Thursday, September 29, 2016

Scripture & Lyrics

"Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have."                  -1 Corinthians 4:18-19 (NIV)

"Well run up when you see me then, we gon' see." -Drake

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Things People Give Me #28

For various reasons I haven't gone into the specifics of where I work or what I do, but basically I work in recruiting. Technically I'm not a recruiter, but rather I gather all the information that the recruiters whom I'm paired with need in order to do what they do.

Our team is split between the Americas team/company headquarters here in the states, the Asia team (with members based in the Bay Area, China and Hongkong), and the Europe/Africa/Middle East team (with members based in England and Paris). This past week the head recruiter for Asia, the head recruiter for Europe, and the boss of the entire worldwide recruiting team paid a week-long visit to HQ to touch base with everyone here, get acquainted with employees they hadn't met in person yet, and of course, work.

Well one morning, our collective boss went around to all the members of the recruiting team to give each of us a golden starfish paperweight, carefully wrapped in tissue and marked with a glittery tag that read, "[Name of person] - Star Recruiter".

Now, when it comes to work I am very serious. Even if, for instance, I don't care very much about what I'm doing, if that's the task that I have to do, and I've got no where else to be but this cubicle for the next eight hours, then that's what I concentrate on to make the day go by. I do not come to socialize or make friends, I come to sit down, get things done and leave. I am by no means anti-social. But I like to be able to focus, and idle fraternizing is not conducive to my particular stye of productivity.

The only thing is, holed up in my cubby with that mindset, I sometimes forget the environment I'm in and it slips my mind that the company culture is actually considerably open, friendly, and collaborative. On the recruiting team especially, people usually make a point of thanking each other for their contributions and making sure that their fellows feel appreciated. I should not have been surprised that our collective boss has a similarly generous character, and she even came bearing gifts.

Thanks, Renn! It was nice to finally meet you in person.

BOOKS! (Queen Sugar)

Almost didn't buy this book because I thought it'd be boring (I need to stop doing this to myself!). So a black woman takes over the cane farm that her father bequeathed to her in Louisiana, and it's hard because she's working in a white man's industry in a white man's state in a white man's country in an increasingly whitewashed world. Okay, and? Such is life. But oh. My dear queen with a gift for description, Natalie Baszile, please forgive me for doubting you! The week before the TV adaptation 'Queen Sugar' premiered on OWN, I became determined to read the book first and foremost. Now that I've read it I'm not as interested in watching the show just yet (numerous creative deviations from the book being the main reason; I'll probably wait until the season is over and watch it all in one sitting). And since most people seem to be more familiar with the show anyway, I figure for now I'll focus on appreciating the source.

Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile

The Bordelon family is a Louisiana-based clan whose members yearn for forgiveness and second chances. Main character Charlotte "Charley" Bordelon, a widow and Los Angeles native, is drawn back to her family's hometown of Josephine following the death of her father and with her grandmother Miss Honey's prompting to come on home. She brings her preteen daughter Micah in tow, who was previously injured in an accident due to Charley's temporary grief-induced negligence. Rather than reconnecting with her roots, however, Charley's decision to move is primarily due to inheritance; her father Ernest bought the 800-acre sugar that he'd previously worked as a young boy, and left it to Charley in his will. She has the next ten months to produce crop, or else lose the land and face a mountain of debt.

Embarrassingly inexperienced, starting late in the game, shunned by some locals, and patronized and taunted by her white male competitors, Charley is nevertheless able to find a willing field manager and eventually amass a small staff of laborers to get her crop going. But farming is not only an art, it's a 24-hour job, and when she's not contending with scarce equipment, scarcer funds, rains, hurricanes, and bug infestations on the farm, she faces another host of large and small dramas at home. Micah is entering that age where she's increasingly insecure about herself and combative with Charley, and while Miss Honey and auntie Violet offer home and a sense of security, Miss Honey relentlessly insists that Charley let her estranged older half-brother Ralph Angel in on the farm work, if not also his share of the profits (never mind that their father left the farm solely to Charley, and she's the only one authorized to own or profit from it). Brother arrives from Arizona a while after sister arrives from California, and while they try to keep it civil at first, the tension between them will not be ignored.

