AAWFC 2017: Musings on “Ace Representation in General”

This is for Asexual Awareness Week Fandom Challenge 2017 (even though I am not on Tumblr – if you are on Tumblr, feel free to share a link to this post under the #AAWFC tag).

Sat 28th, Day 7: Post about asexual representation in general. What does it mean to see asexual/spectrum characters in the media you consume? Why is it important to you to see asexual/spectrum characters in the media you consume? What sort of stories/plotlines would you like to see about asexual/spectrum characters? What genre do you really want to see asexual/spectrum characters in? How would you like to see asexual/spectrum people represented?

Such a simple set of easy-to-answer questions, isn’t it? I don’t think I could give a full answer to this prompt in a single blog post, so I’m only going to answer the parts I want to answer right now.

For some reason, the vast majority of human beings want to see themselves in others. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s simply a trait we have because we evolved to be a social species who tends not to survive individually if we do not belong to a group of humans. Anyway, that is how almost all of us are.

I am no exception. I like being able to recognize myself in the fiction I read (or watch, but I read more than I watch). For example, I generally think it’s cool to see characters in fiction who grew up in San Francisco (unless it’s obvious that the writer did not do their research on San Francisco). Do I crave more of this? Maybe a little. Narratives about San Francisco tend to be dominated by people who moved to San Francisco, which is a bit different from being from San Francisco (though YA set in San Francisco does tend to focus on characters raised in San Francisco). But finding stories about people from San Francisco is a very low priority for me.

However, even though many people react like I’m some rare species of bird they were lucky enough to encounter in the wild when they find out I am from San Francisco, there is a general awareness that some people do grow up in San Francisco. There is no need to have a ‘People Who Come from San Francisco Awareness Week.’

Perhaps I want to see aces represented in fiction because that is an aspect of who I am who which I do not see in stories as often as I would like.

Except … in the past year, I HAVE read a lot of stories with ace characters. I don’t think I would want to read more stories with ace characters per month than I have. The thing is a) I had to specifically seek ace stories to pull that off and b) many of those stories would have had little interest for me without the ace character and c) many of those stories do not have ace representation which satisfies me. Obviously, I want more.

It would take a lot of words for me to say what kinds of stories/plotlines I would like for ace characters, so instead I will point out this old post and list the ace tropes which I particularly like and wish to see more often in fiction: The Ace Group, Not Having Words, Ace/Ace Romance, and When Do I Tell Them I’m Ace. One could also look at the ace fanfic (even though there are problems with the ace fanfic I’ve written, they do represent a lot of the things I want to see in ace fiction).

What genre do I really want to see ace characters in? I want ace representation in all genres because readers of all tastes could benefit from being exposed … blah blah blah, that’s all true, but who am I kidding, I especially want to see ace (and aro!) characters in the wuxia genre, which I’m sure is no surprise to anyone who follows this blog. I do not think it is a coincidence that I headcanon some wuxia characters as being ace but I currently do not have ace headcanons in any other genre.

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In the Western Land of Disaster

A wildfire blasted through the city of Santa Rosa faster than most people can believe. We can smell the smoke here in San Francisco, where the air quality has often become unhealthy in the past week and a half (note: air pollution this bad is very rare for San Francisco). My in-laws in Santa Rosa are safe and their homes are intact, but many are not so lucky.

(I have yet to hear about my in-laws in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria, though we would probably know by now if they were dead or seriously injured. I know they are patriotic, pro-independence Puerto Ricans, but I wonder if life has become so rough in Puerto Rico that they will decide to leave).

One of the most shocking aspects of this fire is that it has devastated a city, not just some rural area in the hills (of course, the rural people in the hills feel like the rest of California does not get a shit about them when they lose their homes – or at least, my cousin who lost a home to a wildfire about ten years ago feels that way). About a hundred years ago, large fires in USA cities were common – just about every major USA city which has been a major city for at least a hundred years has been destroyed by fire at some point. However, we have begun to feel that we are ‘safe’ in cities, and the Santa Rosa fire shows us that we are not.

