Looking from the other corner: a friend’s journey to North Carolina

This guest post is written by one of my close friends, Jane Li. Having completed her undergraduate degree in Hong Kong University of Science & Technology (where we studied together), she is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Washington University in St. Louis. Long before coming to the United States, Jane has developed a close relationship with a host family she has known within the last 10 years. Last Christmas, we had some conversation as we have not met each other in the last few months. She was celebrating Christmas with her host family in North Carolina – their home state – all the while enjoying a vacation away from St. Louis, Missouri.

We initially had some ‘small talk’ – talking about our daily activities, while I was back in my hometown, and while she was in NC. She sent me some pictures about baking cookies, preparing pancakes, and tons of other dishes. All the small talk continued until she told me that her host family overwhelmingly supported – and voted – for Donald Trump. I was both not surprised and surprised. Not surprised, because North Carolina turned red in the last presidential election. Surprised, because there seemed to be no problems with her happily enjoying the feast with her host family.

“We actually debated a lot during the vacation,” Jane told me. They had some debates, and it’s hard to stay calm, but overall, the debates did not escalate into something worse.

I told my parents about our conversation.

“Regardless of how crazy Trump is, there are certain things that the rest of the world – especially us – may not necessarily understand why there is such affinity among some American voters towards the candidate,” my parents replied, “but perhaps that country needs a shock therapy.”

And I then asked Jane whether she was willing to write down her experiences staying in North Carolina with her host family. She was okay to do that, and here comes the blog post.

Before proceeding to read this post, here is one reminder that I need to emphasize: if you are in an emergency need of a safe space, this article may not be suitable for you. I do not care whether you are a conservative or a liberal or a centrist or whatever, but I seriously encourage that you read this post with an open mind. Again, if you need a safe space, you had better not proceed. Some of the ideas or thoughts here may appear strange or bizarre, but again, refer to the first rule. I only hope that this post enables us to better understand what motivated people to vote for populists like Trump, especially in the times of extreme political polarization among both the conservative and the liberal camps. Moreover, not every view or fact is here to be agreed with; each of us is endowed with an ability of logical reasoning, so use that wisely.

If you are not willing to proceed, you can stop here.

If you are willing to, you can continue scrolling it below.

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I spent most of my two weeks in North Carolina in Asheboro, a small town about an hour of drive from Raleigh-Durham with a host family. We have known each other for almost ten years now, since the couple once taught in my junior high school back in China. They are a very religious, conservative, and giving family. I have the most contact with the wife (and now mother of three) in the family. She adheres to a literal reading of the Bible, but has always been open to questions and willing to listen to different viewpoints. And they are Trump voters (although they did not really believe that Trump would be thoroughly anti-LGBT or anti-abortion), supporting him out of the hope of ‘the lesser of the vice’. These views shows possibility of how Trump voters could have thought, and they are not representative of all, nor are they unchanging over time.

This was my third time visiting the family and fresh after the Election (they voted for Trump), and I thought it would be a good opportunity to understand their viewpoints on many social issues – whether they hold different facts and/or give different weights to the same facts agreed upon. And here’s what I learned from conversation with the couple. They seemed to be in agreement on most of the issues, and the wife helped me correct views that I had misstated of theirs.

Below is the perspective of the couple, and I have used “they” except for where they clearly expressed differing views. I have also included what I had seen while in NC in [brackets].

On Donald Trump and the Campaign

First, like most people, they were initially suspicious of Trump, thinking he’s only running the campaign to boost his reputation; for now, they still question certain stances that Trump takes, whether he will do what he had previously promised, especially since Trump before 2010 supported Democrats. He does not seem that committed to LGBT issues, either.

One major reason for the couple to vote for Trump (and probably for many others that have done so) was that he talks off the top of his head. He does not seem as deceptive as stereotypical politicians are – speaking of which they have negative, direct experience of encountering them when lobbying for certain industries at the state capital, when the legislator they talked to openly solicited return – ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’. Politicians from both sides – Democrats and Republicans alike – are viewed as cunning, putting self-interests before public interests. They are tired of them being inconsistent in front of the public vs behind closed doors. Trump’s outspokenness became his strength.

Politics is so corrupted that it has become an exchange of money and vote – and this is not just for politicians seeking to enrich themselves, but even for the masses, who can expect to get something from the campaigners in return for voting for them. They have read about people being paid to protest against Trump, George Soros being one of the hands behind it.

Trump ran effectively as a political outsider and also an independent because of his businesses and therefore having to make fewer concessions to big donors. His business experience also means he will be good at negotiation and make policies that encourage businesses to create more revenue (we didn’t talk about his four bankruptcies). They seem to believe that he will also bring back jobs from abroad (we didn’t talk about automation, either).

