Good time in general

This will be my last blog, for the summer internship at least. This summer has been busy and fun in many ways, and it is good that I have some time to talk about it altogether.

              The summer has been challenging in many ways. One is on the content of the work that I am preparing, going from professionalism to challenging the status quo. The summer program that I am in charge with is an internship program that places high school students in different community organizations, nonprofits and government institutions. Year by year we, the organizers, move the theme more and more toward the line of social justice, instead of just focusing on the work itself. The shift increases the workload drastically, as we often need to create new curriculum out of scratches. For example, two weeks ago we were co-facilitating a workshop focusing on masculinity, and literally all of us spent a good day researching on topics, such as the differences between gender and sex, what is patriarchy and how is Asian American community perpetuating such, and so on.

In addition, the changes also demand us to be more flexible and more engaging with our facilitation. For the previous years, lecturing has been the norm of our workshop per say. It is mostly the same routine each year: meeting for like a couple of hours a week, and then work on different PowerPoints, put a lot of words on the slides, and try to pray for 3 hours of attention throughout. Apparently, it was not something that we would like as facilitators, because we really aren’t doing the work of facilitation either. Since this year we want to include discussions on meaningful social justice issues, from the get-go, we don’t want to reinforce the traditional teaching paradigm, in which knowledge only comes from one person.

So we move on, and build workshop. The focus of workshop is no longer on how do we think we will want things to be like, but rather, how will the students like. We include small group discussions and activities to encourage people’s participation, and turns out, as people move around and sweat a little, they actually learn more and remain more engaged. The usual pattern of the day was that we lectured for three hours with several breaks in between, and in the end the lecturers were worn out, and the students were the same pretty much. But now, although the work load was still stressful in different ways, as we juggle with uncertainty and spatial limitation, the students nonetheless felt much more liberated and empowered. They can now share their thoughts in smaller groups with their peers, instead of conquering through awkwardness to speak among a group of 30 interns. Learning becomes more and more visceral, as many of activities derive from day to day life experience that they can relate.

Overall it has been a very interesting summer, in term of work. People say that all the time that learning does not stop at certain, which I believe is certainly true at this point.

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Learn to relearn

Emmm, since the blog prompt has not changed from last week, and we won’t be like redundant work either, I will be writing about my work experience for the past two weeks, and there should be a lot of stories to write about.

I felt reasonably tired for the last two weeks. Work is one thing; there are certainly more paperwork to catch up with, and a lot more moving-around and getting away from air-conditioned environment, since all of us three working for RICE this summer are visiting different worksites and meeting with individual students. On paper, the tally of hours does not change much, as always, but being in a constant mode of moving certainly puts a lot of mental pressure on my part. I mean, going to various places in Philly’s summer days is not a hobby that I think people should be keeping.

Nonetheless, I can still call it “reasonably” simply for the necessity of it. The first two weeks of the program had been heavily on planning and strategizing, which was crucial, but that is also becoming increasingly metaphysical. There is nothing wrong with thinking ahead, but having the opportunity to communicate with students and knowing what they think about different things help me, at least, to put things in perspective. When I facilitate, I had the fear of pushing students too far, and ultimately become a part of conversation, instead of leading it in crucial moments. But the one on one with the students allows me to see the curiosity and the courage of students, willing to go to the extra steps. In the beginning of the summer, I went to a staff training on facilitating, and was told that the key to successful facilitating is to trust the students, to empower them, instead of powering over them. Going back, I think my “bad habit” of doubting the students was indeed a way of controlling, a mindset that only I could be the dominating voice in the room. In future, I should trust the students more and probably trial and error with them more.

Another tiring part of the one-on-one meeting is the interpersonal aspect of things. It is one of the few occasions in which I do not have to face 30 students all at once, and totally casual and relaxing. It allows me to be a bit more honest, and frankly, be a bit more vulnerable. I never consider myself to be an extrovert or someone who can comfortably share the most embarrassing stories of daily lives with others. But a word of advice from my colleagues is that I should learn to be vulnerable and learn to be okay to share personal stories with students. I did not get it at first, but slowly, as I get to talk to students more and more individually, I begin to see the merit of it. When I open up more, the students will likely to open up and share their most honest opinion. Sure it is by no mean easy, but it is the essential step toward building a common ground.