Climate change is most likely increased the odds of a disaster like this, but it could have happened even without climate change. There was the 1964 Henley Fire which was smaller, but one of the reasons it did less damage to homes (and killed no people) was that the population of the Santa Rosa area was much smaller in 1964 than today. My mother is of the opinion that homes should not be rebuilt in wildfire zones, but that raises the question of where the people who live in wildfire zones should go, especially considering the high cost of housing in California.

However, there are people who say that, due to climate change, it is the individual’s best interests to leave the west coast of North America because the American West is going to burn. Indeed, when my mother talks about why some particular place is not a good place to live, she becomes defensive about her choice to set her roots in San Francisco. Since I already have roots here, I feel it makes sense for me to stay, but if I did not have any existing ties to San Francisco, I probably would not choose it as my residence. Everywhere is going to have problems because of climate change, but if I was thinking about moving to a place which would have the least bad impact from climate change in North America, I would probably look to the Great Lakes region.

As I am writing this post, the air quality is still unhealthy. It reminds me of how the wildfires were messing with the air quality in the Pacific Northwest this summer. As I was in smoky Vancouver, I was thinking about how the air would be clean in San Francisco, and how odd it was that Washington and Oregon were having much more severe wildfire problems than California. I guessed I called that one too early.

Leading the Ace Walks

This is for the July 2017 Carnival of Aces: “Ace-ing It Up Offline”

For a few months I led a monthly ‘Ace Walks…’ event through my local ace meetup group.

Why?

Oh, there were various reasons. First of all, at that time, I wanted more frequent offline ace meetups. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the way the local meetup group has worked for a long time is that there is a three month cycle – one month in Berkeley, next month in San Francisco, following month in the South Bay, repeat. I go to most (though not all) of the San Francisco and Berkeley meetups, but I have never been to the South Bay meetup because it’s not worth it for me to take the train down there (this is ironic, because I was living in the South Bay for part of the period of time I was figuring out whether or not I was ace).

Furthermore, the Bay Area ace meetups tend to center around the East Bay. That’s because the main organizers live in the East Bay, and the East Bay has more than 3x the population of San Francisco (even if you combine San Francisco and San Mateo County, there are a lot more people in the East Bay), so it is very probable that there are more aces in the East Bay than in San Francisco. However, those of us in San Francisco would prefer to have more meetups over here. I knew that some of the aces living in the East Bay did not know parts of San Francisco away from the downtown BART stations very well, so I wanted to share my city with them.

Another reason is that the regular meetups tend to happen in caf├ęs and casual eateries, where one is generally obligated to buy something from the business providing the meeting space. This is fine, but I wanted the option of meetups which did not require people to spend money at the venue (people still have to spend money on transit, but they have to spend money on transit anyway). And even aside from the (non)commercial aspect, I just wanted a wider variety of ace social activities.

Yet another reason is that I was doing it at a time when I was immersing myself in San Francisco history and going on a lot of City Guides walks (BTW, if you visit San Francisco, and you enjoy exploring city streets, I recommend taking at least one City Guides walk – if you have trouble moving up and down slopes, I recommend the “Historic Market Street: Path Of Gold” tour because it’s one of the flattest of the regular tours). For example, I led a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge shortly after reading a book about the history of the Golden Gate Bridge, so I was able to pepper the group with trivia (such as the three times the Golden Gate Bridge was almost destroyed – the most ridiculous near-destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge was during the 50th anniversary celebration when so many people packed the bridge that they could not move and the bridge flattened out, and if the weight capacity had not been increased by retrofits in 1986, the weight of all of those people would have broken the bridge).

What happened?

I ended up leading about 5 walks (I don’t remember the exact number). Unsurprisingly, aces who live in San Francisco were more likely to show up than anyone else. Sometimes a lot of people showed up, and one time, only one other person showed up.

Incidently, my blog post “The Fake Ruin, the Real Ruin, and the Ruin in Waiting” was inspired by the Ace Walks (though it was inspired by the places we walked through, not by the aces themselves).

Looking back, I have really fond memories of the experience. I’m not sure how other participants felt.

Why did it stop?