Ralph Angel is the child of Ernest and his high school sweetheart, who never married. Ernest left for California in search of a better life, and while they tried their best to co-parent, Ralph Angel's mother bore most of the responsibility. Like his sister, Ralph Angel is also a single parent who recently lost his spouse, and he struggles with poverty and a drug addiction to make the best life he can for his his son, Blue. As the main character Charley carries the story well, but dare I say it, Ralph Angel is the more interesting of the two siblings. He is a truly tragic character who ultimately never finds peace. He actually believes that because of his past and who he is as a person, he is unworthy of grace (which is kind of how grace works anyway, a gift that's undeserved by the receiver, but I digress). Ralph Angel is a grown man with severe abandonment issues due to his father seemingly choosing his second family (especially Charley) over him, insecurity expressed through obtuse pride and a fiercely aggressive desire to be acknowledged, and an addiction to the same drugs that claimed his late wife's life. He yearns for a new start, he yearns for something to stick, he yearns for acceptance and understanding, he yearns for something to truly call his own. But every time he tries to make a positive change in his life or commit to something productive, he manages to ruin it nearly as soon as it starts.

Later in the novel I was also greatly impressed by Miss Honey, whose character is brilliantly written. You are almost deceived into pegging her for little more than that stubborn matriarch who loves hard and never lets anyone starve, that praying grandmother that every black family seems to have or remembers having. And she's all of those things. But she's also incredibly flawed, and so blinded by her own guilt for having caused Ralph Angel to grow up nearly fatherless, her denial, and her commitment to "family first" that she coddles Ralph Angel until he's past the point of no return. I'm not sure if Natalie Baszile planned it, but the way Miss Honey protects and makes excuses for Ralph Angel is reminiscent of the ways in which many black and brown cultures can make absurd exceptions for their boys and men, not only to a fault, but to nearly everyone else in the family's expense. And yet, as much as Baszile doesn't let up on how wrong Ralph Angel is, as the author she loves on him almost as hard as Miss Honey does. Baszile makes us want to like him and root for him, if he'd only let us. He is broken and desperate and impulsive and spiteful and afraid and tired and angry, but he's not beyond grace. Unfortunately that's a lesson that he never allows himself to learn.

As mentioned before, if nothing else, Natalie Baszile has an incredible gift for describing not only of sights, sounds and tastes, but also the sensations that they arouse. She makes you visualize stalks of sugar cane, smell the various stages of a southern Louisiana summer, feel Ralph's rush of panic when he feels pushed to the limit, become burdened with Charley's fatigue and desperation trying to make both her farm and family life a success. She even manages to make gardening sound provocative, with musings on flowers blooming and cane harvesting used as foreplay to one of Queen Sugar's few sex scenes. I usually skim past long descriptive passages, but with this novel that was not the case. If you enjoy underdog stories, delving into family drama and personal demons, or have even the slightest smidgen of interest in life and terrain in rural Louisiana, chose Queen Sugar. It will surprise you, bewilder you, pierce you like only kin can, and then welcome you home.

Favorite quotes:
"Tears stung Charley's eyes as she bathed in the fading glow of Violet's voice. She could soak up Violet's warmth for a lifetime. She was the buttermilk pancakes to Violet's maple syrup, the white bread to Violet's bacon grease, and if she had a thousand more awful days like she'd had today, at least she had Violet to balance things out" (68). 

"Please God, protect my family. Leave something behind on the farm so I'm not completely ruined. Let me have one chance to see what I can do before you take it all away" (252).

Thursday, September 15, 2016

BOOKS! (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian)

Another borrowed book! This is the other one that my friend let me temporarily swipe from her bookshelf, in addition to The Secrets of Mariko. I hadn't realized that this semi-autobiographical, National Book Award-winning novel was YA literature until I started reading it, which gave me pause at first. (I'm sure I've explained this before, but my reading level had always been advanced when I was a kid, and during my preteen years I decided that YA material was beneath me. I know, what a little elitist I was! Anyway, these days I don't have anything against it, but none of it has piqued my interest since then.) But I was so absorbed and impressed by this one that I opted to keep my friend's copy with all of my little notes in it and order a fresh one to return to her instead. Thanks again, Sharon!

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Known by his tribal members on "the rez" as Junior and by his white teachers and classmates as "Arnold" or "Arnie", Arnold Spirit Jr. is a 14-year-old boy who has lived his whole life on the Spokane Indian reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. (Note: I usually prefer to use the adjectives "Native", "Native American", or "Indigenous", but Junior refers to himself almost exclusively as Indian, so that's what I'll go with for the purpose of this review). From what he's seen and been told, life is pretty hopeless for him. On a personal level, he was born with "water on the brain", which left him vision-impaired and prone to seizures. He also stutters, has a lisp, and as a teenager he hasn't grown into his body yet. All of the above make him an easy target among his peers. On a societal level, he is approaching adolescence in a community composed of generation upon generation of people who are born and die without ever leaving the reservation. Which would not be so concerning if Spokane Indians had more options at their disposal, and if, perhaps, people not only remembered that Indians still exist but also cared what happens to them.

