Jordan's Blog - Home

Home | Archive | Books | About | Subscribe

Recent Articles

I don't believe in politics

Jordan 2021-01-28

I have politics. I think we need to tax the rich and use that money to help the poor. I think that includes the ultra-rich but also working rich like me. I think we need to regulate industries which when unregulated are shown to have detrimental societal effects. And I think we need to fund research into what kinds of things have detrimental societal effects so that we’re not just strong-armed by major players in those industries. I think that whatever regulations we come up with shouldn’t be so strong that people are no longer motivated and excited to build businesses, and I think that it’s good for industrial people to be monetarily compensated for their industriousness, but that at a certain point they have been compensated enough and that money would be better spent helping those less well off.

But here’s the truth. I have never really believed in politics. I have never felt like it matters to my day-to-day who the president is. I have never felt like either of the two large parties represent my interests. I have never felt like any political movements outside of the two large parties have any realistic chance of affecting large scale change. I have been told that local politics is the only real politics and yet I have never been to a city council meeting. I am supportive of protesters but I don’t expect their success.

When Trump was president I maintained that he for the most part was enacting normal Republican policies, and the most pervasive criticism of him, though it was not put this way, was that he doesn’t think before saying things. And I still believe this. Every accusation that Trump is a racist or sexist more or less breaks down into a) he said some racist or sexist stuff without thinking about it and b) he simultaneously supports some normal Republican policy which is argued to lead to regressive outcomes.

Even when Trump supporters attempted to impede the final confirmation of Biden’s election victory, it still didn’t seem real. Even as every news outlet, all of my friends, all of my social media was talking about it, whether or not to call it a riot, a protest, or a coup, what it said about the double standard of police, the double standard of progressives, or the double standard of conservatives – even then, it didn’t seem real. On the contrary, it felt like the series finale of Game of Thrones was on: it was an exciting, public, cultural moment, which was also fictional and conceptually distant from anything actually affecting me. Even a friend in DC told me it was remarkable how little disturbance there was to anything not near the actual Capitol building. In fact, “thousands” of protesters is not very many people. Even the upper bound of ten thousand is not very many people. The US is not literally on fire. And whether or not you call it a “coup” does not change the ineptitude of the operation through the lens of actual revolution, to the point where it begins to make more sense to view it as something closer to a sporting event / renaissance fair.

To be fair, I do think Trump’s inciting of this event was totally unprecedented, not at all a normal Republican tactic, and also as people have been saying, absolutely predictable given the last four years. Though maybe I differ from the Twitter armchair experts in that my armchair analysis is that this is more about class war and the partisan divide than the white power movement.

But now that Biden’s term has started it has reminded me again that I really still don’t believe in politics. That the president has changed, and the biggest shift in my life is that I no longer get to be the contrarian pointing out the president sucks but not for the reasons you think he does, and now have to revert back to just pointing out that the president sucks.

And you’re saying, hey, if you feel like the policies set by our government don’t affect you, maybe that’s because they don’t. And maybe they don’t because you have the privilege of being well educated, well off, having a strong safety net, being raised in a safe place, having your health, and facing more or less no oppression. And if you cared about other people who are experiencing this oppression, maybe then you would care about politics. Maybe then you would do something about it. There’s a goddamn pandemic. Trump dropped the ball. Who knows if a Democrat president would have done a better job and avoided 400,000 deaths. Maybe even a more normal Republican president would have done a better job. Three times as many Americans are out of a job than in the 2008 recession. They’re waiting for stimulus money to come in. Most Americans have less than $5000 saved up. This $2000 is going to feed people. It’s going to save lives. I mean not literally, because our welfare services are good enough that very few people literally starve in the US. But improving lots of people’s lives is also an objectively good thing to do, you don’t have to go all the way to literal life-saving. And stimulus money and COVID response are just a few examples of real life change that depends on politics. Lives are at stake.

Well okay. Sometimes I do think I’m better than other people on social media because I’m not getting as worked up about politics. Sometimes I do vaguely feel that smart people who understand what’s really going on and aren’t just getting swept up in trendy politics are less angry about the scandal of the week and What It Says About Society. That those who can get over initial tribalistic emotional responses to things end up having a more Pinker-esque optimistic view. That in the grand scheme of things, short term political movements mean a lot less than scientific achievements gradually raising the water line. That getting worried about them is a waste of energy insofar as it’s just worry, and even if you are the 1 in 50 people who actually translates that worry into action, even the action tends to be a fairly ineffective use of your time.