Well, the proximate reason I stopped leading them is that I started travelling more, which meant that I was not necessarily in San Francisco every month, and planning my own travels made me less incline to plan walks (for example, this post is scheduled to go up almost exactly around the time I plan to depart for this trip). And nobody else proposed their own Ace Walks. And once I fell out of the habit…

Also, I am not as intensely interested in increasing the frequency of local ace meetups as I was before. I’m not sure why.

I think it’s be nice to have the Ace Walks continue, though at this point, I think I would prefer it if someone else led them. However, maybe I’ll get around to leading some more at some point (I’m more likely to do this if aces in the Bay Area nudge me to do it).

Apparently, Speaking Chinese in the San Francisco Surprises People Less than Speaking Chinese in Taiwan

In Taiwan, whenever I opened my mouth around strangers and started speaking in Chinese, people would be shocked. Not always, but often. This was even true if I was in some remote part of Taiwan where few foreigners ventured and practically nobody spoke English.

Furthermore, when I walked into bookstores in Taiwan, people would often be amazed that I can read Chinese. On the contrary, the few times I have entered Chinese bookstores in San Francisco, nobody raised an eyebrow.

This struck me as odd. Sure, it is not unreasonable to presume that a random white person wandering around Taipei cannot speak Chinese. My experience is that most random white people wandering around Taipei cannot speak Chinese. But in remote parts of Taiwan which aren’t touristy, or even smalller cities like Changhua and Pingdong, any white people who are wandering around likely can speak some Chinese. And even in Taipei … is it so shocking that somebody who is in Asia can speak an Asian language??!!!

Now, I’m living in San Francisco. The overwhelming majority of white people here cannot speak Chinese. In fact, the percentage of white people in San Francisco who can speak Chinese is several order of magnitudes lower than the percentage of white people in Taiwan who can speak Chinese. Yet when I open my mouth and speak Mandarin here, it surprises native Chinese speakers a lot less than it surprises native Chinese speakers in Taiwan.

What gives?

I don’t know why this is. But I can speculate. First of all, Taiwanese people have told me that language is in the blood, and that Taiwanese people can speak Chinese well because of their ancestry, just as I can speak English well because of my ancestry (of course, only a minority of my ancestors came from the British Isles, and most of those ancestors were Scots-Irish rather than English, but Taiwanese people generally do not think about such things). These people believed that a) because the do not have white ancestry, they could not become fluent in English and b) because I do not have Chinese ancestry, I cannot learn how to speak Chinese. This is an extreme version of a common sentiment in Taiwan that non-Asians simply cannot understand Taiwanese/Asian culture, or hope to become fluent in Chinese. Hence the surprise when someone like me can carry a conversation in Chinese.

Native Chinese speakers who are in San Francisco are much less likely to entertain such notions. They generally have a much more nuanced view of white people, and are more aware that it is possible for people to learn additional languages. Though Taiwan itself is a multicultural society, it is not as diversely multicultural as San Francisco. In short, native Chinese speakers have a better understanding of what actually happens when very different cultures interact.

I Gathered, Cooked, and Ate Acorns (Part 2)

579px-Cloacorne

Part 1 is here.

So, what did I get out of this labor-intensive exercise of gathering and preparing acorns for consumption?

Well, first of all, it made me look at my surroundings in ways I had not before. Even though I grew up around oak trees … I never even really thought about the fact that they were oak trees, let alone try to observe them. However, once I got it into my head that maybe I should try gathering acorns, I started paying way more attention to the oak trees which have been there since before I was born (actually, they may have been there since before my grandparents were born). I finally made seemingly obvious connections such as, hey, this is a major food source for the local squirrels and scrub jays. In fact, as I was watching the acorns ripen, I felt a bit of competitive heat with the squirrels and scrub jays – I was concerned they would take all of the good acorns before I could (as it so happens, there are plenty of acorns for everybody).

I also looked out for oak trees wherever I went during the acorn season. I noticed that acorns in Santa Cruz and Niles Canyon were ripening faster than in San Francisco, which is why my first harvest was from Niles Canyon. I noticed there were two species of oak trees in Niles Canyon, but only one was producing acorns – I don’t know whether I was simply out of season for the other species of oak tree, or whether the climate in Niles Canyon simply is not right for acorn production in the other species (which makes one wonder how it could reproduce in the canyon).

