I self-published my first book of poems, and without realizing it, I accomplished a lifelong goal that I had set out for myself as a child. I remember dreaming of being a writer, and as I aged, I conflated the definition of what that meant as only someone who was published or recognized by literary bodies as an “author”. But to be a writer, doesn’t mean someone else defines you as so. Of course, those stages of traditional success are important, are part of a culture around writing and literature that has existed for hundreds of years. But outside of any desire to have a “legitimate” career as a writer, I am more proud to know that I did this for myself, and no one else.
It is true that I’ve had moments where being home has left me disillusioned. What did it mean for me to come back to a place that is inherently wasteful, where people deliberately shield themselves from discomfort in order to carry on their merry way?
More importantly, I found myself asking the question, “Am I proud to be from this place?”
Every individual human functions within their own constructed reality — and that truth has never been more apparent to me now with how divisive everything in our country has become.
Our Facebook feeds are nothing more than statuses and articles curated by algorithms to match our opinions. I remember when I was in India a week before going home, I decided to read through the timelines of people whose opinions were contrary to mine, let’s say for the sake of research, but more out of a sense of morbid curiosity.
What I found particularly unsettling was the re-appearing archetype I encountered: people who are libertarian-minded, support gun ownership, are openly critical and wary of Fundamentalist Islam and terrorism which sometimes borders on Islamophobic, and highly critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ve noticed 3 different individuals who I’ve met on different occasions from different parts of the world quote Milo Yiannopoulous, and use the exact same wording of describing BLM as equivalent to the Westboro Baptist Church. I don’t see that as a coincidence.
I also don’t think these people are explicitly racist, or are “bad” people in any sense. They are people that also have perfectly curated methods of consuming news and information, have their own trusted sources, have found their own credible testimonials from people who reinforce the reality that comforts their opinion — it’s not like I haven’t done the same. These people aren’t hardcore Trump supporters (at least I hope), who support feminism and are against rape-culture, and who are generally empathetic of the refugee crisis.
But these are people who are also highly critical of what has been dubbed as ‘coddling millennial Social Justice’, who do in fact feel attacked by the growing social consciousness to be progressive about feminism and diversity. I’ve been condescending about this in the past, but I’ve realized now that doesn’t really do much in bridging the gaps in how we understand one another. So no, this isn’t a defense of conservatism — this is more a dissection of it, in a way that I really just want to understand. In a way that I’ve never tried before.
I think about impoverished people from rural parts of the midwest who have suffered from economic ruin in the shadows of forgotten America. I think about the black, Latino and Asian people, and especially women who support Donald Trump for president, amongst other things. What reality do they live in that I have completely failed to grasp?
While traveling I had the privilege in taking parts in workshops that revolved around the importance of holding space for people. At times, people share things that are uncomfortable, things that others may disagree with, things that in our normal everyday lives are too “deep” to bring out into the open.
I walked away from those experiences in awe of the power of empathy — what it meant to truly put ourselves in each others’ shoes, if we open ourselves to situations where we can relate to one another without preconceived notions of what we think the other person is like. That has also been a hard transition for me while being home, and one I try to take with me into interactions with everyone in my life, whether they be acquaintances, close friends, or family. Don’t waste your breath on small talk. Talk about the things that matter, and the things that are worth sharing, to make our understandings of each other that much deeper. That much truer.
Now, I don’t expect anyone to love someone pointing a gun at them. I don’t expect anyone to try to love anyone that they feel inflicts violence against them, whether with their opinions or with physical actions. When I think of the last time a strange man tried to put a hand on me, or someone said “Ni hao,” to me while I walked alone on an empty street at night, my first emotional impulse was not love and forgiveness.
But I think a lot about the divisive lines that we’ve drawn in the sand. Whether they were encouraged by a media, that does not necessarily have an agenda meant to polarize, but is only feeding into the emotions/anger/rage that we ourselves now produce based on our logical reactions to the violence in the world around us.
I always find myself deeply disturbed and internalizing of pain, in a way that feels personal, when I realize that there are friends/acquaintances/people around me that actually see the world in a very different way. Which is unfair. And just another consequence of realities being shaped by completely different variables.
More than anything the party warfare of Republicans and Democrats seems so intensely myopic. There are real stakes with this election, the difference between imprisonment or freedom to many. And in the past, I’ve laughed and said things that I felt wholly justified when criticizing conservative movements, because I see their opinions as violence against me and against people I love and care about. But it’s the likelihood and simplicity of someone I interact with on a non-political basis having similar views. And being able to recognize that they’re still a good person, with good intentions, at their core. Me passing judgement on the fact that I think they’re only trying to make it better for themselves, or intentionally mean to do harm to me, is something that encourages this divide. And in the media and on the internet especially, I find the back and forth vitriolic on both sides. I wouldn’t say in equal amounts (but again that’s just my opinion), and all of it just feeds and feeds and feeds into itself until it completely warps our sense of understanding of the world and all the people in it.
