Reflections on Affluent White ‘Progressive’ Parents who Keep Their Kids in Affluent White Bubbles, Part 1

I recently read the editorial “White Progressive Parents and Conundrum of Privilege” and a lot of it rings true based on my experience.

One of the clearest bits of evidence that San Francisco is not actually a progressive city is to point out that a higher percentage of K-12 students are in private schools than any other metro area in USA (or at least it did when I was in high school, apparently San Francisco fell to third place, though it seems that it is still true that about one fourth of all K-12 students in San Francisco are in private school).

I remember, when I went to Museum of African American History and Culture in Natchez, Mississippi, and I told the man who worked there that I was from San Francisco, his reaction was not ‘wow, you come from such an progressive and enlightened city’ but ‘wow, San Francisco has the most racially segregated school system in the country.’ And I did not argue with him because I knew he was probably right. One of the main mechanisms for maintaining the high level of racial segregation is the private school system (though there are also mechanisms within the public school system itself which contribute to segregation).

I was a bit of an anomaly, because my parents are white and had the financial means to send me to private school, yet they sent me to public school for all of my K-12 education. Very few white parents with the financial means in San Francisco did this. That meant most of my classmates came from families with less socioeconomic privilege, including my white classmates. I know that some of my white classmates would have definitely been sent to private school if their parents had the money to cover tuition. My most affluent white classmates often had attended private school for some years, and then their parents decided to switch to a public school. I would not say that being different from my classmates in this way was a bad thing – in fact, I think most of them did not realize how much money my parents actually had – but it led to some odd experiences.

When I was in high school, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a series of articles about San Francisco’s education system. Many of the articles focused on the differences between public and private schools. I noticed that, even though the articles quoted many parents who said they chose private school for their children, none of those parents provided evidence that private schools offered a better education (and the articles also did not find any evidence that students learn better in private schools than in public schools). The only parent who actually had first hand knowledge of both private schools and public schools because he sent one child to private schools and another child to public schools said that the public schools offered a better education, and that he regretted sending his older child to private school.

After I discussed these articles with my mother, she said “private school parents don’t actually care about the quality of education, that’s why they don’t check whether private schools offer a better education, they just want to keep their kids away from black kids”.

I don’t think my mother’s assessment is entirely fair, since I have met quite a few people who attended private school in San Francisco for at least a few years, and I learned something about their parents (though since these were mostly the parents of students who eventually ended up in public school, they probably are not representative). But I do agree with her that these parents actually care more about social image/status than whether or not their children are learning a lot in school, though many of them do not seem to understand the difference between a prestigious education and an education which actually develops a student’s intellectual potential.

And I think the public schools might even be safer than the private schools. When talking to some former students of private schools in San Francisco, I found some of the things they described rather scary (though I might be biased by the fact that most of these students later ended up in a public school; students who find themselves in danger at a private school are probably much more likely to transfer out). I suspect that the illusion of safety at private schools might actually make them more dangerous. A lot of people are concerned about safety at public schools and there is a lot of scrutiny; a lot less people pay attention to safety issues at private schools.

That said, the private schools are definitely better for making social connections and offering opportunities which can entrench/increase a child’s privileges. I’ll give a specific example: one of my high school classmates was admitted to Harvard. It was a big deal because a) my high school was small, so everyone knew this guy and b) he was the first student at my high school to be admitted to Harvard. He later found out why he was the first, and told us about it; that was the first year that Harvard admissions actually bothered to read applications from students at my high school. If he had graduated just a year earlier, the Harvard people would have tossed out his application unread, and he would have had zero chance of getting into Harvard. That was because my high school was a public school in San Francisco that wasn’t Lowell. Previously, with regards to applicants from San Francisco, Harvard’s policy had been to only read applications from private school students and Lowell students (Lowell is the top-rated public high school in San Francisco). The year he applied, Harvard decided finally read applications from students from other San Francisco public high schools. I think that my high school previously had students who were just as qualified to get into Harvard as my classmate who was admitted; it was unfair that they did not have a chance. Hopefully Harvard reads all applications now, but I suspect that there are still other ways that private high school students get unfair advantages (especially social connections).

Speaking of Lowell and racial diversity, I recently read that Lowell only has eight African American students in its class of 2018. I was surprised. I looked through one of my old yearbooks, and counted thirteen African-American students in my graduating class (not including several students whose racial background was not clear based on the photos and I couldn’t remember whether or not they identified as African-American) – and my high school was much smaller than Lowell. (No, I am not in favor of changing Lowell’s admission standards, but based on the article, it seems that their outreach could be significantly improved).

My parents are white, and might even be described as center-left, but they definitely are not progressive. They did not particularly care about racial and class diversity in schools – they would have been totally fine sending me to an all-white-affluent school, but they also did not mind sending me to racially and class diverse schools. So why did they send me to public schools? Both of my parents thought that paying private school tuition would be a waste of money, but it was more than that. My father felt that it was his civic duty to send me to public school. My mother did not care about civic duty, she simply was not convinced that I would receive a better education in private school than in public school, therefore private school tuition was a horrible waste of money.