Furthermore, many of the acorns from Niles Canyon had been infested with acorn grubs (larvae of a beetle which feeds on acorns), whereas I have yet to find any signs of acorn grubs in the San Francisco acorns. Granted, I won’t know for sure until I start shelling the San Francisco acorns, but it is interesting that the San Francisco acorns both ripen later and seem to be less (or not at all) afflicted with acorn grubs.

"Quercus agrifolia acorns Mount Diablo" by John Morgan from Walnut Creek, CA, USA - Acorns. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Quercus agrifolia acorns Mount Diablo” by John Morgan from Walnut Creek, CA, USA – Acorns. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

At first, I had hopeful notions that I could turn this into a real source of food. Some approaches to living in harmony with our ecology (for example, permaculture) strongly encourage getting food from trees since trees contribute more to the ecological system than, say, cereal grains, tree-agriculture does not require tilling the soil, etc. And as it so happens, some of the best examples of societies which managed to sustain itself for 10,000+ years without agriculture at relatively high population densities by getting much of their food from trees are … the indigenous societies of California, who had lived right here in what is now the San Francisco Bay Area.

California, as you may know, is going through a major drought, and for some reason commercial nut trees (such as almonds) require a lot of water. However, these oak trees are doing okay and producing acorns without irrigation – in fact, oaks are so common in California partially because they are drought-tolerant. A number of people who are looking for ways to get food in ways which do minimal harm to the environment have been paying attention to acorns … and I wanted to see how practical it would be for myself.

Well, given the way our economy is currently set up, DIY acorn gathering does not make a ton of sense. It simply takes too much labor to shell and leech the acorns. Granted, there are machines which could do the shelling for me … if I were will to invest a few hundred dollars, which I am not. Leeching is actually not so much of a labor issue – for example, one trick used by modern-day indigenous people is to store acorns in toilet tanks and let the leeching happen automatically every time the toilet is flushed – but it just takes a lot of time/water to do it, and if you want to preserve the oil/starches, it gets more complicated.

Of course, it only seems like a lot of water because I got to observe all of the water used in the process. Considering that the oak trees don’t need any irrigation, producing edible acorns actually requires less water than producing edible almonds.

However, 400 years ago, people in the San Francisco Bay Area would not have needed money, nor would they have had ‘jobs’. They would have had plenty of time to do the gathering, grinding, leeching, and cooking, especially since they did not need to expend any labor to care for the oak trees themselves. And it was a social activity for them – I know shelling acorns would be more fun if I could chat with people I liked while I did it.

"Quercus agrifolia 2" by Franz Xaver - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Quercus agrifolia 2” by Franz XaverOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It feels satisfying to have participated physically in activities in some ways like the activities of those people from that older economy. It also feels satisfying to participate in the processing of my food from when it comes from the plant to when it appears in my mouth – and experience I have up to now only had with fruits and vegetables.

Maybe I’ll get better at processing acorns, or at least find less labor-intensive ways to do it, in which case it may become a semi-regular part of my diet. But even if it doesn’t happen, it was definitely an educational experience.

I Gathered, Cooked, and Ate Acorns (Part 1)

Shelled acorns, sitting in a jar of water.

Shelled acorns, sitting in a jar of water.

Ever since I was a young child, I knew that the indigenous people of northern California ate acorns from oak trees as their staple food. Acorns are high in fat, protein, and starch, and oak trees take care of themselves, so the indigenous people did not need agriculture to have a steady, reliable source of food.

As it so happens, I live near groves of native oak trees, yet it was only last year that it occurred to me that I could also gather acorns and eat them.

Once the notion got into my head, I started paying a lot more attention to oak trees than I ever had before.

Last October, I visited Niles Canyon. I noticed that, whereas the acorns in San Francisco were still immature, there were already plenty of ripe acorns in the canyon. Impatient as I was, I decided to gather lots of acorns in the canyon.

Under a big blue sky, we see hills covered with yellow dead grass with splotches of green trees on them, and a road winds around the hills in the bottom right

Niles Canyon – the landscape practically screams ‘California’

I had acorns, great!