The past week had been a lot of learning and relearning, urgh, so tired.

A week of relaxation

It is great that we have a list of prompts to write about. People used to say, having a good start is half of the success.

I think I will struggle with the self-intro part because my life is too regular and old and does not have much light to shine the room already full of amazing people. Nonetheless, bad news comes first and let’s do this. So you might have noticed: I am not always the most outspoken and eloquent one out of the bunch. Rather than going out and selling my philosophy, I rather stay at my crib and quietly polish my craft before showing it to others. Therefore, I like all the single person stuff, such as reading nonfiction (mostly history, politics, and economics), listening to jazz and classical music (actually have a whole box in possession) and touring the city by biking. Yes, I think biking, in contrast to other bourgeoise habits, is really something that everyone in Philly. The city is incredibly accessible and friendly (compared to New York) for bikers, and biking is just about the right speed to discover the beauty of the city without turning the experience into self-serving slide shows.

My work has been my place to maintain that sense of mindfulness continuously. Vietlead is working very closely with the local community members, and such relationship often requires us to be vigilant and seek out to the people, to ask what they really need. One of the issues is the lack of farming space and in areas where Viet folks live. Urban farming has now grown to become a trend, along with the aesthetic for natural producers and organic farming, but not having a place to retain the ancestral way of growing is a serious problem for our community members. Many kinds of vegetable that Vietnamese consume are often not available in the conventional supermarket, and even when being offered, people often do not have the time and money to purchase the product. Moreover, newer generations of Vietnamese Americans gradually lost the connection with their roots.

So one of the breakthroughs is that we had made in South Philly. Horace Furness High School has long been our partner for the after-school program, and it has agreed to give us a piece of its backyard for our farming education. Having this farm helps us to attract more students in the Philly areas, and give them the opportunity to direct practice farming without traveling all the way to Camden, New Jersey, where our main farm is.

Actually, the chance to see the meaning behind my work and actually become a part of the change really drive me every day to do my job and stay hopeful about the world. I know it might be an unrealistic thinking to expect that your work is always progressive, and be down to earth, but having the experience being a part of it inspires me to realize that people are doing such work and are passionate about it. Also, because of Vietlead being a relatively young organization, being a part of it allows me to see the phenomenal growth of this organization, and how much more we are able to create, along with our youth and elders. It is powerful to see that changes are happening gradually and literally beginning to create the new world.

Some memories

Allow me to be sentimental a little bit because the morning temperature is still below 75 degrees Fahrenheit. It will be hard to stay creative when you are busy wiping sweat from your forehead.

Going forward

Anyway, a couple of days ago, another class of students at my old high school – Carver High School of Engineering and Science (E&S) – graduated. I was not there witnessing the students throwing them hats emphatically to the roof, but all Facebook pictures that grads had posted online definitely allowed be a part of the festivity. Coincidentally, exactly two years ago, I was like just anyone of them and also walked through the same pomp and circumstance. Indeed, seeing them finished high school and headed to write the next chapter of their lives gave me cheers. My high school was founded on the idea that people of color, could also become scientists and engineers through education, like George Washington Carver; and having that grand scheme in mind for four years straight made the whole graduation thing more meaningful and ritual than it is supposed to be. Don’t take me wrong, I am saying it with full positivity and honesty. I remembered when my class graduated, my African American history teacher told us that graduating from E&S was like saying, “things are tough, but we’ve made it.” The whole “made it” thing become extremely relevant when you consider that we are in Philadelphia. Right now I am a college student and probably will see the world through the darker lens (not a pair of bougie sunglasses that I am talking here). But yeah, even now I can still use some of that optimism and courage from high school times and tell the world that I am going to “make it” one day.

Pre-Graduation Snap
Philly was used to be super hot already during the graduation week(s). Here my buddy and I dressed completely out of line to pretend that we were not excited about the end of high school at all… Oooph, long sentence

Coming Back

Two days ago I went to a pop-up tour in Chinatown, and what I had learned was quite unexpected. I knew Chinatown, at least I thought I know Chinatown, because of the social attachment that I had developed with this area. I mean it is Chinatown, and who would not like a place to get boba that is like 30 minutes away by train? Moreover, I also had taken courses discussing and studying the history of Philadelphia Chinatown. On paper, I thought I might be overqualified for this endeavor.