And my neighborhood? It’s racially mixed (mostly white people and Asian-Americans, but there are also some African-Americans around here and there). The class dynamics in my neighborhood are complicated, so I’ll oversimplify for brevity: there are poor, working class, middle class, and rich people all living within walking distance of my home, but that does not mean we’re socially integrated, we tend to keep our social selves separate from anyone who is more than a notch or two away from us on the class hierarchy. For example, there is an upper class enclave just a ten minute walk from my home, yet I rarely set foot there, and if I did go there and encountered one of the people who live there, it would be awkward because I don’t know how to engage with them.

Ironically, the fact that my parents care a lot less about ‘social justice’ might be why they were more willing to send me to public school than affluent parents who do care about ‘social justice’. The affluent parents who care about ‘social justice’ probably spend a lot of time about thinking about how disadvantaged poor and/or brown kids are, so the subconsciously think that they need to keep their kids away from the those unfortunate people in case the bad luck is infectious. In other words, as affluent white people who care about ‘social justice’ they may have be more susceptible to the classist and racist assumption that schools with lots of poor and/or brown students must be worse because that is where the poor and/or brown students are. (And if they discovered that some of those schools with lots of poor and/or brown students are actually good, and that poor and/or brown students are not always to be viewed with pity, it might blow their minds). My parents spend a lot less mental energy obsessing over how disadvantaged poor and/or brown kids are, so they did not develop the subconscious feeling that they needed to isolate me from all that.

To be continued…

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Smoke, Sickness, and Sore Feet to South Lake Tahoe, Part 2

At the end of the last part, I was in relatively bad physical shape, and had a lot of pressure on me to try to make it to town before my physical state became even worse. I was dealing with bad air, pain in my feet, and a cold. I was hoping that at least one of these problems would go away so that the other two problems would be easier to cope with. I had no control over the smoke, I could not make the cold go away no matter how much vitamin C I consumed, I could not fix my feet, but – wait a minute, didn’t I have painkillers in my first aid kit? Maybe they would make the pain in my feet go away, and then I would have solved at least on of my three problems.

Some long-distance hikers take ibuprofen on a regular basis so they can push their bodies past the point where they would otherwise feel too uncomfortable. They tend to call ibuprofen ‘vitamin I’ because they take it so regularly. Me? I have not taken an ibuprofen since I was 17 years old. Actually, that is the only time I recall ever using ibuprofen. I have nothing against hikers using ‘vitamin I’ frequently if that is how they want to hike, but for myself, I only want to push my body as far as it can go in an undrugged state, and I only want to pull out the drugs (other than caffeine) if I’m having problems beyond the ordinary problems of this type of hike.

At this point, I was definitely having more-than-ordinary problems, and no longer had qualms about drugging myself.

There is morning light on the mountain which is a bit reddish with patches of snow, and in the bowl of the mountain there is a lake which is still in the shade and had a reflection of the mountain above.

Dick Lake in the morning

The thing is, I tend to forget that I’m carrying painkillers at all. Even during my miserable date when my feet hurt like hell, it did not occur to me that I could use my painkillers. Since I could not even remember that I am painkillers even when I was in a lot of pain, do you think I’m the kind of hiker who checks her first aid kit before every hike to make sure my medications haven’t expired. HA HA, NOPE! And naturally, ~all of my painkillers were expired~.

However, my acetaminophen pills hand only expired a few months earlier. I figured it was safe to take them, and at worst, it would simply be ineffective, in which case I would be no worse off than before.

It took about twenty minutes for me to feel the difference, but I swear, the expired acetaminophen pills really helped. My feet were still in pain, but it was about 50% less pain, which was a relief. Though the acetaminophen pills did not increase my energy levels (and energy drain was the worst symptom of my cold), it took the edge off some of my other cold symptoms, and that was also nice. I don’t care if it was just a placebo effect, when you are suffering you will gratefully accept a placebo effect if it makes you feel better.

[And if you’re wondering, yes, I’ve replaced all of my medications in my first aid kit, and it is going to be a while before they expire again]

Dick Lake and Lake Fontanallis as seen from near Dick Pass. See that layer of smoke in the air?

The smoke was still worse than I would like, but an improvement over the previous day.

I had not ‘solved’ any of my three big problems, but my three big problems were less bad than they had been the day before. It was time to take advantage of this amelioration to haul myself to a road and get to town.

The first leg was the uphill hike to Dick Pass, which was my biggest uphill of the day. At least I got it out of the way first. Normally I wouldn’t consider it a big deal, but in my condition, I was concerned. It turned out to be not as bad as I expected, and I think that may have been because of the acetaminophen.

A view near Dick Pass.

After Dick Pass, it was mostly downhill.

