Death is at Your Doorstep

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

I’ve thought a lot about death in the past year or so.

In that time, my family has lost most of its remaining oldest generation, two matriarchs and a patriarch, all of whom lived long and full lives, despite tragedies and troubles and illnesses along the way. My grandmother, after decades of complaining about how she was tired of life and wanted to die, yet stubbornly persisted in living, died shortly after her 92nd birthday. My great-aunt passed away not long after, comfortably in her home with her family surrounded her, as she had wanted. My great-uncle lived only a few months after his wife died, long enough to see her gravestone set and the house put in order.

I have been aware of death since I was a child. Growing up in an aging community, where times of prayer and sharing too often sounded like a medical roster of illnesses, in an extended family group of unrelated aunties and uncles in their sixties, seventies, eighties — funerals were normal, even nonchalantly expected. A journal entry from when I was nine years old reads “I am fine… Tomorow is Sunday. I went to a funeral.” The first time I read Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Ring of Endless Light,” in which the main character deals with the terminal illness of her grandfather, i was confused by her confusion about death. And later on, in college and beyond, when I talked to friends who had never before gone to a funeral or witnessed the death of a close friend or family member, I did not understand the emotional confusion and shock that they expressed, just as they probably did not understand my blanket acceptance of the end of life.

The catalyst for this particular rumination on death was yet another email from #goteamgray, the network of family and friends supporting Will and Angie Gray through his struggle with terminal cancer. I first met them years ago on an island off the east coast, and then again in Los Angeles, and most recently at a screening of a documentary film that he’d spent years working on, and was so happy to finally be sharing with folks across the country. “Broke*” is the story of Will’s journey as an independent musician and of the people he had drawn around him in the pursuit of art and music and performance. And many of these people are the same ones gathering around him as he prepares now for a different type of journey.

“I claim the fact that we are strongly encouraged to identify with characters for whom death is not a significant creative process has real costs. We the audience, and individual you over there and me right here, lose any sense of eschatology, thus of teleology, and live in a moment that is, paradoxically, both emptied of intrinsic meaning or end and quite literally eternal. If we’re the only animals who know in advance we’re going to die, we’re also probably the only animals who would submit so cheerfully to the sustained denial of this undeniable and very important truth. The danger is that, as entertainment’s denial of the truth get even more effective and pervasive and seductive, we will eventually forget what they’re denials of. This is scary. Because it seems transparent to me that, if we forget how to die, we’re going to forget how to live” (1).

I don’t know that I necessarily have a healthy relationship with the concept of death — I mean, those seem to be like mutually exclusive terms. I probably think and write about it more often than the average American. But I think Wallace hits on an extremely important point in his essay, and L’Engle’s novel also points to this: that without the awareness of death, life is perpetual meaninglessness.

“If we all knew each morning that there was going to be another morning, and on and on and on, we’s tend not to notice the sunrise, or hear the birds, or the waves rolling into the shore. We’d tend not to treasure our time with the people we love. Simply the awareness that our mortal lives had a beginning and will have an end enhances the quality of our living. Perhaps it’s even more intense when we know that the termination of the body is near, but it shouldn’t be” (2).

1. Wallace, David Foster. Both Flesh and Not: Essays. “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young.” New York: Little, Brown, & Company, 2012. 51.
2. L’Engle, Madeleline. A Ring of Endless Light. New York: Farrar, Straux, and Giroux, 1980.


Becoming Herself

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A friend and I have this habit of swapping links to articles, prefacing them with “I’m not a feminist, but…” and then going off on rants about inequality and the promulgation of sexist ideas under a veneer of progress.  This blog may be a little bit like that.  Also, we may need to rethink our mantra that we are not feminists.

An author that I have great respect and admiration for posted a link to a New York Times opinion piece (1) and her response (2) to it earlier this week.  I had not previously read the opinion piece, but was fuming by the time I got to the end, and was glad to have her response to help sort through some of the points made.  Here are some of my thoughts.