They also think that the media is overwhelmingly biased against Trump. They take Trump’s speeches and rearrange them out of context to mislead the audience; the blurb from movie 13th Amendment quoting Trump was a good example (see the clip here). The video has Trump saying “knock the crap out of ’em” when it’s showing a black lady being pushed around in a crowd. This was edited to show the black lady when he was saying that. In reality, at least from the incidence they saw on the news when he said “knock’ em out”, he was talking about protesters that were trying to throw things at him. More specifically he said, “if you see someone about to throw something at me, knock the crap out of them.”

On Race

My host family also believe that racial relations became worse during Obama’s tenure, and it has to do with his policies. They wish they could live in a “color-blind” society and thought it’s possible, but the media is so misleading and public so stirred up and emotional. The Black Lives Matter movement and charges against police brutality, facts are provided to the public from those that push this agenda that are misleading – live footage of brutality is being used to stir emotionalism, rather than address the true issue. Criminal homicides and abortions are the largest causes of death of African-Americans, not police brutality.  Police officers are in a position of authority in our society. Due to their commitment to uphold the law and their willingness to place their lives on the line for the security of the people they serve, they deserve respect. They carry lethal force, thus compliance is necessary for the safety of all parties. It is also the person’s responsibility to follow what the police say and not resist it, and parents should educate their children how to deal with police in a respectful manner. This is not to say that police don’t make mistakes, and indeed, there is a possibility that they misuse their power. On that, more funding that supports professional training for the police is needed so that they make fewer mistakes. And new devices such as body cameras which the police are required to wear now will reduce police abuse of power.

Besides, the media – especially music – is covering too much of blacks and minorities in a way that: 1) further antagonizes racial relationship and encourages more conflict of the mass in dealing with police; 2) only criticizes and does not provide any constructive solution. Hollywood and entertainment industry in general portray blacks as in poorer conditions and together they create the impression of blacks in less advantageous positions and elicit more anger.

On Racial Disparity in Education Opportunities

There may be disparity, but there isn’t that much difference between the education provided by prestigious schools and less prestigious ones; there is opportunity for anyone who wants to thrive, and that doesn’t mean someone has to become rich and famous by the world’s standard. Anyone can go to community college if they want. College provides opportunity, but it is not the panacea to every problem. It also often means student debt that takes years to pay back, and for some even a lifetime is not enough. Those not attending not only save tuition but also have longer working years so they could expect to retire earlier while being self-sufficient (we didn’t talk about automation). They might also start their businesses early and make a living out of it. There are many ways to improve living conditions. Moreover, there are always setbacks in life; the diligent will prosper anyway. Ben Carson being a case in point.

[In the house, doing chores was a duty of the children as members of the family; but they get paid for studying]

Obama dealt the racial card too. He built his support by black power first, and I have followed the website of his church which states Obama’s stances and it’s interesting to see how it changes throughout his campaign and after he got elected.

For Building A Wall (And Making Mexico Pay For It):

President Bill Clinton said something similar in the 1990s, and there was even fund for it; it’s feasible (Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act in 1996, which approved the construction of a 22.5-km barbed wire along San Diego border with Mexico; Bush continued with Secure Fence Act of 2006; Obama, meanwhile, was a ‘deporter-in-chief’; he once supported Secure Fence Act, anyway). Clinton received standing ovation when he said it, and Trump didn’t because the public dislike him. A lot of drugs are also smuggled over the border and they have to deal with the consequences. It seems to them that Mexico will probably end up paying for the wall. By the way, they believe that NAFTA is a disaster.

On Refugee Policy

In this issue, the host family believed that they made a mess in Europe; many became vagrants and thugs. They rape women more than the regular crowd do. They also believe that refugees take away jobs from the local people.

[unfortunately, to a certain degree, this may be true, especially when looking at the Google Maps here]

There are more Muslims among the refugees and that could be dangerous. Ben Carson has been quoted saying, “…it’s like medical malpractice, if I were ISIS and did not infiltrate the refugee group.” An open door to this country is just that – it creates a quick entry. Some leaders have warned that the vetting process isn’t able to be diligent with knowing who they are welcoming. It takes a long time to screen newcomers. They also need better infrastructure to provide newcomers with language studies, job opportunities, etc. Without knowing how to navigate the existing systems while providing them free food, lodging and health benefits – there is little motivation to be a productive member of our society.