And I saw some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve seen on the Pacific Crest Trail. The Desolation wilderness is gorgeous.

In the background is a rust colored mountain with little patches of snow, and below is a dark blue lake surrounded by greenery.

Susie Lake

The lakes were some of the loveliest lakes I’ve seen on the PCT (and I’ve seen some very lovely lakes).

There were also plenty of lovely old growth trees, shaped by the harsh conditions of Desolation Wilderness.

A blue Lake, with granite mountains is the background covered by ribbons of snow.

Heather Lake

Beautiful scenery is not ~quite~ the reason I hike the PCT, but it is always a great morale boost, and I really needed the morale boost this day.

When I got down to the two Echo Lakes, the smoke was a lot worse, but I also knew that I was getting close to a road. I would have liked to go all the way to the highway, but by the time I got to the parking lot at the resort, it was already 6pm, and I was tired (and sick). Luckily, I was able to get a ride in about 10 minutes from nice women from Oregon/North Carolina. Another PCT hiker rode in the same car – he is the first person I ever met who is a Zoroastrian (well, maybe I’ve met other Zoroastrians without knowing they were Zoroastrians). Even though they had a dinner reservation, and the hostel in South Lake Tahoe was a detour for them, they drove us all the way to the hostel (which was great for us, because South Lake Tahoe is a very spread out town).

This is a photo of my foot at the hostel (after I took a shower and washed off the dirt). Those aren’t blisters, my skin simply peeled off, exposing the inner, sensitive layers. When the red parts touched something with any amount of pressure, there was a burning sensation.

There were a lot of PCT hikers at the hostel. Since this was in early August, I knew the NOBO thru-hikers there were not going to make it to Canada without a lot of skipping. Most of them also realized this, though a few of them still had delusions of dramatically increasing their pace so they could reach Canada that year without skipping miles. There are some amazingly fast thru-hikers, but if they were those amazingly fast thru-hikers, they would have reached South Lake Tahoe long before early August on a NOBO thru-hike. I enjoyed very much hanging out with the other PCT hikers, since I knew this was going to be my last direct contact with the PCT community in a while.

The next day, I returned home. My hike ended a lot sooner than planned, but I still covered more than 400 miles, and had a lot of memorable experiences, so I consider it to have been an overall successful trip.

I Have a Stream of Consciousness about the New San Francisco Transit Center

Looking down an escalator in a fancy stucture of glass and steel.

I took this photo at the Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco two weeks ago.

A month and a half ago, the glittering new transit center in San Francisco somehow managed to open. And a couple days ago it suddenly closed.

I was quite surprised when the transit center opened in the first place, because I’ve been trained to believe that these projects are never finished. I was also surprised when the Salesforce Tower was finally finished because I expected that to take forever too. However, though I would not say that I ~expected~ engineering problems, I’m not terribly surprised that the center was closed less that two months after it opened.

When I was in Taiwan, I remember going to some exhibit about bridges. They had photos of bridges all over the world, including the east span of the Bay Bridge, and I was surprised that the Bay Bridge did not look at all how I remembered it. Then I looked at the caption, and realized it was the new Bay Bridge which, as of the time I was living in Taiwan, I had never seen before. They had been working on the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge since the bridge was broken in the 1989 earthquake, they had been building it when I was in middle school and high school. The cost overruns were a well known joke, and the consensus when I was in high school was that the new bridge was sucking up so much money in exceeding its budget again and again that, if the bridge were ever completed, it would not have been worth the ridiculous cost. For as long as I remember, they had been working on a bridge which was a vortex of wasted money which kept on being delayed and delayed, so I was shocked to learn in Taiwan that the new bridge actually was completed, and being used by the public.

And of course, given that it took more than twenty years to build the new bridge and it cost way more money than anyone predicted, it had engineering failures as soon as it opened which were expensive to fix.

Fortunately, since the Temporary Transbay Terminal (which is where the buses stopped before the transit center was complete) is still there, it was possible to quickly reroute all of the buses quickly, and restore things to the way they were two months ago – except most of the signs had been removed, which meant that most passengers did not know where their bus was supposed to stop.

I took this photo at the former Greyhound terminal in San Francisco about a month ago – except Greyhound has now moved back in because the transit center is closed. You can see the Temporary Transbay Terminal on the other side of the glass doors. The building was never this empty when it was an active Greyhound stop.

Until a few days ago, Amtrak was the only service which was still available at the Temporary Transbay Terminal. The Amtrak ‘station’ used to be a small room in the Greyhound terminal, but since Greyhound moved out, Amtrak got to take over the entire building. During my most recent trip, I was not sure where the Amtrak stop in San Francisco was going to be when I returned because Amtrak had told me they might move their stop any day (it turns out they did not move). When I got back to San Francisco, they had even closed the bathrooms in the Temporary Transbay Terminal (which I think was rather rude given that Amtrak was still operating there), so I had to walk all the way to the new Salesforce Transit Center to relieve myself (another problem with the new transit center is that the signs which are supposed to indicate the bathrooms are very confusing). That is when I took the photo at the top of this blog post.