Population pyramids (3) are fascinating bits of data.  And it’s plain to see that the United States looks more like a 2 liter of soda than a pyramid right now, at least as compared to Africa or Asia.  Douthat points out that the American birthrate has been “hovering around the level required to keep a population stable or growing over the long run.”  Population dynamics are a little outside the scope of this particular blog (which is supposed to be addressing gender and religious ideology), but there are plenty of additional sociological and economic implications of having a stable population — we are seeing some of these play out among the educational, employment and financial woes of young adults.  How well did that whole baby boomer generation work out in terms of contributing to economic growth and affordable spending commitments?  But I digress.

Do I think it’s my patriotic duty to have children?  Absolutely not.  We are not in some post-apocalyptic universe (4) where procreation is necessarily to ensure the future of the human race, nor do I ascribe to Douthat’s statement that it is the obligation of Americans to produce more offspring in order to assure a “second American century.”  He seems to imply in the article that our faltering fertility rates are threatened by the higher French and British rates, and that gay partnerships are a cop-out for those who don’t think that children are important to a successful marriage.  Who’s to say, for that matter, that future generations of American-born children will turn from the decadence which “privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation… embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity” that he condemns in his closing paragraphs?  Or that the idea of turning from personal indulgence will lead to the same conclusion of having more children?  Sentilles in her reflection on Douthat’s arguments brings up issues of social responsibility — climate change, energy consumption, the foster care system (pro-life arguments tend to ignore the sanctity of life post-birth (5)).  From a global perspective, quality and sustainability of life seem at odds with quantity.

In her book, “Why Have Kids?” new mother Jessica Valenti observes that, “”American culture can’t accept the reality of a woman who does not want to be a mother.  It goes against everything we’ve been taught to think about women and how desperately they want babies.  If we’re to believe the media and pop culture, women — even teen girls — are forever desperate for a baby.  It’s our greatest desire” (7).  There remains an infuriating trend in both religious and secular circles to equate womanhood with motherhood — that the highest goal and calling of women is to reproduce — and Sentilles has some strong words regarding this as well.  She relates a visit to the doctor where she commented that she wasn’t sure if she wanted to have children, and the doctor replied, “Do you want to be lonely when you’re old? Do you want to die alone?”  Later, she muses on “that strange and strangling knot of social pressure and racism and entitlement and fear all laid out on the table in the doctor’s office for me to examine — the pressure that will never stop no matter what I do, even if I follow the commandments shouted in advertisements and during family gatherings and in doctors’ offices when I’m sitting in a paper gown that opens in the back.”

I was once accused of “having no maternal instinct,” something which has been rattling around in the back of my head ever since.  The concept of redemption through child-bearing has been forced down my throat for years — not only through Biblical mandate, but also through generations of predominately girl children (male descendants are a vital part of traditional Chinese culture), and much as my mother has attempted to combat this through words, actions and attitudes trump the faltering consolatory suggestion that someone of my background and heritage can break the cycle by mere individual willpower.  Any serious contemplation of someday having a child brings to the forefront a carefully squelched suggestion that a son might help redeem a history of daughters and granddaughters, the fulfillment of my father’s prediction that all my education and academic pursuits come down to “popping out babies,” that the only true and faithful embodiment of womanhood is motherhood, that the act of giving birth suddenly transforms you from having personal goals, academic interests, and professional aspirations, to someone who must be willing at any given moment to devote all your time to a child, to the care and feeding and nurture and protection of that being regardless of anything else.

