively, feel like an outsider, and thus a protagonist.

Guilt, not from the residue of any religion but from fear of cultural insensitivity, brought me to a class on Christianity, another element of so many American’s lives that was absent from mine. I wondered, trying not to judge, how early Christians had been so passive, eyes to the sky, awaiting the End of Days, minds empty of agency.

As I discussed founding non-profits in Asia with classmates, I wondered how many of us, in the nineteenth century, would have been officials in Her Majesty’s Empire. Going abroad for adventure could easily go imperialistic, so I stayed in the library, hoping things would happen. Instead, the books confirmed that I could learn what not to believe, but not what to believe.

Then, finally, I realized that I was being just as passive as the early Christians. With a background that taught me to question and qualify, I hadn’t dared to create my own narrative for fear it would offend. All my life, I’d been waiting, though I knew neither the day nor the hour, for an adventure to appear.

Moving forward, in a world that rejected ideas of backward and forward, would require a different kind of imagination.


Another poem about history

January 12, 2011


A Scholar’s Passion

The historian

flits between massacres, a fickle lover –

one minute hustled by an old chronicler

into congress with Fortune the Strumpet, still reeking

of battle, of armies mingling desperately at the junctures of continents –

and the next minute,

gently opening up the quivering

pages of an untouched little war that is

ready to bleed for him,

and leaving the old

series of deaths

musky with carnality and


Judah’s Foresight – about the Transcontinental Railroad, again

January 7, 2011

Is it ok to use a stentorian tone when speaking in a 19th century voice?

Theodore Judah

My dearest Anne,

I could not help but smile last night,

Wrinkles creasing my cheeks that in two months’ time

Will be wracked by deadly fever,

When you showed me your painting of our noble mountains –

A good painting – or so it seemed illumined by our campfire –

The painting not noble

But made by a woman’s fine hands

With intent that goes before the work,

Not so much like a siren as a bell.

It is our destiny, my dear, to burst our sacred wilderness apart,

As that other jungle will rupture me.

Some are cursed to step before they see, weary shovels preceding shoulders,

but you and I, we have a different doom

To see where we may never tread,

Or watch the creases between mountains where we once sat

Submerged in splitting trunks and melting rock.

I wonder if nature will forget to know

To tell the trees that summer’s coming:

Oil your engines, unfurl your leaves.

I wonder if men will forget to look to the ground before them,

Or if the ground will move too fast to look.

From my last bed in Panama,

Perhaps I will wonder what I have been doing,

Sowing the sterile seeds of our undoing

Into the knowing earth.

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.


“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.