For Amtrak passengers, it’s rather inconvenient that Amtrak stops in a location which is no longer served by any other form of public transit (though it’s only a block and a half away from the new Transit Center, and a few blocks from Embarcadero Station, so it’s not terrible). Of course, with the closure of the new transit center, there is now a lot of public transit at the Temporary Transbay Terminal again.

According to the Amtrak employees I talked to, the reason why Amtrak stayed at the Temporary Transbay Terminal while every other service left was that the Salesforce Transit Center was going to charge Amtrak more than Amtrak was willing to pay to lease a ticket office. Like a lot of locals who ride Amtrak, I am rooting for Amtrak to forget about the Salesforce Transit Center and lease a ticket office at the Ferry Building, which used to be Amtrak’s official stop in San Francisco. A lot of bus lines go the Ferry Building, all of the ferries go to the Ferry Building, and it is right next to Embarcadero Station.

A photo of the Ferry Building taken shortly after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Notice that the Ferry Building is intact, and that there is a lot of rubble in the lower left part of the picture.

The people behind the new Salesforce Transit Center say that it will become “Grand Central Station of the West.” The irony is that the “Grand Central Station of the West” used to be the Ferry Building. Before the completion of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, the Ferry Building was the second busiest passenger terminal in the world (the busiest was Charing Cross Station in London). It was the most expensive public building built in San Francisco in the 19th century (though I doubt it has as many cost overruns as our new transit center or our new Bay Bridge), and it was so well built that it go through the 1906 earthquake and fire and the 1989 earthquake without major damage. The trains no longer run to the Ferry Building, and it’s not built to handle all of the transbay buses, but it seems like it was a more successful project than our new transit center.

I also have a new appreciation for the Temporary Transbay Terminal. It’s cheap, simple, and a lot more foolproof than these fancy construction projects. Most of the terminal is an open-air bus staging area – very cheap to build and maintain, the roof can’t collapse because there is no roof. The building which used to be (and is once again) the Greyhound terminal is basically a one-story tin shed – cheap to build, simple engineering, the roof is unlikely to have too much load to bear because it is a single story structure. I do not miss the old Transbay Terminal (and I suspect renovating the old Transbay Terminal might have been just as much as a mess as building the new transit center), but maybe, instead of pouring lots of money into a fancy new transit center, it would have been better if the Temporary Transbay Terminal were in fact the Permanent Transbay Terminal and they did not build a new transit center at all. After all, the Temporary Transbay Terminal functioned well as a bus terminal, and that’s all we really need.

Smoke, Sickness, and Sore Feet to South Lake Tahoe, Part 1

A photo of Truckee’s historic district, near the train station.

I was in Truckee. I had just returned from Utah. I intended to return to the Pacific Crest Trail.

And the air quality was worse than I had hoped for. It was worse than when I had left Truckee to go to Utah.

Furthermore, something weird was happening to my feet. It wasn’t blisters, but it was leaving my feet a little sore. Furthermore, it started happening to me when I was off-trail, not when I was hiking. I figured it was probably nothing, and would go away if I ignored it.

I then asked myself – do I return to the trail, and hope the air will get better, or do I return to San Francisco.

I had missed the train to San Francisco, or rather, the train which dropped me off at Truckee was the train to San Francisco (in fact, it was the same train line I used to get from Chicago to San Francisco). I still had the option of taking a bus that evening to San Francisco.

I had a couple hours in Truckee to ponder whether I would go to the trail or I would go home.

A hiker I encountered in Truckee said ‘Do it! Go back to the trail! So what if you have to breathe smoke for a few days?’

I finally did decide to go back to Donner Pass to get back on the trail, mainly because I was psychologically prepared for returning to the trail. I was not psychologically prepared to go home so soon.

This is a photo taken near Roller Pass, and the campsite I slept at when I got back on the trail from Truckee/Donner Pass. Roller Pass was where the mid-19th century immigrant parties crossed the Sierra Mountains. The infamous Donner Party planned to go to Roller Pass, but because of a navigational error, they ended up in Donner Pass instead, which is part of why they had such a tragic fate. Even though Roller Pass was the better route for a group travelling with oxen and wagons, nowadays the highway, freeway, and train tracks all go via Donner Pass, whereas Roller Pass is only accessible by dirt trails.

As soon as I returned to the PCT, the air quality got better. I got to camp a little later than I would have liked, and it was windy, but it was okay.

The next day was good. The air was better. There was good scenery. I passed by Squaw Valley and the Granite Chief Wilderness. My feet were okay. I told myself I had done the right thing by returning to the trail.

The air got worse in the evening, but I hoped that was temporary.