If I am standoffish of babies and reluctant to voice any inclination towards motherhood, perhaps it’s also partly because it feels like being forced backwards into a box that we women have struggled so long to break out of — that once you show any weakening towards traditional female roles such as housekeeper, cook, child-care, or housewifery, it automatically counters any progress you have made as an individual, as a career woman, as a student, an intellectual, an academic, an activist.  This goes both ways; Pamela Haag points out, “The parent who craves their career, who is truly happiest when pursuing that muse, tends to muffle their zeal in layers of apology.  Conversely, the opting-out wife, for example, who finds that she really does have a single-minded passion of domesticity, in an organic, nonbrainwashed, non-Stepford fashion, can end up feeling abashed about pursuing it wholeheartedly and offer up her own apologies for why she’s not ‘doing anything'” (6).  I already struggle enough with the fact that I thrive on providing hospitality, feeding people, and connecting them to community; these can be re-framed with a sort of academic sociological desire to provide stable communities and emotional support for the disenfranchised, but combine them with any sort of motherly inclination, and you have a good old Bible College recipe for pastor’s wife with sides of teaching Sunday School and leading small group Bible studies.

Ruth Josselson writes, “Identity is the stable, consistent, and reliable sense of who one is and what one stands for in the world.  It integrates one’s meaning to oneself and one’s meaning to others; it provides a match between what one regards as central to one self, and how one is viewed by significant others in one’s life” (8).  I’m not sure if this ramble through my still developing feminist ideas has made much progress towards developing anything stable, consistent, or reliable.  So I guess to wrap this one up, I’ll argue that we need women with the strength and determination of Laura Roslin, the brashness and forthrightness of Kara Thrace, the loyalty and bravery of Sharon Agathon, the motherly care and endurance of Cally Tyrol; but also acknowledge the sacrifice that each entails.  You can’t be and shouldn’t try to be all of them.  And no one should expect you to.

(1) Douthat, Ross.  “More Babies, Please.”  New York Times.  2 Dec. 2012: SR11.  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/02/opinion/sunday/douthat-the-birthrate-and-americas-future.html
(2) Sentilles, Sarah.  “Do Not Have Sex with This Man.”  Religion Dispatches.  4 Dec. 2012.  http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/sexandgender/6660/do_not_have_sex_with_this_man/
(3) http://populationpyramid.net/
(4) http://en.battlestarwiki.org/wiki/Survivor_count
(5) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/28/opinion/sunday/friedman-why-i-am-pro-life.html
(6) Haag, Pamela.  Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses & Rebel Couples Who are Rewriting the Rules.  New York: Harper, 2011.  (59-60).
(7) Valenti, Jessica.  Why Have Kids?  A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness.  New Harvest: Boston, 2012.  (3).
(8) Josselson, Ruth. Finding Herself: Pathways to Identity Development in Women. San Francisco-London: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1987.  (3)


The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Friday, October 19, 2012

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I’m not much of a moviegoer. I’ve never owned a TV and if there’s been one in any of my places of residence, it hasn’t been mine, and I’m fine with that. But recently I saw a trailer for “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” a book that I’d heard about but never read, so I picked the book up, and liked it enough to make a concerted effort to go see the movie when it was released. I just have a few quick thoughts on this before I go back to writing about my five big ideas.

Quick summary: the book and film follow the first year of a freshman in high school named Charlie. After the suicide of his best friend in middle school and a long-time struggle with depression and mental health issues, Charlie is hoping that his first days in high school will help turn things around. Eventually, he meets two high school seniors, step-siblings Patrick and Sam, who adopt Charlie into their group.

There are three main ideas in both the book and the movie that struck me. The first of these was the impact of Charlie’s English teacher, Mr. Anderson, who notices Charlie on the first day of class and later asks him why he does not speak up in class. This opens up a dialogue between the two, and Mr. Anderson begins to give Charlie more advanced reading recommendations, encouraging him in his dream of being a writer. The book has more details in regards to Mr. Anderson’s mentorship towards Charlie as he introduces him to various books, authors, and ideas, provides a model of a professional man who has made a career of writing and studying literature. I like the idea of teachers as mentors and helping students who are struggling or at-risk. There is also the off-stage person who Charlie writes the letters to, someone who, he says will listen and understand, but who is never clearly defined — simply as someone trustworthy.