But I do also think it’s important for me to remember that policies affect the real world. And to the credit of people who get worked up about politics, I think a major strength you have over me is that you remember this all the time. You’re absolutely right that a lot of policies don’t impact me because I’m not very oppressed. Even almost all of my social circle (queer children of immigrants who are minorities) is not very oppressed. But I know oppression exists. Maybe it’s not enough to just vote in elections. Maybe we should be in the streets and on the phones. Maybe the US is sort of on fire and having a measured response isn’t all that valuable.

And at this point I would just like to say, congratulations on ALMOST understanding our place in the world as Americans. Because the truth is that the US is sort of on fire. In fact, the whole world is sort of on fire, and the US is one of the least on fire places to be. US residents estimate that the global median income is $20,000 a year. In fact, it’s $2100 a year. The US is the out-of-touch 1% of the world.

Here’s my thought process when I encounter US political angst on social media. First: this is a dumb thing to get upset about. Second: But I guess it’s good that you care about the wellbeing of others. Third: Except if you care about the wellbeing of others, then in the grand scheme of things, this is not the thing you should be getting upset about.

Sure, sometimes I forget that US politics matters. But then when I see people acting like the reason it matters is because they care about other people, I start to become more confused. I do think people care about other people, but I also think they are extremely prone to just reacting to whatever media is beamed into their eyes, and so unless they work really hard to curate those beams, they end up saying and writing things which hit this weird inconsistent type of caring that looks like virtue-signaling to outsiders, but which I try to understand as being just a non-rigorous, emotional, plea for connection – a sort of “I’m hurting, do other people feel this way?”

And then at the same time, these people know in the back of their heads that there’s a lot of people in the world who have it really bad, whose lives could be improved if they donated small amounts of their wealth to effective causes. And I start to think, these people don’t think global poverty is real! I mean, they don’t think it doesn’t exist, it’s just not real to them the way US politics are. It doesn’t take them on an emotional journey. It’s not beamed directly into their eyeballs. And it’s not chic to care about. 400,000 deaths? So one year of global Malaria? $2000 stimulus? So one year of median global income? I’m not saying that greater pain invalidates lesser pain, I’m just asking you to have some perspective before you come telling me to have some perspective.

So what do we do? Well, there’s the Giving What We Can Pledge. I took this when I first got a job outside college and have since donated over 10% of my income every year to effective global charities. Peter Singer advocates for a sliding scale which makes sense to me – 10% means a lot more to people with less than me. And that money can save literal lives (at a much higher rate than it can in the US). It’s not popular because it’s not easy. I mean it is functionally very easy to do, but it’s not easy to walk yourself to a place where you want to. I mean it’s your money, and you probably already help the less fortunate in other ways.

But it is political in a way that is very real. It’s political in the way that investing in education is political. Deworming children (for about 30 cents each) so they can attend school and to avoid organ damage has been shown to dramatically increase their life outcomes. Delivering Vitamin A supplements (for about 1 dollar each) substantially reduces child mortality. It is an apolitical good.

I wrote this because I was frustrated. The thing that improves the world is never the thing that people are talking about. If everyone took the GWWC pledge, we would have enough money to solve global poverty, eliminate all treatable diseases, fund research into the untreatable ones for approximately the next forever, educate anybody who needs educating, feed anybody who needs feeding, fund an unparalleled renaissance in the arts, permanently save every rainforest in the world, and have enough left over to launch five or six different manned missions to Mars. And that’s using just 1 year’s donations. Yet people, global one-percenters nonetheless, seem to continue getting angry about things that matter less.

I wrote this because in real life I would only ever be supportive of someone wanting to get involved politically. I am a firm believer that the war is not to be fought between people who both want to help but in different ways, but between those who want to do something and the apathetic. If you want to get on social media and harness political rage as a way to enact eventual policy change to help people, then in theory I’d like to support it.

I wrote this because I wanted to express the tiring thing about your politics to me. That it’s all lies. It’s all half-true stories being published and publicized. News which is sold because it’s what people are buying. It matters, it doesn’t matter. And none of it’s real, except it’s all real, it’s just not happening to you. But in the end there are still other people, and they are still our neighbors, and we do still want the best for them. So it is good to keep trying. Maybe even consider adopting radical politics like me. Take matters into your own hands and seize the power to do good by recognizing that we the one-percenters of the world already have it.

Figure drawing

Jordan 2020-09-15

“I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, “Look.” I looked and all I saw was the water. And he said, “Look again,” which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can’t explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.”

- James Baldwin

I’ve been practicing figure drawing using Michela’s charcoal pencils and extra sketch book, with the sketchbook that she bought for me on back order. Follow my progress here.