The next day, I woke up with a sore throat. My first thought was that maybe the air was so bad that it had triggered the sore throat. Later, it occurred to me that I might have a cold, but I was not sure.

And the air was awful.

And my feet hurt, far more than the previous day. In fact, my feet hurt more than they have every hurt in all of my hikes. Every step was painful.

All of the smoke in the air was changing the color of sunlight.

It sucked. It became clear that I really had a cold, though I’m sure the bad air did not help. And my feet hurt. And the air was bad. And there were not many nice views. And even the water sources were worse than what I was used to dealing with in Northern California (and even worse than average for water sources on the PCT in Southern California). I was going slower than usual, and I was getting tired faster than usual. The cold was really draining my physical energy! I was thinking a lot about how much I wanted to get to a town, and regretting my decision to return to the trail at Donner Pass.

What finally improved my mood, at the end of the day, was seeing Lake Fontainallis.

A big clear lake with bare granite mountains with a little snow behind the lake.

Lake Fontainallis

Seeing that lake was the best thing that happened to me that day, because it was so beautiful that it shook me out of my suffering.

And it was only a mile from my campsite. At my campsite, I stopped hiking, and after I set up camp, I lay down, and stopped putting pressure on my sore feet.

I camped near Dick Lake, which was about a mile away from Lake Fontainallis.

I hoped I could get into town the next day. But I still had about 20 miles of hiking to get to the next road. And I had to hike those miles while I had a cold that was draining my energy, with feet that felt pain whenever I put them on the ground. And who knew what the air would be like? And when I got to the road, how difficult would it be to get a ride?

To be continued…

There Is a Big Problem with How We Talk about Othello

content note: murder, specifically murder related to sexual jealousy

This summer, I saw a performance of Othello. It was the first time I had seen or read the play in over ten years. And I was a bit shocked, because even though I knew the story of the play perfectly well, when I had seen or read the play before, I had never consciously thought about the fact that Othello thinks it is okay to kill his own wife because of infidelity. And everyone else in the play, except Emilia, seems to agree with him. The characters treats the murder of Desdemona as a tragedy because she was chaste, if she really had been engaging in an extra-marital affair, they would have been fine with Othello murdering her.

Othello’s final line came across as especially creepy, the one where he describes himself as being “one that loved not wisely, but too well.” Wanting to kill one’s wife because of jealousy counts as ‘loving too well’? Really? And if that is not what Othello means, then what does he mean? (note: I hope that people who consider killing their own wives because of jealousy to be an expression ‘love’ will never, ever love me)

In an English class in high school, we studied Othello. We analyzed the play extensively, from various different angles. We had in depth discussions of Othello’s feelings. Yet amid all of that analysis and discussion, I don’t recall anyone asking the question ‘if Desdemona was really having an affair with Cassio, would it be okay for Othello to kill her? Is the problem that Iago tricked Othello into thinking she was unchaste, or is the problem that Othello wanted to kill Desdemona ~at all~?’ And in retrospect, I am shocked that I have no memory of any discussion like that happening in my high school English class. If my memory is accurate, and we did not talk about that, then what does that imply about our values?

The most memorable part of studying Othello in that high school English class was hearing the teacher describe her Real Life Soap Opera. She shared with us the story of how a woman had an affair with one of her brothers, causing him to divorce his wife, then she had an affair with another one of her brothers, causing him to also divorce his wife, and then this woman had an affair with my teacher’s husband, which ruined their marriage, leading my teacher to legally separate from her husband and stop cohabiting with him. In addition to doing everything short of divorce to break up with her husband, my teacher played some mean-spirited pranks on the woman who had the extra marital affairs with her brothers and husband. My teacher was very proud of her pranking skills, and that she made the woman break down in tears. I got the impression that our English teacher really sympathized with Othello.

Legal separation and ending cohabitation are ethical and reasonable responses to infidelity. Mean-spirited pranks are not necessarily ethical or reasonable, but at least my English teacher (as far as I know) never threatened that woman with violence.

When Othello came to the conclusion that Desdemona was unfaithful, why did he immediately decide to murder her? Why not divorce, or legal separation? Or even mean-spirited pranks?

Maybe you’re thinking that we do not discuss whether it would have been okay for Othello to kill Desdemona even if she had been unfaithful because the answer is obviously ‘no, of course it would not be okay’. Sadly, I can tell you that it was NOT obvious to all of my high school classmates.

This is a true story. I don’t want to reveal these people’s real names, so I am going to use the following names: Sara’s Classmate, Girlfriend, Friend, and Victim. Sara’s Classmate became convinced that his Girlfriend had some kind of sexual flirting with Victim. Therefore, with the help of Friend, he kidnapped Victim. Sara’s Classmate said that he wanted to kill Victim, and had a loaded gun. Though Friend was willing to participate in the kidnapping, Friend did not want to be an accomplice to murder, so he came up with a scheme to deceive Sara’s Classmate into thinking that Victim is already dead. I would like to think that my classmate would have come to his senses in time, and not actually carry out his murder threat, but I think it is very possible that, without Friend’s deception, Sara’s Classmate would have killed Victim.