The second idea is more of a mish-mash of the importance of community and supportive friends. After a few thwarted attempts at connecting with people that he knew in middle school, Charlie finds himself already counting down the days til the end of the school year. Charlie meets Patrick in shop class, and from there he is adopted into Patrick and Sam’s group, which comes to appreciate his quietness and observations, even if he isn’t always good with words or expressing what he means. It reminded me of a small scale version of the Family, or as Sam calls it “the island of misfit toys,” a group of uniquely weird and quirky characters drawn together by friendship, who laugh and love and fight and reconcile. Charlie writes, ““I think the idea is that every person has to live for his or her own life and then make the choice to share it with other people.”

And the third idea is the titular phrase. The book, of course, provides more insight into Charlie’s thoughts and observations, but there are some voice-overs in the film which also serve the same purpose. In particular, Charlie muses on relationships — what makes good relationships, and why people choose poorly, and what it all means. Towards the end, Sam rebukes Charlie for being so self-contained and introspective, saying, “It’s great that you can listen and be a shoulder to someone, but what about when someone doesn’t need a shoulder? What if they need the arms or something like that? You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love. You just can’t. You have to do things.” And I think that is a particularly important point: that although there are perks to being a wallflower, such as observing other people’s decisions and mistakes, trying to analyze other people’s relationships, and seeing how people treat one another, you cannot live your entire life vicariously through other people.

Overall, the movie is a little clunky, with some of the lines lifted from the book seeming a little forced into the dialogue. The book is naturally a little awkward in order to reflect Charlie’s writing and speaking style, and might seem a little overwrought or cliched to some. As pointed out by a reviewer on Goodreads, there are plenty of lines to be picked out for tumblr reblogs.

One final note about the movie: there are several shots of PIttsburgh at night, especially the scenes where Patrick, Sam, and Charlie are driving through the Fort Pitt tunnel into the city, and it really made me nostalgic for Pittsburgh, or rather, the idea of Pittsburgh. I do have some memories of driving through the Fort Pitt Tunnel (or rather riding in a car being driven through the Fort Pitt tunnel), but I also used to get that same feeling driving through downtown Los Angeles late at night from Hollywood. I’m not quite sure I can describe it, so I just let this quote from the movie finish out the blog.

I don’t know if I will have the time to write anymore letters, because I might be too busy trying to participate. So if this does end up being the last letter, I just want you to know that I was in a bad place before I started high school, and you helped me. Even if you didn’t know what I was talking about or know someone who has gone through it, you made me not feel alone. Because I know there are people who say all these things don’t happen. And there are people who forget what it’s like to be 16 when they turn 17. I know these will all be stories someday. And our pictures will become old photographs. We’ll all become somebody’s mom or dad. But right now these moments are not stories. This is happening, I am here and I am looking at her. And she is so beautiful. I can see it. This one moment when you know you’re not a sad story. You are alive, and you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder. And you’re listening to that song and that drive with the people you love most in this world. And in this moment I swear, we are infinite.


Rocking the Suburbs

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

There’s going to probably be a series of shorter, hopefully more concise blogs in the next few days, simply because there are so many things that I need to write about quickly. Although based on the fact that I started this particular post eight days ago and am only now finishing it, I’m not so sure this plan is working.

We drive our cars everyday
to and from work both ways
So we make just enough to pay
to drive our cars to work each day
– Ben Folds

Coming back to Orange County, and Irvine in particular, has been quite the cultural shock, perhaps even more so than the one that I went through when moving from Sacramento to LA county for the first time back in 2005. Having spent the past three years in the midwestern setting of Columbus, Ohio, and working in a urban community college, it felt almost like arriving on the set of some television sitcom. I’ve spent much of the past month driving around the area, reconnecting with old friends, hanging out in coffeeshops, and studying up on what sorts of ideas and issues I want to focus on in the future. I checked out a couple of places that Yelp labeled as “hipster” and realized that this word seems to have different implications on this coast. I did a brief search for some clarification, and found an article (1) in which Orange County was declared “most hipster” by virtue of the number of single-speed bikes sold. Most people discredited this ranking, arguing that the moniker “hipster” is much more than outward trappings, and instead focused on what is implied in the values of the hipster lifestyle. I particularly liked this one comment that was made: “The OC is filled with upper middle-class kids who love the style but don’t have the conviction to embrace the pseudo-liberal lifestyles of their truly hipsterish brethren and move to a depressed area of a big city.”

