Unfinished Draft

It is the time to close a chapter.

               The Democratic National Convention was over like a couple of days ago. I had to admit, despite that fact that I had tried hard to avoid this year’s politics, the celebratory atmosphere that this convention brought certainly diverted my attention a little bit. Well, it was more of “ummm” experience. On one hand, I did enjoy watching the roll callings of Democratic party big shots on TV and but on the other, getting trapped in the middle of city traffics was not much of a fun. Speaking of traffic, not only police cars and motorcycles are blocking the way, protesters are too.

              So on Wednesday, as a part of my internship, I went to participate (or to be precise, “spectate”) a protest organized by environmentalists from all over the places against the long, if not good, establishment of a local oil refinery. When I meant “environmentalists from all over the places”, I was serious. We had activists from Philadelphia and California, and local villagers from Guatemala, whose living environment was heavily polluted by the petro giant, Chevron. In addition, they also gathered local residents, who had concern with air pollution. Given the strong line-up, I had high expectation for the day’s work.

              After several passionate and memorable speeches, we went to block the high way and later the entrance of the oil refinery. It sounded much “like cutting the arteries and veins of our capitalist society”; however, that was not much of a fantasy. It was a hot summer day, people were rushing on the highway, and we were blocking the traffic for a reason that they might not give a dime to. Especially for those oil truck drivers, who apparently were finishing their tasks to get the paychecks and now got blocked by us in the front of the refinery, the anger was so obvious. Without much thinking, you could imagine that how much they HATED us for being there. Interesting, the overall process went as civil as you could think off; nothing really happened, and we all dissipated around fifteen minutes later.

              Indeed, I can write a whole account on what was going on there, but since journalists want to give their two-cents on this matter, talking about something else will be more entertaining for now. It is certainly great to see people out protesting, fine and dandy; but why do people hate us? I think people want to live in the suburb because of the need for good living condition, and we right now are indeed fighting for the better air by protesting against the oil refinery. What is wrong with them?

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              Maybe I can blame the system for a bit. In the capitalistic system that we all live in right now, the ultimate objective is to generate most profit, and in order to achieve that, everyone has to depend on capitalists, who ultimately control the resources, technology and capital. Small businesses rely on upstream suppliers, which are often much bigger in size; and individuals need to work hard under capitalists. Knowing this context, we can understand the reason that they dislike us. Simply because in this era, the destiny of the one percent has tied closely with the ones of the ninety-nine percent. This is why I am ambivalent about the protest in oil refinery, because good air without bread on the table is not sustainable.

              Then the situation seems dire, doesn’t it? On one hand, we can know that the situation has to be changed, but on the other, we have to see that such change will bring huge realistic damage to our life. Really, where is the way? Currently, the only viable option only seems to be protesting, and then hoping for change. Nevertheless, the future should be brighter than that, because of we, young people, are here right now complaining about reality and finding solutions. We will be next generation of politicians, scientists, workers and farmers; and knowing the problem now, should we do something?

              Maybe ten years later, when I have long graduated and established my place in society, I can be proud of what I have done in college. I can tell myself, “I really learn something.”

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Presence And Past

Thinking about how fortunate I am

In the era of “C gets the degree,” being a student becomes somehow a difficult job. Hopefully, in the amidst of all of my naps during lectures, I did pick up something important. From last year’s Asian American History course, I learned that historians did not write history; instead, everyday ordinary people did. Indeed, historical analysis can only paint the big picture, but everyone’s individual experiences provide the vibrant colors and details. Working for a non-profit, which deals with real people every day, I gain the opportunity to put on the “historian” hat and get to learn about everyone’s unique stories. In addition, most of our students are indeed Asians (28/31), and knowing their experiences help me realize my own identity.

Particularly, all the serious “soul-searching” happens on Friday, the day of professional developments (PD) for the high school students in our program. From Monday to Thursday, students work in different organizations, and Friday is the time for them to learn something beyond work. On last Friday, July 15th, the theme for PD is actually about finding your own identity. First they would have an opportunity to write everything that represented who they were on the blackboards. Then there would be a panel that was made up of the directors of both VietLEAD and PAACH (in Penn) and a distinguished history teacher at the Philadelphia Central High School. As Asian Americans, they were accomplished and should be able to offer our students many meaningful advices about life.

Though the agenda was rather simple for that day, it was a meaningful experience for me to see. Very similar to the cultures and heritages of other groups of minorities (e.g. African Americans, Latino) in the U.S, Asian culture is never the stable on tables. We will find ourselves in a state of desperation, if Christmas is suddenly canceled and replaced by another holiday; but we have never questioned the lack of Asian holidays here. For most of our students, who grows up in America, such disparity means that they have to constantly cope with two different sets of cultural values. So, on the black board, I saw a nice and somehow confusing mixture of Kpop and the Star Spangled Banner, and of course, Pikachu and American footballs were there too. If I could just make my judgment based on what I had saw, the conclusion would be a peaceful one. However, my curiosity allowed me to see the otherwise. Before this professional development, I sent out a survey to get an idea of their experience growing up as Asian Americans, and the results were not always happy stories. There was violence, bullying, and racist slurs. It really impressed me to look at their smiling and confident faces, because I understood the effort and struggle that they had went through to just be who they were.