The obvious parallels between this true story and Othello are Sara’s Classmate = Othello, Girlfriend = Desdemona, Friend = Iago, and Victim = Cassio. However, whereas Iago deceived Othello so that Desdemona and Cassio would die, Friend deceived Sara’s Classmate in order to save Victim’s life.

Though my classmate and I were not in the same English class, I know he also studied Othello in his English class because all of the 10th grade English classes at my high school studied Othello. I suppose it’s possible that in his English class they discussed whether or not it would have been okay for Othello to kill Desdemona if she had been unfaithful, but … I doubt it.

We were classmates in theater class, and I definitely know that he studied Othello in our theater class because he performed a monologue from the play. Specifically, this monologue:

OTHELLO:
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,—
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!—
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.
It must needs wither: I’ll smell it on the tree.
[Kissing her]
Ah balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after. One more, and this the last:
So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears: this sorrow’s heavenly;
It strikes where it doth love. She wakes.

Yes, it’s the monologue shortly before Othello kills Desdemona. When I was in that theater class, and saw my classmate perform this monologue multiple times, I had no idea that in a few years he was going to try to do something like this in real life. In retrospect, it is hard to believe that it is a coincidence that he chose this monologue, and then later attempted to murder someone because of jealousy.

To be clear, I’m not saying that Othello inspired him to perform kidnapping and attempted murder – if anything, I think the reverse is more likely, that he chose this monologue because he already had fantasies of doing something like this in real life. However, in English class, and even in theater class, there were opportunities to discuss whether Othello’s conduct would have been okay even if Desdemona were guilty, and those discussions, as far as I know, did not happen. And maybe, if that discussion did happen, my classmate may not have tried to imitate Othello.

The last time I had seen or read Othello was before my former classmate committed his crimes. This year, when I watched the play on stage, I was thinking of my former classmate quite a bit.

And my former classmate is not an isolated anomaly. At least one third of all women murdered in the United States are murdered by a male initmate partner, and that is not counting people like Cassio or Victim, who were suspected of being the women’s lovers, or attempted murders which did not result in death. I could not find statistics indicating how many of those murders were related to sexual jealousy, but I suspect it is a high percentage.

I am not opposed to reading or studying or performing Othello. On the contrary, I think it can be useful for provoking discussion. But, in my observation, the discussion of whether murder due to jealousy is ever justified usually does not happen. I certainly noticed no traces of that discussion around the production of the play I saw this summer.

Compare that to The Merchant of Venice. I studied the play in a college class, and my college class did not ignore the anti-semitism. On the contrary, the anti-semitism was one of the most discussed aspects of the play. And whenever there is a production or adaptation of The Merchant of Venice in the contemporary United States, the way the anti-semitism is addressed tends to be the focal point of the producer’s, the performers’, and the audience’s attention. I disagree with some of the common ways the anti-semitism is addressed, but at least it IS acknowledged and addressed, people aren’t silent about it. To a lesser extent, this is also true of the way readers, directors, actors, audiences, etc. treat the misogyny in Taming of the Shrew.

I do not think the play Othello itself is dangerous. I think ignoring the way the play tacitly supports murdering unfaithful wives (conditional on the wives being truly unfaithful, unlike Desdemona) is dangerous.

Some Thoughts on Legends of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Born

The book cover of Legends of the Condor Heroes: A Hero Born

I did in fact get around to reading the new English translation of Jin Yong’s extremely famous novel Shè​ Diāo​ Yīng​xióng​ Zhuàn. It is the first novel I ever read in Chinese, and that would be reason enough for it to be a very special book to me.

In particular, I strongly associate this book with downtown Taoyuan after dark. Since I had never read a novel in Chinese before, and my Chinese was much worse back then than it is now, I had to focus hard to read this book. However, I had trouble focusing when I was in my tào​fáng​ (studio apartment) because I was easily distracted, especially by my computer. Thus, I had to physically separate myself from my tào​fáng​ (especially my computer) to pay more attention to reading. Over time, I figured out where the best places for me to read books in downtown Taoyuan were, but at this point I was still exploring and figuring it out, so I ended up going to various places to see whether or not they were conductive to reading. If you are not familiar with downtown Taoyuan, you may watch this video and try to imagine finding a place to read a book so that you can find out what happens to characters (hint: those shopping malls have food courts, and food courts have quiet corners). And after I finished my reading session, I would walk in the streets of Taoyuan again to return to my tào​fáng​, thinking about what I had just read. I finally figured out that the best place to read was in the parks or park-like areas, but only in daylight hours, and that evening hours were better spent on the computer, so I did not read so much of other novels in the evening. This is how I came to associate this novel with wandering around downtown Taoyuan, especially in the evening.