Having spent that time in the “depressed area of a big city,” I encountered many people like the “OC hipsters” described above. And I know that part of the appeal of the hipster lifestyle is the idea of “the other side.” Grace Hale describes it thusly: “White middle-class Americans imagined people living on the margins, without economic or political or social privilege, as possessing something vital, some essential quality that had somehow been lost from their own lives. They often found this depth of meaning and feeling in what they took to be the expressive culture of black people, but other outsiders served as well. However the margins and center were defined, the key imaginative act was the ‘discovery’ of difference. These encounters with outsiders enabled some middle-class whites to cut themselves free of their own social origins and their own histories and in identifying with these others to imaginatively regain what they understood as previously lost values and feelings. They remade themselves. They became outsiders too” (2). Though her book specifically addresses the idea of white America’s fascination with rebellion and marginalization, I would argue that this also applies to anyone who finds themselves in a majority, whether racially, economically, educationally, or any other demographic categorization.

Yet during my stint in the Midwest, I found that there were a few who attempted, at least, to appeal to a more historically hippie lifestyle, moving beyond the fashion and stylistic accoutrements to ideas of social responsibility, green living, activism, and being part of a bigger community. Perhaps that is what I am missing most about the circle of people that I knew there; long discussions about the concept of emerging adulthood with someone just starting to emerge, political rants from a young enthusiast who cares deeply about issues, hearing real stories from someone whose family lived on less than a thousand dollars a month growing up, conversations about food safety and sourcing, issues and ideas that seem, to me, much more real than our present middle-class suburban worries. It is rather challenging for me to express these ideas and thoughts to the people that I encounter in my community at present, because as much as I am growing to hate upper-middle-class suburbia for its wealth, exclusion, and self-preservation, I have a car, I have a laptop, an iPod, a GPS system, a cellphone, I have health insurance (an individual plan paid for completely out of pocket, but still, I can at least presently afford it), I benefit from living in a house in a wealthy, gated community in one of the safest cities in America. There is plenty of cognitive dissonance and external hypocrisy between what I am writing here and what my lifestyle presently appears to demonstrate.

Back in 2000, David Brooks wrote a now well-known study of the young people who were beginning to combine the previously divided lifestyles of bohemian and bourgeois, and in this book, he described the ideal hometown of these people: “the ideal Latte Town has a Swedish-style government, German-style pedestrian malls, Victorian houses, Native American crafts, Italian coffee, Berkeley human rights groups, and Beverly Hills income levels. There should be some abandoned industrial mills that can be converted into lofts, software workstations, and organic brownie factories. And in utopia a Latte Town would have Rocky Mountain views to the west, redwood forests downtown, a New England lake along the waterfront, and a major city with a really good alternative weekly within a few hours’ drive” (3). Does that sound appealing to me? Yes, of course. To you? Maybe not so much. As enjoyable as it is to construct utopias in our imagination, there is no magic button to push that will transform our present living places into idyllic places of perfection, sans poverty and traffic and homeless people and high gas prices and uncooperative weather and excessive taxes.

So all that to say, no, I don’t like suburbs, and seeing how Orange County is littered with them, I don’t think I’ll be staying here long-term. But that’s where I am right now, and this is what I think of it, and I’m still figuring out what that all means.

(2) Hale, Grace Elizabeth. A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America. Oxford University Press, 2011.
(3) Brooks, David. Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.