But it turned out that I had many things that I did not know at all about Chinatown. For example, one of the karaoke places that I went along with some Penn folks was actually the site of where the first Chinese-owned business (actually a laundromat) opened in the city. Starting from that alone but brave laundromat owner, more and more Chinese men and women began to settle here and found their fortune (“gold mountain,” as early Chinese would describe). In other words, the place that I frequented for entertainment was the genesis of what we know as Chinatown today, and I frankly did not know that at all. Interestingly, there was a plague on the wall and a pole erected by the State of Pennsylvania, to commemorate the birth of Chinatown. But for too long, I was busy to take notice of them.

Unexpected Discovery
Probably had walked and passed this place for like a million times already

It reminded me of an old trip to MOCA ( Museum of Chinese in America) in New York Chinatown. New York Chinatown is a lot more commercial and dazzling than Philly one, and the Asian folks there are far more New York than typical New Yorker that you are going to meet in Midtown, Manhattan. However, the Museum sat at a super quiet alley in Chinatown, and the interior decoration brought the weight of history instantly. There were exhibitions of old Chinese drug stores and the current one on the gambling problem in Chinese immigrant communities. For a moment, I did not have to think about train schedule, restaurants and dollar stores, but just focused on where I was from. I think I do get tired from time to time, and thinking about the past reminds that I should not lose things, while I am traveling.

Blueprint (for summer, sorta)

Trying to be serious about summer, but fail as usual

This year’s summer has been delayed. It is now June, and every morning, I will habitually check the temperature before heading out, as if spring has never left in the first place.

The weird familiarity carries over to blog writing. For me, picking up the pen again and writing something about summer is not foreign. I wrote some blogs last summer and maintained a mostly functional blog site (certainly not the most aesthetically advanced, but it gets the job done). Going back to writing reminded me the good time of contemplating with words in an air-conditioned room, recalling the excitement of working on a real job that initiated positive changes and forgetting, for once, the sweating summer days.

This time is somehow different since this summer will be my second working for Vietlead. Last year I focused most on others, on describing how much I had learned from others, who were quietly changing the world we live in. This summer, I have a bit more space for myself, after sharing others’ excitement. Sure, the second year means that you now have more responsibility, but responsibility is indeed another form of recognition. Looking back, I see that I had grown and changed a lot, one year from the moment when I first started my internship at Vietlead. If one year ago I was mostly observing, now I do have some tools in my disposals to practice more and do more. The organization had grown tremendously (last year we fit our training in one quad-room size meeting room, but this year we need a hall to host staff training), I knew that I also need to grow along with the organization. Also, the growth should not simply be reflected as a bump of job title or an increase of real working hours; it should be more along the line of quality. When I re-applied for this job, I saw this opportunity as a refinement, an opportunity to catch some mistakes that were made before but never fully acknowledged. I am glad that this year Vietlead is preparing for more staff training and workshops because they are truly a great opportunity for growth. 

So going to back writing blogs, I think now I have more of the energy and intention to engage in personal and real reflection. A lot of my tasks this summer will consist of creating and hosting different workshops, and a key and yet often overlooked component of workshops is debriefing. A typical day has only 24 hours, and because we often want to absorb as much as possible, in reality, we usually left too much not fully digested. Or, we might have acquired certain skills that are very useful but do not have the time and opportunity to apply them in real life scenarios thoroughly. I want to utilize writing, one of the most powerful tools of reflection available, to recall the work that I had done and sharpen my understanding of the world around me. It is the same old stuff, but this time it is going to be a bit more.

Well, in all honesty, summer is also about taking time and stay chill. As notorious Supa Hot Fire had remarked:

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Some Observations

I like my American Constitutionalism class. Besides the fact that I gain some quality time to read some quality, academic materials, such as Buzzfeed’s evaluations of Oreos in different countries, I also get to have much better understanding about how Constitution is supposed to mean. One of the surprising things about Constitution is that it does not mention democracy at all, not even once, when it was ratified in 1789 (maybe 1788). From the very beginning of the American story, people living in this country had to constantly fight and challenge the status quo to gain their deserved rights to democratically participate in politics. The universal suffrage that we all enjoy today is not given; rather, it is earned. Nonetheless we are not done with our battles. We are still facing challenges and hurdles that prevent eligible voters from having a voice, and we cannot rest. No matter who are you voting for, you need to be able to vote in the first place.