On Religion

The family also believes that Islam has in its scripture verses that are unequivocally violent. It is hard for them to believe that sincere followers of Koran won’t commit violence and oppress women as the book teaches. This is different from Bible, which they believe only teaches love. Many rules from the Old Testament have been replaced by the principle of love, which is the greatest teaching of all, and God has written law on the heart of people so what does not make sense in the verses should be taken critically. (once again, I caution readers not to easily react to these opinions)

Radical Muslims who follow the scripture literally are most likely to commit violence against others and therefore survive (since they kill others first). They also have high birth rate, which means in many years from now, their population (the more violent, fundamentalist believers) are going to take over control.

They think that America is no longer like America in Founding Father’s time, where Christianity was more powerful and purer. Those governing the country were devout Christians; no longer is that the case. Now America is becoming unfamiliar: a pro-LGBT America, with people speaking languages they don’t understand and different cultures and other beliefs flooding in. They wish this country to be more ‘genuine’ to themselves, comparing it to Japan having preserved its distinct culture so well. That is Japan’s unique identity. In this regard, they believe their identity is now being challenged.

For example, I heard that there are an increasing number of Hispanic neighbors near the family’s grandma’s house, and in one school the French course was replaced by Chinese course. This might be exciting to some of my friends in Asheboro since they love China, but perhaps simultaneously also giving them a sense of uneasy change of the more familiar and merging of less familiar cultures. And on homosexuality, the wife believes that it’s a sin, but she disagrees to the notion that homosexuals should be excluded from equal protection and access to public services. To her, everyone is born a sinner. She is also fine with her oldest daughter disliking dresses and her son disliking the traditionally boyish toys, though her husband less so.

On US abstaining from voting against Israel in UN late last year: On the Sunday service on Christmas at the church, the pastor mentioned the UN vote in passing and criticized the U.S. for turning its back on Israel. The pastor referred to The Revelation in New Testament, which says that “God blesses whoever blesses Israel and curses whoever curses it”. If the U.S. declines in power after Trump takes over, some people would think that it’s due to the U.S. no longer supporting Israel. As to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, the issue itself is not familiar to them, but the pastor seemed knowledgeable about it and on Sunday service he had criticized abstention on the U.S. side. They believe that the U.S. should protect Israel no matter what for its own benefit. Although it may be hard to reconcile this belief with the principle of love which they also take, and with the countless lives of Palestinians having lost their homes – and even their lives – to Israel’s encroachment, the pastor believed it is ‘within God’s plan’. Respecting God’s sovereignty means trusting it.

There are many signs in front of the houses in the county that says, “Thank you Jesus”; another friend who lives in NC also told me that people here sometimes identify themselves by their church affiliations. This is the Deep South, the Bible Belt, where church attendance is higher than national average. I got a T-shirt with a proud “Simply Southern” label on it as a Christmas gift. During my stay in NC, I also visited a friend in Asheville who goes to HKUST (but is an Asheville native). As we ordered food in a diner, he overheard a couple sitting on a table next to us, talking about their supernatural experiences.

On Abortion

The host family also views that making abortion easier will lift the consequences of illicit sex and encourage more promiscuous behavior and unexpected pregnancies, especially for teenagers. It does not necessarily follow that abortion should be totally banned. Practices like providing ultrasounds, and hearing heartbeats may humanize the pregnancy experience, thus giving women more information about the choice they are about to make.

Obamacare & Welfare In General 

For them, it is great that Obamacare has provided healthcare for many, but they are worried that the long-term pattern is not sustainable. Contributors to the health care ‘pool’ are not able to use health care because of its exorbitant costs. “You can’t force people to pay for something they can’t even use. It’s also too expensive, and the money goes to insurance firms.” They also believe generally that the government lacks the incentive to be efficient, and usually it gives the poor a hand out by giving away goods (and develop dependency), and church and other local community groups are more likely to give a hand up by actually working with their people, knowing their problems and developing more comprehensive coping strategies. They are better connected to the local people and are able to target people needing help more effectively. People should not just feel entitled to welfare and should be held responsible for their behavior and try to get out of welfare.

They also think that welfare benefits are sometimes too generous and are ‘disincentives’ for people from working. For example, SNAP program provided too much worth of food stamps when they qualified for and received assistance. There are also unemployment benefits that discourage people from seeking jobs and working. “You can have a TV, brand-new vehicle, and housing, and are still considered poor and receive benefits.”

[The real causes are damn complicating: read the Bloomberg special report here]

Many people seek to fraud the system by faking work injuries to get benefits.