Asleep in the Pews

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

I saw this article on NPR and my first thought was “Oh, this is cool, NPR is writing about hipster Christianity.” Then I actually started reading what the article said. For those unversed in the terminology of the American church, the article noted that megachurches are “grounded in the principle that religion serves people best when it meshes well with the secular world. Instead of cultivating a separate sphere where mysticism and anachronistic practices prevail, megachurches feel like everywhere else, except with God present (according to the faithful). Dress is casual. Leaders’ sermons sound like self-help pep talks. And the music sounds like something that would pour out of your radio” (1).

More on that in a moment.

My undergraduate degree is in music and business, and for many years music had been one of my five things — I was enamoured of the talking artists, who “talk of art and are passionately, almost feverishly, in earnest about it” (2). I loved, and still love, the act of making music, of people coming together with instruments and voices and talent and ability to create a conversation, a community, a connection. Nick Hornby, in his novel “High Fidelity,” writes about the power of music to evoke feelings and emotion and memories: “sentimental music has this great way of taking you back somewhere at the same time that it takes you forward, so you feel nostalgic and hopeful all at the same time” (3). And for me, this is very true. My sisters and I occasionally go through bouts of swapping links to Youtube clips of old CCM songs which, while sounding terribly dated and making us question our tastes in music, reminds us of a time when we listened to K-LOVE and went to Spirit West Coast and spent Sundays listening to 20! the Countdown Magazine.

The author of NPR’s article suggests that the religious undertones in the music of artists like U2, Mumford & Sons, and the Avett Brothers resonates with those who have been raised in religious traditions, who may no longer be connected to the church but still have “the same desire to grapple with impossibly big terms like ‘sincerity’ and ‘belief'” (4) — something which I think captures the mindset of many emerging adults who are estranged from the mainstream evangelical church. Kenda Creasy Deen, in her book “Almost Christian,” examines the effects of the contemporary American church and its teachings on the teens and young adults that are being produced from its youth groups; her argument is that for the most part, teens are coming away with the ideas “that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people focused primarily on ‘folks like us'” (5). With that sort of foundation in organized religion, it’s no wonder that we are latching onto songs that express a longing for something deeper.

I have been involved in church and music for many years, and I would break these up into two distinct periods, with a third non-involvement period tacked onto the end. During my early teen years all the way into my early twenties, I was deeply involved in the worship team of my small Baptist home church, a church full of traditionalists being dragged along into the technology of programmed MIDI due to a lack of musicians to lead the worship band. I spent many hours tracking down CCLI license numbers, programming MIDI tracks, arranging songs, and talking with the leaders about the practicality of leading worship when all you have is two vocalists and a music programmer. During the second period, I went away to Bible college, where attendance at chapel was mandatory, and you were guaranteed to hear songs by Chris Tomlin at least three times a week — “How Great is Our God” had just bumped “Here I Am to Worship” off of the top of the CCLI list. I wrote in my culminating experience paper about the banality and consumeristic nature of contemporary worship music, yet post-graduation, I found myself ensconced in another smallish Baptist church, playing keyboard and piano for up to three worship teams each month. Despite my increasing discomfort with what church music was becoming, I convinced myself to tune out that part of my mind, but it still persisted back there. And finally, in my present non-involvement period coming away from an extended time of being unchurched, I am still considering how to combine an intellectual, academically curious mind with the glib answers that are all too prevalent in the contemporary church experience.

DFW once spoke about popular culture thusly: “The predictability in popular art, the really formulaic stuff, the stuff that makes no attempt to surprise or do anything artistic, is so profoundly soothing. And… even the densest or most tired viewer can see what’s coming. And it gives you a sense of order, that everything’s going to be all right, that this is a narrative that will take care of you, and won’t in any way challenge you” (6). And this same trend is seen all too often in the church, and in the church’s music: lyrics are teeming with phrases marveling at how wonderful God is to us, our desire to see Him more, with feel-good, relational phrases that emphasize I, we, us, ours, you, yours. Individually, these may seem inoffensive, but as part of a larger trend in the commercialization and commodification of elements of worship, I tend to feel repulsed rather than inspired or worshipful. And thus it ties back in to the quote that I opened with: even from a non-believer’s perspective, there is something wrong with the way that we are doing church, with the idea that “religion serves people best when it meshes with the secular.”