With that in mind, VietLEAD launched a nonpartisan voter registration and turnout campaign to increase the political presence of Asian Americans in Philadelphia. Historically, Asian Americans have relatively low voting registration rate and voter turnout rate, and such low rates somehow contribute to politicians’ tendency of pointing fingers at Asian immigrants, for everything wrong happened here. Thus, I was quite excited to know that on top of my usual work of helping out the students, I could also help amplify the voices of our people. Without much consideration, I quickly jumped on board.

But the progress did not prevail in the first try. The first thing that we did was to go to the train stations and trying to get registered. Basically, we are competing with SEPTA for people’s attention. Apparently, people care more about going home on time, than getting registered to vote. Most people seemed to be hostile, when random people approached them to talk about votes. Maybe, I could blame capitalism this time, for separating people apart. Anyway, it was good to know that everyone told me that they were registered, so I did not feel too bad about not getting anyone to register.
But people have never disappointed me. So I went to the block party in South Philly the past Sunday and it was a good show. Everyone is dancing and singing, and in the same time, lines of people wonder about voting and the processes of it. We were happy to know that people actually care about the political processes. Nevertheless, I could still be skeptical, since it was a party and maybe people were just out here for food. Who knows
Then, on the Election Day, on my way to Center City, I saw a block long line of people in University City waiting to cast their votes. I mean, nothing can really motivate intellectuals. I think something is really going to change, for good or for bad.

(Written before Election, following up will be posted soon. )

Good to be Back

It has been around two months, since I finished my summer Civic Engagement Internship and postponed posting the blogs. These two months of hiatus have been plain: school work is still picking up, and I am still adapting to my new identity as a college sophomore. Now when I actually restart writing and sharing my inner world with y’all, I begin to realize how enjoyable this activity actually is.

Back in time, when I had nothing to do, I usually immersed myself in the world of games, particular the ones with enough puzzle-solving and actions. But much like drinking soda, playing games still does not fulfill my “mental void” after moments of excitement fading away. During these two months, I have been searching for “things” that I can do to let myself regain the consciousness about my own lives, but indeed, nothing is more powerful than writing, because it is mine. In my world of writing, I do not have to conform to either the sugar level or the shape of the game controllers; I choose the kinds of landscapes that I want, and ways the landscapes to be painted. My thoughts are getting solidified into words, and then they will not be blown away by winds.

But do not be mistaken, I am not saying that writing blogs are an easy task. Besides the trivial, but rather real pain from sitting and typing for hours and minutes, I need to constantly challenge myself mentally. I will need to challenge my thoughts, my actions, my sense of humor…… I will need to ask myself, “can my mind go just a little further?” I used to fear that will such grinding can make me more rounded and smooth out some of the “edges”; but through these processes, I persevered and became someone better each time, when I finished writing.

So, after this long digression, what I try to say is that it is necessarily a bad thing, when we keep getting challenged by the reality. Because of the development of technology and social norms, everything right now can seem to be good; but not actually good. For example, during my VietLEAD leadership development event last week, we were talking about how foreign aids, which were created supposedly to alleviate the pain experienced by the people there, but ended up destroyed local manufacturing. As a college student now, I should not simply ascribe the reasons of the failures of those generous international agencies to simply their possible lack of intelligence, since Penn students can still be proud of working for World Bank or IMF as interns, and no doubt they are smart. But their wisdom and cleverness do not stand the challenge from the real world; they have good brains, but they are blind, actually blind.

My experience as an intern working for a community-outreaching nonprofits actually helps me see things more clear. People in Philadelphia, under constant negative media portrayal, have become the synonym for “poors”, “criminals”, “thieves”, etc. But when I actually interact with the people living in this city, I learn something very different indeed. They actually smile, and they actually like to breathe and live. “There is nothing new under the sun”, and they are working hard every day just as we are. It is true that there are serious problems in neighborhoods of Philly, but how can we assume that we, as outside observers who stands watching a house burning down, know better than all the ordinary people living there and deal with those problems every day.

So, I decide to work with VietLEAD through the school year, and become a student to learn from them again.