A beginner figure drawing regiment consists of equal parts three things: face and head drawing, full figure drawing, and quick sketch which means sketching a subject in less than 5 minutes to capture the “gesture.” The many available online instructional videos use words like gesture and rhythm to mean vague unexplainable things about the overall shape of the subject and the ways the lines you draw are related to each other. As unexplainable as these things are, I feel like I am gradually getting a sense of what they mean.

I use a circle (cranium) and wedge (jaw) for the head, and then use the Reilly method to draw the torso: the main line of action (spine to groin), a horizontal line for the top of the shoulders, then lines from each shoulder to the groin, and then from the neck to the hips, all the while looking back and forth between my work and the reference to get the proportions correct, which is especially important when drawing humans. I draw an oval for the volume of the ribcage, and another oval for the volume of the pelvic bowl. Then I draw CSI curves (lines which are either C, S, or I shaped) for the insides and outsides of the arms and legs, and that gives me the main gesture of the subject and I can fill in details and contour from there. In my first week my shading was mostly based on the value (darkness) of the general area in the reference, but now I try to look for specific shadow shapes on the body, which one instructional video described as being like clusters of islands. I enjoy 5 minute quick sketch the most, but as I’ve gotten more ambitious I will sometimes turn off the timer and just continue until I’ve done the whole body (the head for now remains a blank oval with a line for the eyes).

Michela got us a figure drawing reference book by Andrew Loomis which is full of diagrams. Diagrams on how to draw in perspective, from imagination, and from models, and hand drawn diagrams of all the bones and muscles in the human body. Andrew Loomis is also known for creating the Loomis head method. The essence of his method is that a head is a sphere with two flat side-planes chopped off, the bottom quarter of which is the ear and where the jaw starts, plus the jaw volume which is a sort of rounded wedge. I’m able to draw Loomis heads in most directions but am still quite bad at adding in the detailed facial features. But figure drawing as a hobby is special to me because it’s one of the only hobbies I’ve picked up despite not being naturally very good at it. Despite my middling consistency, and despite really hating some of the drawings I produce and wanting nobody to see them, I still find drawing invigorating and enjoyable.

In the middle of the day when we take walks Michela sees things I don’t, like decoration through second story apartment windows, license plates on vehicles and clothing on bikers passing by on the street, and dogs, and she wonders things like what kind of tree is that, whose names are etched into the side of this building, and where is the cat today. On weekends when we paint I’m impressed by her ability to put red and blue in a cup of coffee, and pink and brown in a white wicker basket, and just generally how she can use all the wrong colors with aplomb. I think she probably sees things like James Baldwin talked about.

One diagram in the Loomis book shows furrows all the way down the back. There is a furrow in the middle of the neck. Furrows on the waist. Furrows beneath the shoulder blades, and in the skin of the elbow. When I close my eyes before going to sleep I can picture furrows. They’re not part of any larger body part that I can make out, like the crook of an arm, or where the calf meets the thigh on a kneeling figure, they’re just sort of lines and tone, repeated curves and tilted shapes. They could be sections of hieroglyphics even, or Chinese calligraphy. They are like the wrinkles on my thumb, which alternate from the left and the right and harden when they dry out, or the even more imperceptible furrows down the back of my hand which form little cells lined up like bricks, packed together loosely like the medium grain of the paper in my sketch book.

To speak in mother tongues

Deepak 2020-07-19

On one family trip to India when I was 10 years old, my great-uncle took me out to a movie theatre to see a newly released Tamil movie. Afterwards, maybe because he thought he was being “funny”, he quizzed me on the major plot points of the movie, asking questions as simple as the main character’s name and as complicated as the villain’s motivation throughout the story. I struggled to come up with any coherent answers to his questions, largely due to my inability to understand the language. Although I understood Tamil well enough to accept basic instruction from my parents (“Food is ready”, “Hurry up”, “Have you finished your homework?”), I was far from being able to understand the intricacies of a long, complicated, and frankly confusing movie. Also, as a reminder, I was 10. After a string of questions I couldn’t answer, he concluded with, “Maybe it would have been better for you if there were English subtitles.” When I got back to my grandparents’ apartment, I locked myself in a room and cried, bearing the shame of a child who knew they should have done better.