I was catching up with an old friend last month, and he informed me that, fed up with the mainstream evangelical church, he had started worshipping at an Anglican church. This was fascinating to me, since one of the writers and thinkers that I most admire and aspire to follow was Episcopal, and I always found her writings on art and church and liturgy and the practice of faith to be very powerful, and often counter to the things that are lauded in contemporary American Christianity. I can’t help but think that she would agree with this quote from the article: “The most powerful work by these artists faces up to the fall away from faith as well as celebrating its comforts; dynamic belief always carries plenty of questions, and music offers an immediate and powerful way to confront them” (7).

Much more to be unpacked and written about, but the hour grows late, and this post already spans many paragraphs and topics beyond what I intended it to.

(1) http://www.npr.org/blogs/therecord/2012/09/27/161883725/mumford-sons-preaches-to-masses
(2) http://www.bartleby.com/156/18.html
(3) Hornby, Nick. High Fidelity. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995.
(4) http://www.npr.org/blogs/therecord/2012/09/27/161883725/mumford-sons-preaches-to-masses
(5) Dean, Kendra Creasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
(6) Wallace, David Foster. ed. David Lipsky. Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. New York: Broadway Books, 2010.
(7) http://www.npr.org/blogs/therecord/2012/09/27/161883725/mumford-sons-preaches-to-masses


My name is Sara, and my thing is emerging adulthood.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

During college Sunday School, the introductory statement for the week was to fill in the blank in the sentence, “My thing is _________.”

Over the past few years, I have been doing a lot of thinking, reading, and studying. We have access to so much information, so many thoughts and opinions and ideas; to me, at least, there is an endless stream of interesting topics and issues to be found on news feeds, blogs, in the Atlantic and New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Education, studies from the Pew Research Institute, books and book recommendations and footnotes that lead to yet another obscure reference and endless “to read” lists. My interests have tended to circle around concepts of psychology, sociology, education, and religion, with the occasional forey into politics, technology, and mad cow disease. At some point I attempted to pare these down into five specific ideas, and at the present, they are as follows:

As the oldest of three sisters (and of seven granddaughters on my mom’s side of the family), gender has long been on my mind. My father comes from a family of three boys, his mother was one of three girls. My mother’s family consists of more girls than boys, and her mother had many sisters. Being the oldest daughter, it has taken a long time for me to realize that I do not have to try and be the son despite the strange mixed messages of being taught to change tires, prune trees, and maintain the house while simultaneously being taught the importance of the traditional female role of submissive wife. A little more on that momentarily.

Race, like gender, is something that I grew up with, and which is indelibly tied together with religion. Being raised in California blinded me somewhat to the concept of being a minority; our isolation as a primarily Chinese-American family and homeschoolers kept me from many childhood encounters with differences. Seeing the struggles of my Chinese-American church with its non-Asian pastor and his concept of an “Asian-American church” opened my eyes to the differences in generations, from the first-generation immigrants to the ABCs and assimilated AsiAms. Later, being part of another Chinese church of which many members were generationally closer to the initial immigration allowed me to observe the many differences and similarities in the struggles of being both Chinese and America. [Sidenote: Does anyone know if there are generally accepted terms equivalent to Issei, Nisei, etc. for non-Japanese immigrants and their descendants?] With the increasing awareness of China by America in general, I think that the issue of race and its associated cultural implications will also become increasingly important.