By the way, I associate the second book in the trilogy with Taipei because I read some key scenes while I was in Taipei, and the third book in the trilogy with Kaohsiung, because I was reading it during my very first trip to Kaohsiung, and I recall looking into the streets and alleys of Kaohsiung when I needed a break after reading some very emotional scenes.

Ahem, this does not have anything to do with the English translation, my mind is clearly wandering. It did give me a warm feeling when I discovered that the translator, Anna Holmwood, first came to know the Condor Trilogy books in Taipei. Taipei is close to Taoyuan, and I bought my (Chinese language) copy of Shè​ Diāo​ Yīng​xióng​ Zhuàn in Taipei.

I thought it might be weird to read this book in English instead of Chinese, but I got used to everything being in English very fast.

I’ve mentioned this translation before in this post. I still think it was a mistake to translate personal names into English, and at first I would mentally groan at names such as ‘Skyfury Guo’. However, I became adept at translating the characters’ names back into Chinese (his name is Guō Xiàotiān, thank you) so the weird English names stopped grating on me.

The translator says in the notes that she made Huang Rong’s name ‘Lotus’ because “at this point in the story we the readers are let in on a secret that Guo Jing is not party to. As soon as we see her name written down, we known at once that this “beggar boy” is, in fact, a girl – the cahracter for “lotus”, “rong” 蓉 is far too girly to be used for a boy’s name.” I think this is a bad reason. When I first read Shè​ Diāo​ Yīng​xióng​ Zhuàn, because my Chinese skill level was barely good enough to read this book, I had no idea that 蓉 is a girly name, but I still figured out that Huang Rong is probably a girl because of the other hints (and if even a reader who is struggling to understand Chinese can figure out that Huang Rong is a girl, that indicates that Guo Jing is really, really bad at picking up clues). Furthermore, I don’t think ‘Lotus’ is necessarily a girly name in English, and I would especially not assume that ‘Lotus’ is a female name if I knew little of Chinese culture – how would I know that Chinese culture associates flowers with femininity? I can think of various other ways the translator could have handled this particular passage while keeping the name Huang Rong (or Wong Yung, if the translator had chosen to use Cantonese names).

Anyway, enough of that. Aside from the issue with the characters names, I was generally pleased with this translation. It is very good, or at least better than any translation I could produce. It does not convey all nuances of the original, probably because that is impossible, and I do not blame the translator. In particular, Holmwood’s prose is not nearly as good as Jin Yong’s prose, but there are very few people who can write prose as well as Jin Yong.

I do not think I will read further volumes of this English translation, but that is only because I can continue (re-)reading in Chinese instead, which is better.

But most of all – it is a pleasure to read this novel again, whatever the language. There were details I had never noticed before (though that is partially because this translation is based on the third edition, which I have not read before), and some of those details were delightful as someone returning to this story once again. For example, I never noticed before that Qu San’s daughter appears in the first chapter. She seems like a throwaway character, and most first-time readers probably won’t pay much attention to her, but ~I~ know what she does later in the story, heh heh. She is definitely a Chekhov’s Gunman (and a Chekhov’s Boomerang).

Reading this again leads me to feel that most of the fiction I read these days is trash of lower quality. I honestly think the novels of Jin Yong are more likely to be widely read classics 500 years in the future than any English language novels from the 20th century – yes, ANY of them. When I was reading the novel, I generally was not thinking ‘so this is the novel in English’ because I was swept up in the story all over again.

I’m not going to say ‘EVERYBODY, READ THIS NOVEL ALREADY!!!’ because some people aren’t interested in reading novels, and some people have specific issues (for example, someone who wants to avoid reading fiction with lots of violence will not want to read this book). However, if you generally like reading novels, and you do not have a particular reason to stay away from this novel, I highly recommend you take advantage of this English translation and read it (if you can read Chinese you’ve already read it of course, right, RIGHT?) After all, it is a novel which has been read by hundreds of millions, perhaps even a billion people. Aren’t you curious why this novel is so popular? (Caveat: this is only the first fourth of the novel, and does not showcase the novel at its best – it gets better deeper into the story. If I had read only this part of the novel, and not the full thing, I don’t know that the story would have left much of an impression on me).

Unfortunately, this English translation is not currently available through USA book distributors. That means that people in the USA have to get it by a) buying from Amazon or b) buying from the UK (and paying international shipping) or c) buying from one of the very few bookstores in the USA which deals with UK book distributors (and paying domestic shipping). I went with option (c) (via the website Abebooks) because I try to avoid buying books from Amazon, but I have to admit that for readers in the USA, Amazon is by far the most practical option. It is also possible to suggest that libraries in the USA pick up this title, though since it is not available through USA book distributors, libraries in the USA may be reluctant to acquire it.

What Parts of Taipei Would I Put in a Story?