Then I had to shell them and remove the tests. That was time-consuming, not in the least because acorn shells are soft … rather than cracking them off, it was more a matter of peeling them off. At least it’s a relaxing, not-mentally-challenging activity, so eventually I got a bunch of shelled acorns.

Now here is the real rub with eating acorns … they are high in tannic acid. Humans can tolerate tannic acid in very low quantities (indeed, a number of foods do have low levels of tannic acid), but acorns have way more tannic acid than humans can tolerate. On top of that, tannic acid tastes very bitter. The tannic acid needs to be leeched out.

“The Best Way to Make Acorn Flour” and “Acorns, the Inside Story” were my main guides for DIY acorn preparation. As recommended, I blended the acorns with water, made a slurry, and tried to change the water until the tannins were (almost) all out. However, I did not find their methods for changing the water entirely practical, so I ended up doing my own improvisations, such as using a baster to extract the tannic water.

Here is the acorn-water slurry.  The tannic water (brown) is at the top, with a light layer of starch, with a (slightly darker) layer of acorn meal below the starchy layer.

Here is the acorn-water slurry. The tannic water (brown) is at the top, with a light layer of starch, with a (slightly darker) layer of acorn meal below the starchy layer.

My first attempt … I thought I had leeched out the tannins, since I couldn’t taste it in the water, but I did not taste the acorn meal itself … uh uh. The results were inedible.

I tried again. I kept on changing the water again and again and again … and it just seemed to go on forever. Eventually, I was not sure whether there were tannins left in the meal or not, but what the heck, I was tired of changing the water so much.

The acorn meal, straight out of the jar.

The acorn meal, straight out of the jar.

After pouring out the acorn meal, I used a flour sack towel to squeeze out all of the water I could.

This is what it looked like after I squeezed out the water

This is what it looked like after I squeezed out the water

I then put it in a pot, added fresh water, and cooked it as a porridge. The results … there was still a faint tannic taste, but all I had to do was add a dash of cinnamon, and then I could not taste the tannins at all. It probably was no more tannins than are in foods such as walnuts (indeed, the tannic taste made me think of walnuts), so I figured it was not a health risk.

In my next attempt, I tried a different leeching method – I used whole acorns rather than blended acorn/water slurry, and rather than just using fresh water, I used a mix of water and baking soda. After a couple weeks I was getting impatient, so I tried the hot water method – boiling the tannins out of the acorns, and changing the tannic water with non-tannic hot water about every 15 minutes. A few hours later, I had boiled acorns with the tannins mostly removed (they could still be tasted, but not so much more than walnuts, so I figured it was safe). I then roasted the acorns, which made them a little firmer, but they were still fairly soft.

In addition to the acorns from Niles Canyon, I have also gathered acorns from San Francisco, so eventually I intend to shelling, leeching, cooking, and eating them as well. Hopefully I’ll get better at this process.

So, aside from edible acorns, what did I get out of all of this effort? That is a question I will answer in Part 2.

The Fake Ruin, the Real Ruin, and the Ruin in Waiting

"Palace of Fine Arts SF CA" by Kevin Cole (en:User:Kevinlcole) - originally posted to Flickr as Palace of Fine Arts. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

Palace of Fine Arts SF CA” by Kevin Cole (en:User:Kevinlcole) – originally posted to Flickr as Palace of Fine Arts. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

Recently, I have visited three places in San Francisco which are geographically close to each other, and together, make a statement about the temporary nature of everything people build, and how deal with it.

The Golden Gate Bridge, as seen from Marin County

The Golden Gate Bridge, as seen from Marin County

The first one I visited (recently) was the Golden Gate Bridge, shortly after reading Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge. As the title implies, the writer is a big fan of the Golden Gate Bridge, and goes on at length about how awesome the bridge is. However, he is also a historian, and he knows that all great monuments are destined to become ruins. The Golden Gate Bridge narrowly avoided destruction a couple times already, is in a major earthquake zone, and requires high levels of uninterrupted maintenance to remain structurally sound. The writer of the book admits that the Golden Gate Bridge will last at most a few centuries. In other words, the Golden Gate Bridge is mortal. The writer finds this romantic – he imagines how future generations may marvel at the ruins of the Golden Gate Bridge, wondering how the bridge was during its era of glory.