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Later our panelists continued to demonstrate to us the resilience that Asian Americans possessed. Two of them, Nancy and Peter, both came from Vietnamese refugee families, and during the panel, told us how they overcame poverty and racism to be here today. Ken, who is one of the few Asian American teachers at Central High School now, thanked our students first, because he said that without the effort of previous classes of Asian Central students, he won’t be hired by the School District of Philadelphia. My director, Jessica also shared her story growing up as the only Asian in her neighborhood. Sitting among them as the moderator, I felt both honored and lucky to be able to know their stories, and realized that their strong wills earn all of us a place to stay.

Planning and moderating this professional development are parts of my job, but also my opportunity to learn about my own identity. As a Chinese immigrant myself, the Asian American identity was not something that I take for granted; instead, it took me couple years to finally be confident with who I am. I remember that My African American teacher, who is rather “conservative” in many different things, had taught me before that our presence was shaped by our past. Now after being the intern for over two months, I can say that I finally get what he means. I am now both the witness and the writer of history.

It is harder to be professional

I attended a PD session last week, and it was not much fun

             There is a famous Chinese proverb saying that “warm water kills the frog”. Frogs are smart enough to jump out from an already boiling pot, but unfortunately very insensitive to the gradual increase of temperature. When the frogs finally realize that the water is too hot to stay for any longer, they have already lost the strength to jump and save themselves. Much like the frogs, we are often more attentive to imminent danger, but choose to ignore the small and chronic problems that will cause huge damage in the future.

            The story of frog hunts me constantly. As a college student living the “Penn bubble”, I am pretty satisfied with my life, but at the same time, I often worry that I am the unaware frog that is slowly getting cooked. Thanks to my internship, I have an opportunity to give myself a “temperature check”.

              So, last week I attended a professional development (PD) session at my worksite, and really discovered that a college student still had many things to learn. To be honest, I was not expecting much from these sessions. Back in the time when I was still a high school student, PD meant that I got a day off, and teachers had to say inside the building. Interestingly, my biology teacher was still able to play Trivia Crack with me, during his PDs.

              However, I was much busier during my PD. We spent the first hour learning how to be a facilitator. Basically, we just rehearsed our workshops before the actual run next week. There was a twist though, when one person went, others had to pretend to be high schoolers. I had to admit that teaching kids were much harder than I thought, and for too many times, I simply froze, for having no answer prepared. When I was drafting my presentation, I had no idea of the complexity of this seemingly simple job. Fortunately, all other members generously offer many advices, and I started to see what the professional development was really about: it was there to help me grow. Having run through this workshop really taught me many things that I was reluctant to realize and learn. 

            In a broader sense, the PD session was an opportunity for me to overcome many dominant narratives that I was accustomed to know. For example, the impression that college students were better in many different things was one. Toward the end of our professional development, we went to our farm in Camden again, and got to further explore the farming methods that we used to grow everything at the farm. Surprisingly, I learned that not every type of weed that herbicides kill were harmful, and nice combinations of crops could help increase the production, without using more fertilizer. There, the dominant narrative of “three sisters”: fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide, was overcoming by the power of nature. On my way back home, I began to think about the reason why that we still had not return to the eco-friendly ways of farming. Maybe, when the world is filled with black and white, we have a harder time finding all other colors.

              One of the most valuable things that I have gained from my internship is the opportunity to acknowledge my limit and find ways to be better. And well, this is also a part of the reason why when I choose this internship: I want to walk out of the bubble and breathe some fresh air.

See Yourself

This blog is for the youths. They are awesome.

              On a totally unrelated note, I went to my cousin’s middle school graduation (or the closing exercise) on Tuesday this week. We lived in the same house, and I had witnessed that how much effort he had dedicated for this occasion. Without any doubt, he looked fabulous on that day, and I was proud to be there too. In fact, looking around on Tuesday, I found that all of his classmates looked fabulous as well, and their families seemed to be proud too.

              When I got home, I thought a bit more about the graduation. To me, it was somehow a mystery that all of these young men and women could all motivate to do this one thing well. So what was the motivation behind the scene?

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              I guess I can draw some experiences from my internship. My organization, VietLEAD, works directly with local Vietnamese high school students and helps promote youth activism. Thus, a part of my internship is to answer youths’ questions, and carefully observe and record their growth.   

              So two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to help VietLEAD students organize their annual community dinner. Though this event was called a “community dinner”, it was indeed these youths’ very own graduation from VietLEAD. During the dinner, they would present what they had learned through VietLEAD afterschool sessions, and their family members and friends would be there to listen and learn. Nevertheless, since it was a dinner, these students brought food and drink from home as well. In addition, there would be music as well. In short, these students had lots of logistics to worry about.