Growing up in a conservative Christian family, attending an American Baptist church, being homeschooled on a curriculum that blatantly stated “We hope to help maturing Christian girls understand the importance of homemaking as a full-time profession” (1), and going to a Christian university which states that their “institutional mission is to equip men and women in mind and character to impact the world for the Lord Jesus Christ” (2), I have been sufficiently immersed in Christianity for many years. Over the past years, an increasing disillusionment with the people and institutions that claim Christianity as their own have forced me to think about what faith is, what it looks like, and what exactly is wrong with the way that we practice it now. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers, and that in itself makes many who call themselves Christians uneasy. Modern concepts of Christianity often exclude questions and uncertainty; those who have doubts and dare to raise them are labeled as weak in the faith or told to try harder because that is what good Christians do. Issues of gender, race, and social responsibility within the realm of Christianity often raise in me the strongest feelings of discomfort and diversion from the mainstream Christian line of thinking; and diversity of thought is not often welcomed in the setting of church.

This is the one topic that is probably most closely aligned with my “thing” as noted in the title; education, paying for education, and the results (or non-results) of education is probably one of the hallmarks of my generation. Having worked in a community college for almost two years has also contributed in no small part to my interest in the impact of education and educational choices on current, previous, and future generations of students. By definition, community colleges have extremely diverse populations, from varied economical and class backgrounds; many of them struggle not only due to financial reasons, but by their socioeconomic upbringing, which may include lack of access to good teachers, technology, literacy programs, or understanding of nutrition and health. And for those, like myself, who were raised in comparative luxury, this can be difficult to comprehend and sympathize with; yet so many people struggle with things that I have taken or do take for granted. The “American dream” of going to a good school and getting a good job after graduating is inaccessible to so many people today, and there are a whole host of reasons why this has happened; we can blame politicians, outsourcing, cheap overseas labor, the demand for inexpensive goods and services, inflation, overeducation, underemployment, lack of STEM students, but the real question is: what we are going to do about it now? And what can we do?

Social Responsibility
This is probably the most recent addition to my Five Things, and is a sharp contrast to the environment that I currently find myself in. Although I experienced culture shock upon first moving to Southern California over seven years ago, I did not expect it to happen again with such impact. Gernot Warner, a young economist, wrote a book entitled “But Will the Planet Notice?” (3) in which he addressed the futility of one person being able to make a difference (he gave the example of one family recycling and conserving energy); but then asks the reader to consider what might happen if an organization like the Catholic Church mobilized on the issue of global warming — if millions of people came together to address issues in the name of social responsibility. Going green and recycling and repurposing used items and thrifting are all very midwestern hipster ideals which I do appreciate and practice, but social responsibility goes deeper than just these material changes. Having recently read both Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and Garret Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons,” my thoughts on this particular issue are still muddled. But there is definitely something there.

If you’ve made it this far, you may be asking now, “But Sara, none of these have to do with emerging adulthood!” Well, not directly. But the very definition of emerging adulthood is an exploratory developmental stage between adolescence and young adulthood (4), the “contemporary stage for young men and women to deal with the big questions about their lives” (5). So I suppose that the very fact that I am considering these questions and issues places me squarely in emerging adulthood. It will be interesting to see how these five issues change and intersect over the coming weeks and months and years. I know that there have been some shifts already just in the past couple of weeks. I will try to continue writing about them as they come along.

Young adulthood is an anomalous time in people’s lives; they’re as unlike themselves as they’re ever going to be, experimenting with substances and sex, ideology and religion, trying on different identities before their personalities set. Some people flirt briefly with being freethinking bohemians before moving back to the suburbs to become their parents. Friends who seemed pretty much indistinguishable from you in your twenties make different decisions about family or career, and after a decade or two these initial differences yield such radically divergent trajectories that when you get together again you regard each other’s lives with bemused incomprehension. You’re like two seeds that looked identical, one of which turned into a kiwi and the other into a banyan (6).

(1) http://www.lyndacoats.com/?page_id=3
(2) http://undergrad.biola.edu/about/#mission
(3) http://www.gwagner.com/planet/
(4) http://www.jeffreyarnett.com/articles.htm
(5) Hymowitz, Kay. S. Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys. New York: Basic Books, 2011. 7-8.
(6) Kreider, Tim. We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons. New York: Free Press, 2012. 124-125.