Sutro Baths in 1894.

Sutro Baths in 1894.

Meanwhile, that future can already be found at Sutro Baths, which is near the Golden Gate Bridge. It was once the largest indoor swimming pool in the world, and for over seventy years it was the largest glass structure in San Francisco, as well as one of the city’s icons. However, over the decades it fell into decline, starting with financial problems, which led to the building being neglected, then abandoned, and in the 1960s, destroyed.

Sutro Baths, as I saw it in January 2016

Sutro Baths, as I saw in in January 2016

Today, Sutro Baths is San Francisco’s greatest ruin, and is popular with sightseers. As a child, I believed it was the ruins of an ancient Roman bathhouse (I did not understand at the time that the Roman empire had been on an entirely different continent). During my recent visit, some children passed by and one said that it was a ruin of the Aztec empire. The ruins deteriorate every year, and as time goes by, the remains of the baths will erode and become unrecognizable.

Sutro Baths, also as I saw it in January 2016

Sutro Baths, also as I saw it in January 2016

The Golden Gate Bridge is almost as old as Sutro Baths was when the building was destroyed, but I expect it will have many more decades of service. However, some day, one way or another, the Golden Gate will meet the same fate as Sutro Baths, and be a even more spectacular ruin until the forces of wipe the traces of its existence off the face of the earth.

"Palace of Fine Arts and the Lagoon" by Edwin Deakin

“Palace of Fine Arts and the Lagoon” by Edwin Deakin

Within walking distance of the Golden Gate Bridge is the Palace of Fine Arts. As a young child, I was convinced that the palace was an ancient Greek ruin, just as I had once believed that Sutro Baths were the ruins of ancient Roman baths. When my parents told me that it was not, that the Palace of Fine Arts had been built in 1915, I did not believe them. It looked just like the pictures from books about ancient Greece and Rome! Of course, it was no accident that it looked like a Classical Greco-Roman building. It was built as part of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE), and is the one building from that world’s fair which still stands today in its original location.

2015 was the 100 year anniversary of the PPIE, and I attended one of the events celebrating the anniversary – specifically, a lecture about the closing of the fair. Even while the fair was open, a movement arose to preserve the Palace of Fine Arts, and it is thanks to those ordinary people that the Palace of Fine Arts has been preserved until the present day. There were people who wanted then entire fair, not just the Palace of Fine Arts, to be preserved, but it was impractical. The PPIE was built with the intention of being temporary, and it had been built accordingly.

Many people came to the closing of the PPIE, and there was much sadness as a source of much pride and joy in San Francisco came to the end. However, as the lecturer pointed out, the end of the PPIE was a planned end. The people of San Francisco had a chance to say good-bye, and it was dismantled in an organized fashion, not in the midst of a traumatic crisis. 1915 was less than ten years after the 1906 earthquake and fire which had destroyed much of San Francisco, and the lecturer claimed that taking down the PPIE on their terms and not the terms of a disaster helped the people of San Francisco heal a bit more from the trauma of 1906.

And a hundred years later, the Palace of Fine Arts still stands, having outlasted Sutro Baths and lasting long enough to co-exist with the Golden Gate Bridge. Heck, it is also a physical mark that, over a thousand years after the fall of ancient Rome, bits of ancient Greek and Roman culture continue to be part of the lives of the living, and is a promising sign that bits of our own civilization may continue to be with the living long after our own fall.

The Golden Gate Bridge is illuminated with the glow of the sunset

The Golden Gate Bridge, as seen from Land’s End (San Francisco)

Life is fleeting, and everything humans build is also fleeting. It is better to accept that, as the people accepted the mortal nature of the PPIE while they held onto the Palace of Fine Arts and celebrated the hundred-year anniversary in 2015. People also accept the fall of Sutro Baths, for most visitors would rather leave the ruins as they are rather than try to reconstruct the baths. In the present state of Sutro Baths I see the future of the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet planning for the inevitable decline and fall can greatly reduce the pain. And maybe the best of what our present civilization has to offer can be preserved far beyond its probable lifetime, just as the Palace of Fine Arts outlasted the PPIE by a hundred years and counting.