So off the bat, things aren't looking up for Junior. Thankfully he's found an outlet in drawing and writing, and uses these skills to make sense of his world and create other ones. Initially he starts high school on the rez like all the other kids, but stern encouragement from a teacher wracked with white guilt inspires him to seek better opportunities at Rearden, one of the best schools in the area. Not because Reardan is better just by virtue of being white, mind you, but because he knows that this is his only way out, and his potential might be squandered if he doesn't test himself in an environment apart from the rez.

Predictably, things get worse before they get better and Junior fields harassment and ridicule from both sides. As far as nearly everyone except his immediate family is concerned, he's a traitor for leaving the rez. And being the only Indian person in his entire school makes him an uncool outcast.  He's never uncertain about being an Indian person, but how Indian is he supposed to be at school? How much ignorance should he put up with there? How much should he tell them about his real life? How can he convince folks back on the rez that he's still one of them and has never thought of himself as better than anybody? When we meet Junior, he is only at the beginning of a lifelong balancing act that's common to many people of color in white or Euro-centric societies. Hence the "Part-Time Indian" in the title. While folks at the rez can't resist giving him a hard time, eventually he's able to set necessary boundaries with his classmates at Reardan and manages to make a few new friends.

Junior is resilient, but he is still young and he's only human. He gives readers a visitor's pass into his deepest thoughts, many of which have him contemplating the habits and norms of his community, and questioning why Indians keep getting pain, suffering and death relentlessly dumped on them. Occasionally he's at such a loss that he even writes questions like "Where is hope and who has it?" and wonders if his people are cursed. One such perceived curse is the sensitive issue of alcoholism, and much respect is due Sherman Alexie for the way he addresses it. While he doesn't entertain the drunk Indian stereotype, he does acknowledge the ramifications of alcoholism in Indian communities as Junior experiences them both directly and indirectly. For example, during his freshman year Junior loses three loved ones, all victims of alcohol-related incidents, all dead within months of each other. At the same time many of his relatives and neighbors who are still living (including his father), witness such tragedies and continue to drink, seeming to ignore the correlation. And so he both blames people for their recklessness but also understands why they turn to booze in the first place, having to face harsh daily realities of psychological and material hopelessnes.

I want to emphasize that with all of its tragic moments, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is actually a fantastic read.  I mean it's not all doom and gloom! There are powwows and basketball games, school dances and first love, a little bromance. There are dark jokes, silly jokes, existential "Who am I?" jokes, even some roasting. Alexie's voicing of Junior combined with Ellen Forney's illustrations harmoniously capture the kid's adolescent wisdom and self-deprecating humor, and Junior's matter-of-fact retelling (likely owing both to circumstance and personality) softens the blows of overwhelming confusion, humiliation, and disappointment in his young life. In a word, the novel is delightful, as contradictory as that may sound. If you're looking for an introduction to Native American literature that will be blunt without shredding your nerves and tearing your heart to pieces like The Round House will, read this. And then go read The Round House too!

Favorite quotes:
"Seriously, I know my mother and father had their dreams when they were kids. They dreamed about being something other than poor, but they never got the chance to be anything because nobody paid attention to their dreams... It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly... because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it" (11, 13). 

"No matter what else happened between my tribe and me, I would always love them for giving me peace on the day of my grandmother's funeral. Even Rowdy stood far away. He would always be my best friend, no matter how much he hated me" (160).

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Scripture & Lyrics

"neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." -Romans 8:39 (NIV)

"Ain't no mountain hiiiigh enough / Ain't no valley looooow enough / Ain't no rivah wiiiide enough / To keep me from gettin' to you babe" -Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

BOOKS! (The Secrets of Mariko)

This might be my first review of a book that I don't actually own. I'd found it while snooping through the bookshelves of my friend's closet during her housewarming party a few months ago, and before I could ask she told me I could borrow it. Thanks, Sharon!