              Surprisingly, they handled all tasks really well. I was told to be there three hours before the dinner, but they were already there and setting everything up. I saw that food was already on the tables ready for distribution, and every table already had a piece tablecloth. There, some of the students were forming circles to walk through the music performance and the presentation for the last time, some were taking beautiful photo shots with their cameras, and many others were busy in decorating the room. Everyone there seemed to have a job, and to me, it was just like a nicely built machine, in which every gear ran on its exact speed. Yet, they still seemed to have fun from this process and were eager to present their best sides to their families and friends.

              So, thanks to their passion and energy, the dinner was a success. I liked the food, and the music was awesome with no squeaky note. Every one of the students took many selfies, and all the parents were staying up too.

              Oh yeah, I had to talk about all the vegetable that they put on the tables for decoration. As a part of VietLEAD, these students also had the opportunity to help maintain a garden in Camden, New Jersey, where all the vegetable was coming from. I was there at the garden on Sunday and saw the effort that they had put in. From a broader perspective, maintaining this garden was their first solid step to reclaim food sovereignty. To be honest, I was impressed that these youths had such determination and consistency to make a difference.

              To many of us, youths are often described as the root of problem in our society today. They seem to care less and talk too much. But what I have seen from my internship tells me the opposite. Once they have the goal, and realize how important it is, they are willing to fight for it. So to me, youths are indeed the answer to many problems in our society today.

              So the problem now is, how we guide them to find the right goal?

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Courtesy of VietLEAD

Will this work?

Fortunately, working as an intern also teaches me that my work does means something.

This is my first blog ever, so it is a milestone. First mile is always the tough one, and I hope to finish it well. As always, constructive criticism is welcomed here.

Now, it is story time.

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First Peek (Courtesy of Adventure Aquarium, Camden, NJ)

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I like shelves, because it is a place for glory and establishment. By having that one limited edition of Merriam-Webster Dictionary or placing that one championship trophy there, you can constantly remind yourself of what you have done and how you have done them. No matter where I live, I usually have shelves at locations facing the windows, so the sunlight can shine on all of my collections.

I like to have my desk and chair in darker corners, however. Maybe it is a type of superstition, but I think I work better in place without sunlight (though, I will turn on a lamp, for the sake of my eyes). Well I can easily get tired too, after working (sitting) for a long time. It is great that I still have the power to complain, so I can fearlessly imagine the world without work.

But working as an intern teaches me that you have to work.

I had worked mostly around desks for past two weeks, and I began to appreciate standing. Sitting reminded you constantly the power of gravity; you were comfortable sitting, but you were not freed sitting. Certainly, I liked the fact that I was not sweating in Philly’s summer. However, throughout the days, my world was confined to pencils and pens, papers and paperclips, rulers and rules. It was fine working, but it is not much fun working. Furthermore, I felt defeated, when I thought about the possibility that nobody might actually read the paperwork and will not mean anything.

Fortunately, working as an intern also teaches me that my work does means something.

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Looking for the light (Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History, New York)

Moments of revelation came from my experiences as an interviewer last week. My organization serves as a bridge between youths, who have diverse cultural backgrounds, and mostly come from low-income families; and the mainstream society. Each summer the organization will choose 20-30 high school students and give them opportunities to intern in different professional work sites. For our organization, interviews are very important. Sometimes, they are the only opportunities for us to actually learn about these applicants (outside of their application), before making the final decisions.

So on a Saturday, I sat at the quiet teen section (with library’s permission) to interview applicants, for the next two and half hours. Recalling my high school era, interviews were more like performance. I prepped for them, and they worked out fine. So, I was not expecting much.

But these high schoolers surprised me. They might stumble from time to time, however, their optimism was inspiring. For instance, I was interviewing a graduating senior who was thinking about becoming a biomedical researcher, and I asked the motivation behind his choice. So he told me that he wanted to find a cure for his grandmother, who suffered from breast cancer. Wow, I was shocked by his answer, because he was energetic and positive throughout the interview. It is hard to imagine how much he has to go through, as a teenager.

Of course, the interviews were not all about emotional heavy-weight lifting; they could be fun from time to time. My interview of that day was with a Vietnamese youth, who is a graduating senior now. Though my interview was supposed to be asking him about many different aspects of life, we ended up talking for thirty minutes mainly about basketball and photography, two things that I really wanted to master in all time. His understanding of the society was very in depth too, and seem like that he could give me a lecture on youth activism in South Philadelphia, though he had only been living in the U.S for five years. As an immigrant myself, I deeply understood the difficulty of living in a foreign land and trying to understand the weird things happened there. Needless, every immigrant is an hero.

Walking out of the library, I realized that all of my seemingly boring work meant something. It is such a wonderful thing to apply my knowledge and energy to creating a platform for these youths, who possess the unlimited potential. They deserve canvas, palettes and brush for their dream, and everyone in our organization is working hard to ensure that they have those.

To end this blog, I just to have to say that there is so much to learn from high school students. Most importantly, I admire their optimism. Most of them come from low-income families and witnesses the dark side of society, but they believe that there is light, and they are willing to fight for “the light in the end of the tunnel.” Compared to them, maybe I really complain too much and work too little. Now, I feel truly fortunate to have this internship.

It is great so far to walk out of the bubble and see the world.