I would grade my knowledge of Tamil as “poor” at best. This stems mainly from the fact that I cannot read it, I cannot write it, and I sound like a fourth grader with low self confidence when I speak it. I have always been jealous of my immigrant friends, who, despite having their own struggles with their native languages, always seemed to be better at theirs than I am with mine. They are able to recall simple vocabulary with minimal effort, communicate on a basic level with strangers, and most impressive, understand movies in their native language without subtitles. In contrast, I struggle to have more than a 5-minute conversation with my grandparents in Tamil before switching into a strange Tamil and English hybrid (Thinglish, I shamefully refer to it as) which is just English with an occasional Tamil word thrown in to give the appearance that I am much better at Tamil than I really am. I’m certain it doesn’t fool them.

My lack in Tamil fluency is not, however, for lack of trying. After the traumatic experience at the movies at age 10, I wanted nothing more than to get better at Tamil. I remember watching Kolangal on Sun TV at 9pm every night with my mother, not because the show was good (in fact, I remember it being very bad) but because I wanted to hear more people speaking the language. As a result, I got much better at understanding when other people speak Tamil, which is leagues beyond where I was just a few years prior.

Unfortunately, there was still a gap between understanding the language and speaking it myself. On family trips, I would engage in conversation that was happening around me in Tamil but respond only in English, too ashamed to push my broken Tamil onto everyone else. Amma encouraged me to at least try and speak it with my cousins, who she felt would be warm and welcoming. Turns out that kids are just mean. My cousins would ridicule my “American” accent while speaking Tamil and would respond to me in English because, in their words, “it’s just easier.” My uncles and aunts would default from speaking Tamil to speaking English around me. I knew they meant well and were only speaking in English to help me feel more comfortable, but the special treatment served as a reminder of my other-ness. That although I was culturally Tamil, I also wasn’t, because how can you be Tamil if you don’t speak Tamil?

Language is at the core of how we share our identity, and communicating who we are is how we feel safe and comfortable with each other. For me, the language I use plays a large part in who I become. There’s English-Deepak, who can be talkative, affable, and occasionally rushes to say things without thinking them through. Then there’s Tamil-Deepak, who is shy, nervous, and quiet, speaking only when absolutely confident that his responses will be grammatically correct. My extended family, and even my grandparents, only really know Tamil-Deepak. They don’t know the Deepak that likes to tell jokes and obsesses over word games. It makes me sad to know that I haven’t been able to share that person with them.

Being able to understand Tamil while not speaking it only makes things worse: I can learn about other people’s identities while not being able to share my own. I know the deeper nuances of my family members – one uncle is reserved in public but loving at home, another aunt is bitingly sarcastic but knows exactly what to say to make someone feel better when they are hurt. To them, though, I am just another “sweet, hardworking boy”, which are adjectives used in Indian households when there is nothing better to say.

At the beginning of quarantine, I nervously asked Amma if she could teach me and my brother Tamil. For the next two and half months, she spent three hours a week teaching us the Tamil alphabet, reading us Tamil children’s stories, and helping us to eventually even write our own names in Tamil. Although I have much longer to go, I owe it to my family and to myself to bring English-Deepak and Tamil-Deepak as close together as I can. I’d love to make my grandparents laugh with a joke in Tamil. Maybe I’ll even watch a Tamil movie without subtitles. The possibilities are endless. I’ve spent so long afraid to learn a language I’ve been surrounded by almost every day of my life. It’s high time I face my fears.

My Name in TamilMy Name in Tamil

To inherit Chinese

Jordan 2020-07-05

I have a shyness about speaking Chinese that comes from a feeling that I ought to be better at it than I am. When I was very young, elementary school age, I was naturally bilingual. My brother and I used to memorize and recite Chinese shī, of which today I remember exactly one, about homesickness by Lǐbái, which is so well known among second generation Chinese Americans that there are memes about it.

By around middle school my Chinese had been worn down through disuse. I attended Chinese school but did poorly despite doing quite well in normal school. I remember getting my report card one year and refusing to show it to anyone until we got home, at which point I went straight to the bathroom to try and change the letter grades (I did not get away with it). I had a habit of skipping the homework and mostly just cramming for tests, and I coped with it by compartmentalizing away how much of a failure it made me feel. In 9th grade my high school offered IB Chinese, so I convinced my parents to let me take that instead, which both allowed me to avoid learning French or Spanish to fulfill the requirement, and also freed my Saturday from Chinese school.

I have one traumatic memory from this time that has stuck with me. I was at an airport in China with my mom. Mark and Dad had gone off to do something, maybe we were waiting for a plane. We would go to China in the summer to visit family and for those few weeks Mark and I would lose most of our autonomy, going out only when our parents would go out, depending on them for meals, and of course at this age we didn’t have smartphones so there was never anything to do except read books we brought with us and if we were lucky play GameBoy.