The Secrets of Mariko: A Year in the Life of a Japanese Woman and Her Family  by Elisabeth Bumiller 

Tapping into what lies behind the image of the Japanese family is the main objective for Emily Bumiller in this biography. After living in Tokyo for a couple years due to her journalist husband's transfer there, and also having recognized how seldom she has had substantial and meaningful encounters with Japanese people in that time, the journalist and new mom seeks out a Japanese family to participate in this project. Through a series of connections she is introduced to Mariko, a "typical" Japanese housewife who, with the help of Bumiller's Japanese professional translator friend Sachiko, grants Bumiller astonishing access to her life for a year. From February 1991 through April 1992, Bumiller shadows Mariko, interviewing her, her immediate family, local school and community leaders, politicians, TV execs, entertainers, and even yakuzabasically anyone willing to add understanding and nuance to Bumiller's observations of Japanese people and their way of life. Rather than a mere biography, the end result is an exploration of Japanese society using Mariko's personal life as the gateway into the world that shapes her.

It is a little dry in the beginning, reading almost like a textbook with an ample dose of somewhat uninteresting "The Japanese do/don't do this" and "The Japanese do/don't do that" phrases. And granted, with the source material having been obtained in 1991 and 1992 and the book being published in 1995, much of its revelations are likely outdated. However, the book has a certain charm, a certain earnest desire for a foundational understanding of Japanese culture which, even 20 years later, makes it a useful starting point in university Japanese studies classes like the one my friend Sharon took. Plus, once the formalities are out of the way, the book actually becomes quite fascinating and even scandalous at certain moments.

For instance, I had read before about how anti-Japanese (and more broadly anti-Asian) sentiment was hot-blooded and prevalent here in the '90s, given the perceived "invasion" of Japanese automotive and electronic products posing a much-hyped threat to American industry. What I hadn't known, however, was that this enmity was aggravated by quite a few petty media-fueled scandals. A number of Japanese leaders received flack for publicly arguing or even suggesting that American workers were lazy because they didn't work as many hours and were not as self-neglectfully committed to their work as their Japanese counterparts, that as a result American products were of sub-par quality, that America couldn't dominate everything forever, and that Americans just needed to accept that it wasn't their time to shine anymore and shouldn't whine just because they'd been bested in something. Those last couple criticisms always made me cackle because, well, they're not entirely untrue. Such Japanese claims were certainly debatable and occasionally lacking sufficient evidence, but they sure made me laugh. And Americans at the time reacted... unsurprisingly. You'll see.

Going back to Mariko, it is both necessary and thoughtful that Bumiller gives space for her to examine her own position as a housewife. On the outside she seems average, but she's had a plethora of fascinating experiences and holds many unexpected ideas and desires. And quite frankly, though she knows that foreigners (and to a growing but lesser extent, Japanese people) regard Japanese housewives as downtrodden, she doesn't see herself that way. Mariko is overworked, without a doubt, but she actually believes that women are freer to have a life and personality than their husbands. Sure, her temperamental and whiny manchild of a husband (my words, not hers) undervalues her contributions and gets to tell her what to do, but he's nobody outside of his work. Whereas she can go on outings, have new experiences to meet new people, keep up hobbies and have personal aspirations, her husband's daily life and ambitions revolve around the company he works for. I'm not sure that I buy the argument that Japanese women altogether have more freedom than their husbands, but this is definitely a valuable perspective that I never would have considered on my own.

While I wouldn't say that The Secrets of Mariko is groundbreaking (perhaps it was at the time?), it is committed to developing as much of an unbiased and non-judgmental understanding of Japan as possible. I couldn't not give Elisabeth Bumiller her due credit for that. Whether you know and love a lot about Japan or are only vaguely interested, give this book a try. Even if only to say that you did, and that maybe you learned at least one new thing.

Favorite quotes:
" Iwao does admit that the relationship between a Japanese husband and wife is 'almost too distant,' but she then contrasts this with her observation that relationships between husbands and wives in the United States 'may be too close.' In her view, American couples invest too much in marriage, wanting to 'know and understand what the other is thinking, feeling, and doing all the time.' Such intimacy, she says, can breed tension, stress, and exhaustion... One married woman I know told me that Japanese women are stronger because they don't have to say 'I love you' to their husbands all the time" (217-18).

"When I heard that people thought I was part Korean or Ainu, I felt like they were looking down on me... It meant they didn't think of the Ainu or Koreans as human beings... I heard that people were criticizing my turban and the direct way I talk... The turban is an expression of my resistance [to] all the Japanese who try to be the same. Everybody has a television set and a family computer. Everybody sends kids to cram school. If yellow is in fashion, everybody wears yellow" (239).

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Love, Just Because.

Be sure to appreciate people who love just because.

My stepmom has been dedicatedly fostering children for the past three years or so, just because. I've known her for nine years and she hasn't officially been my stepmom anymore for the past two of them, but she still checks on me and lets me call her whenever, just because.