After writing the previous post, I started wondering what parts of Taipei I would put in a fictional story. First of all, it would depend on what the story required. But beyond whatever the story demanded, what would I show in a story to make it feel like it was in Taipei?

This has everything to do with my personal experience of Taipei, and is by no means a universal perspective. That said, if I were to write a fictional story set in Taipei, these are things which would be very likely to appear.

1) Taipei Main Station. As far as I’m concerned, this is the center of Taipei. As soon as I arrived in Taiwan and escaped from immigration/customs, the very first thing I did was board a bus going to Taipei Main Station. When I lived in Taipei for a few months, I lived in a place which was just a few minutes walk from the train station. I spent a lot, a lot, a lot of time walking around the train station and all of the underground arcades which connect to the station. And when I was living in Taoyuan (which was most of the time I lived in Taiwan) Taipei Main Station was my link between Taoyuan and almost anywhere in Taipei (except on the rare occasion I went to Songshan station instead).

2) Japanese-Colonial Architecture. That building I lived in during the brief time I lived in Taipei was clearly built during Japanese rule. Most of the buildings with the most interesting architecture in Taipei were also built during the era of Japanese rule. I would probably want to incorporate these buildings into a fictional story.

3) The rivers. Since I had never lived in a river city before, I was impressed with all of the rivers in Taipei, and I think that would come through in a story.

4) The Legislative Yuan. I grew up over a thousand miles away from the capital of my country, which I have never visited (in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been within 500 miles of Washington D.C.) Thus I’m used to thinking of the national government as being in a Really Far Away Place. So it was a bit of a shock when I realized that the Legislative Yuan, which is Taiwan’s equivalent of Congress, was less than a twenty-minute walk away from where I lived in Taipei. It was the kind of place where I could pass by while going about my day-to-day life! (I cannot imagine casually walking past Congress during my everyday routine). Even when I lived in Taoyuan, I sometimes had to visit the National Police Agency, which is right next to the Legislative Yuan. And I saw a bit of the Sunflower Protests, when the Legislative Yuan was shut down because the protesters literally did not let people enter the building.

5) Finding Things. I sometimes wanted/needed things which I could not find in Taoyuan, so I would look for them in Taipei. For example, I could not get women’s dress shoes which fit my feet in Taoyuan – I had to go to a store in Taipei which specializes in shoes for women with big feet. There was also something which I looked for in Japan for over a month, and not only could I not find it in any stores in Japan, not even in Fukuoka or Osaka (I did not go to Tokyo), the Japanese people I talked to had no clue where I could find that item. When I went back to Taipei for a visit (before I went back to Japan for more travel) I was able to find that item very quickly (probably because I am a lot more savvy about Taipei than any Japanese city) (I also have a pretty good idea of where I could find that item for sale in San Francisco the next time I need a replacement). Thus, to a large extent, I think of Taipei as the Place Where I Get Things I Cannot Get Elsewhere.

6) The street address system. Shortly before I moved to Taiwan, a Taiwanese-American neighbor tried to explain the street address system, and I totally did not understand it. It was only after I was in Taipei for about a week that it finally clicked. And once I understood it, I thought it was totally cool that Taiwan has a different street addressing system than the United States (and unlike the Japanese street addressing system, the Taiwanese street addressing system actually is consistent and logical). Taoyuan has a simpler street layout than Taipei, so Taipei is definitely a better place to appreciate the Taiwanese street address system.

7) Maokong. Yes, this is a touristy part of Taipei, but it is one of my favorite touristy parts of Taipei, one I returned to again and again, and it is one which draws more local tourists than international tourists. And some of the best tea in the world is grown there, right there within Taipei city limits. Isn’t that cool?

8) The neighborhood with all the used bookstores. There is an area near National Taiwan University which has a lot of used bookstores. I have many happy memories of walking through this area, going from used bookstore to used bookstore, looking for gems (mostly wuxia novels). This area also had a lot of posters which gave me a clue about what was going on with Taipei’s cultural/intellectual life, even though, as a resident of Taoyuan who had to live by train schedules, I was not able to take full advantage of it.

9) Songshan Airport. Most airports are on the outskirts of cities, or way outside the city. Not Songshan. It is not in the center of the Taipei basin, but it is surprisingly close. I generally do not care for air travel, but one of the exceptions is flying in or out of Songshan airport. You can really see how Taipei is a dense built-up metropolis in a bowl, with a ring of green mountains serving as the lip of the bowl. As the aircraft approaches Taipei, all of the buildings become closer and closer, and more and more landmarks become identifiable. And then the aircraft plunges straight down into the heart of the city with two million residents (yep, Taipei has a bigger population than any city in the United States except New York and Los Angeles). (I suspect that San Jose airport may be similar since it is close to downtown San Jose, but since I have never flown into/out of San Jose, I’m not sure). You can see what it looks like in this video.

So there you have it. I probably will never write a fictional story set in Taipei, but this gives you all an idea of which impressions of Taipei have stayed with me all of these years.