We were sitting in the terminal when my mom asked me to go over to the store and buy a bottle of water while she watched the luggage. I was immediately nervous about the idea, and I started running through the list of ways I knew to ask for water – bīngshuǐ, iced water, but that’s more of in a glass at a restaurant, or maybe just shuǐ, but I don’t want to sound like an idiot, how do I say bottled water? Is it kuàngpíngshuĭ, am I even pronouncing that right – while also trying to mentally prepare for other possible interactions with the sales clerk. My mom gave me some money and encouraged me to go, probably hoping that I was just nervous but when put to the task I would be able to succeed and gain confidence. I walked over to the store. Made a few circles around it before stopping at the fridge where the cold drinks were. It was locked so the clerk asked me what I wanted, and I mumbled “kuàngpíngshuĭ.” She looked confused and asked me what I said, and I repeated myself, so she asked if I meant “kuàngquánshuĭ” and I nodded in agreement like I had known the word the whole time with my insides shaking, and she rung me up, and I paid, got my change, and went back to my mom, who made a face when I brought her the change and asked me why the water was so expensive, and I didn’t know, because I guess my Chinese was so bad that I didn’t know how to buy a bottle of water, and I started crying because in that moment I knew that she knew it too: this unstated assumption that if I just stayed shy in Chinese and only spoke when I was 100% sure I knew what I was saying then people would assume I was fluent, this cover I hid under which both made me feel safe and stopped me from actually trying to exercise my Chinese, which is the one thing you need to do to gain fluency, was now and had probably always been a thin lie and if you tried you could see right through it to the crying high schooler who was at that age too old to be crying because he failed to buy bottled water, but old enough to cry from the shame of having failed to learn Chinese.

The expectation I place on myself about my ability to speak Chinese brings out an inner conflict similar to the feeling I get when I am taught about Chinese history by non-Chinese historians – there is a wrongness, or needlessness, like I should already know the things I’m being taught because it’s my heritage, yet of course a historian knows more about it than me, seeing as I have never studied ancient Chinese history except briefly for grade school projects. Of course my Chinese shouldn’t be very good, I hardly ever speak it. But of course my Chinese should be better, my parents are from China and they speak it around the house all the time. I grew up speaking it, or more precisely maybe I spoke it and then I grew up. But still I sometimes find myself wondering if it’s the kind of thing I should be passing on to my future children. What would it take on my part for them to not end up pronouncing the few Chinese phrases they’ll learn in a thick American accent? I’d have to speak it around them all the time. My partner would probably have to speak it. Suppose I speak it as much as my parents did – my early childhood at least gave me much less of an accent than most people who try to learn Chinese as a foreign language. Yet doesn’t the fact that I didn’t end up with that much Chinese mean that I’d have to speak it even more than they did?

Language is a big part of culture. But the truth is that my culture isn’t that of Lǐbái’s poetry, but that of its memes. Not Chinese, but Chinese American. There are parts of my culture that were passed to me from my parents: an appreciation of debate, the value of education, a love of music, these are much more a part of my life than the Chinese language. There are also certain parts of my culture which emerged unavoidably from their immigration to the US: the feeling of being an outsider, learning to “pass” as white, and as I grow older, the perception of my parents as politically old fashioned, an adaptation to the 70′s in China more so than the 21st century in the US. Culture is something that we cannot help but change, and we cannot help but pass on. What makes language different is that its preservation requires specific effort. My parents learned English so they could study and start a life in the US. I have friends in my position who have taken larger steps towards preserving their languages in their 20s. Sijia and Florence, whose Chinese skills are much better than mine, read Chinese novels and watch Chinese TV shows. Max Yu in his play Nightwatch delves deeply into the history of the Cultural Revolution as a way of exploring his family’s past through narrative. It’s not an impossible task.

Language itself was an adaptation. A necessity. You learn a foreign language by immersing yourself in it, by making it the way in which you interact with your world, and the more you force yourself to rely on the language, the stronger your grasp of it becomes. In high school I didn’t have the tools to deal with the shame that I felt. Since then I have learned how to deal with shame, largely out of necessity. I use the word trauma not to mean terrible or dramatic, but to refer to experiences which I wasn’t equipped to deal with at the time. I have learned other ideas like “forgiving yourself,” and “admitting when you’re angry.” I’ve learned how to recognize when I’m being an asshole to someone, and that it feels remarkably similar to the feeling that someone else is being an asshole to me. I don’t know that I would call these things a language, but I do know that I’d just as much like to pass them on, and I believe that with the right intention I’ll be able to.