Maybe these ponderings are quite damning; maybe I’m being convinced to dismiss bigotry in the hopes of alleviating my own personal anxiety and tension I’ve built up over the past few months. These are just illogical rationalizations so I can sleep at night, because I’d rather think people who vehemently disagree on an controversial topic can still understand each other as humans and use that middle ground to reach a sense of peace. Or even love.
There’s just so much hate in the world, and it’s gaining traction. And maybe there are people on opposite party lines that you believe truly support and preach hate. But I’m realizing more and more, beyond comments on the internet or the plethora of articles we are inundated with everyday, is that there are people that are just like me that happen to fall on different ideological lines. And our media and party wars have pushed us into further, compartmentalized boxes that label us in a way that we no longer see the things about ourselves that make us the same and allow us to relate to one another.
I’ve lost count of the number of terrorist attacks that have occurred across the world in the past few months. When I wake up to headlines, I wonder if my heart can take anymore pain. And then I am exposed to the differing reactions to that pain — the increasing xenophobia, the hatred, and heartache of those who are lost. And I see how these men act alone, how they feed off the pure violence and hatred that ISIS preaches; it’s become the perfect avenue and opportunity for them to act out their personal desires. I see how angry people have used movements to release their hatred. With Brexit. With Trump. And in a way that I can’t perceive, someone has easily said the same thing about the movements I support, like BLM.
I take a step back. I am privileged enough that I got to spend almost the whole last year of my life out of the country. In that time, I’ve seen worlds and realities that exist light years away from anything I previously knew. Good, honest, amazing people, who live in realities far untouched from the one I feel consumed by everyday when I read the news. But in an insidious way, our problems are still all the same. It’s ignorant to think that ways of life across the world go unaffected by the goings on of the globalized world. Every economic policy, sanction, lack of environmental protection, changing power dynamics between super powers, influx in immigration patterns — everything that happens has a domino affect and creates links of changes that we don’t even really notice until we have the retrospect of time.
One of the most formative experiences for me in 2015 was visiting the Philippines for the first time. In those 3 weeks, more than connecting deeply with my ancestral roots, I learned to appreciate at a visceral level what my parents did for me, in order for me to have the utterly amazing life I have now. I am the manifestation of my parents’ American dream. I may not necessarily be proud of America, but I am proud to be an American. And my duty as an American isn’t just to vote tomorrow. The problems that continue to divide this country will not go away after Tuesday Nov 8th. Maybe I am just another overly idealistic optimist who will continue to be disappointed by the trials of history. But I will not stop believing that there is an inherent goodness in people. I will not stop working for a better America. And most of all, I hope that you won’t either.
Throughout traveling, I always end up leaving parts of myself behind in different places. And at the end of a journey, I’m always a little overwhelmed by how much of me is missing, and how much more of me I discovered along the way.
What I’ve learned is that travel doesn’t always have to be an exotic backdrop to your personal adventures. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be about you at all. It can be about everything you experience within a place — the ability it gave you to observe a world that, at first glance, appeared unlike your own.
Our lives are more or less a consequence of geography and history; we speak different languages, prioritize different cultural values, worship different gods (if any at all), and are born into vastly different social and economic circumstances.
And yet every place in the world has their own definitions of God, duty, love and happiness. Though we become convinced that the ways in which we’ve defined these things divide us, we don’t realize that attempting to define them at all is what connects us universally to being human. And upon closer inspection, you come to learn how these subjective meanings, when it comes down to it, are really not that different at all.
The forces pulling me to come home, to see the people I love and who I miss dearly, remind me that though time appears linear, our lives create a cyclical pattern that continues expanding outward. That you can revisit the same place in the world as a completely different person, while still remembering exactly what it felt like when you were there before, is a testament to how time can feel like a flat circle.
The feelings that so acutely overwhelm me remind me why it’s just as important to honor where you come from as much as the places you go. Home is what establishes the lens in which we see the rest of the world. What begins as a bias can become an invaluable tool, once you step outside of the culture you know and realize how intensely unique each individual person’s lived experience really is.
In all its ugliness, there are still people in this world who block their ability to truly empathize, who cannot bring themselves to walk anywhere in someone else’s shoes because they don’t yet have the courage to take the first step.
It’s difficult to not become discouraged and jaded by the world when you see how hard it is for people to love and understand one another – how sometimes it’s hard even for you to accept people that stand far away from you across ideological lines.
But that doesn’t mean we stop trying. If I’ve learned anything in the past 322 days, it’s this: don’t let your heart become hard. Let life change you, in all the best ways possible. Always hold yourself accountable. Always love yourself. And always love others, even when it’s not easy.
As the old adage goes, this next voyage does not mark the end of my journey, but the start of an entirely new one — one whose uncertainty and grace I will gladly embrace, in hopes that I, and therefore the world, will become better for it.