[The husband, a physical therapist, is at the forefront of fighting this but he is, by doing so, also running the risk of being charged because of refusing to give false diagnosis. Benefits for veterans are too much. During my stay we also met a veteran who had a light injury and should be able to work but didn’t, given the generous benefit packages]

Housing

Because of a provision in the public housing policy, owners cannot kick someone out even if that person fails to pay rent. As a consequence, vagrants stay.

[One of their friends had a tenant that refused to pay the rent, and eventually was forced to leave by the friend removing the door to make the room too cold for staying. Under the law it would be illegal to remove him otherwise. The house we used for Christmas party, before it was refurbished, had had needles in it and some vagrants were seen in the house.]

Global Warming 

The conclusion that global warming is largely caused by human activity is not definite yet, although in public discourse that is gaining ground. There is a conspiracy theory that they subscribe to, that a hundred years ago there had already been discovered ways to generate energy efficiently and in a non-polluting way. But they are kept secret because of business or political interests. The husband claims to have read evidence of this being real.

[The links to articles/videos one of my friends shared with me are mostly from less-known, and oftentimes vague, sources, mostly via Facebook, but when I talked to my friend’s husband, I learned that he reads NY Times, Washington Post, as well as other more liberal and mainstream media; he tries to be eclectic.]

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Thus far, these are the points that Jane covered in her guest post. There are certainly many other topics that they have discussed, but are not included here.

Regardless of how many ‘intellectual mistakes’ that have been made, it remains a very unique perspective to understand better about the microcosmic worldviews of a very small sample of Trump voters. The voters that we had been exposed to in the mass media were oftentimes depicted as racists, know-nothing ignoramus, bigots, misogynists, or other negative labels. But looking deeper into their thoughts, that generalization was more blurred than it appears on the surface. What became alarming for me, nonetheless, is the growing political and identity divides within what is, for now, the existing global superpower. For certain, anything that President Trump does may affect the global order today. And it matters to examine the voters’ worldviews in the first place to understand ‘things that the rest of the world may not necessarily comprehend’ (quoting my parents).

Here, I express my sincere gratitude for my close friend, Jane Li, for sharing her experiences living in North Carolina, as well as many of the ideas shared in the post. I wish her all the best in the US, especially for her studies in Washington University in St. Louis. I also sincerely thank her host family for allowing her to write down her experiences, and in particular, allowing us to explore more about their worldviews.

 

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Much ado about love

being single

 

It’s the first time in this blog I want to discuss about romantic relationships. A temporary break from serious discussions firsthand.

Awkward posting? Potentially yes. I’ve never truly fallen in love with someone else.

Wait, what? Fallen in love? Love at the first sight? Is that even a correct definition?

Truth be told, back as a child, I used to believe – thanks to all these lovey-dovey dramas – that there was always this possibility of ‘love at first sight’. An attractive, shy-pretense (or just snobbishly cool) guy got into some minor war of mouth with a fair-skinned, big-eyed, and long-haired girl (okay, this makes me somewhat like Nabokov), before in what we can call as economists’ ‘theory of luck’, unexpectedly meet in an unexpected event at an unexpected place, and the first signs of affection became slowly inevitable among the two, and they fall in love ever since. Ceteris paribus.

Probably the boy (or the girl) has to move somewhere else to work, or to pursue further studies. Or that something’s wrong with economic conditions that the boy can hardly get the girl to go for a date. Or that the girl or the boy can barely stand up with the other’s family members due to conflicting life principles, habits, and social values. Or even something catastrophic happens, say, in many dramas, either one of them contacts a deadly disease, a war happens, or simply, a sudden, unexplained, Murakami-esque breakup. Well, too many maybes.

After all, love, just like acing As in exams, is itself a hard work and an uneasy commitment. In my point of view, if you love someone, that means you really do love that person. A person is completely different from an item; an item can depreciate in terms of values, but not with the loving partner! It takes commitment, perseverance, faith, and sometimes, sighing all the while, some conflicts. As human beings, we all are entitled to different values and ideas, and stemming from these differences, oftentimes we can barely avoid conflicts. Nonetheless, for all the unpopularity, it is from those conflicts that we can obtain better understanding of each other, and we have to admit that no couples are perfect.

Too often we are drawn into Facebook posts, or Instagram pictures, of lovely couples posing with numerous cute-looking postures, or sometimes with these quotes, say: “My baby is so handsome, don’t you see? (wink-wink)”, or “You are always in my heart forever ❤ <3”, or just anything in the social media that you can figure out. From the perspective of a single person like me, yes, to be honest, that makes some of us jealous, or even envious of how they can have such ‘loving’ relationships.

In such a world of randomness, some of these people indeed have enduring relationships. Others, not so much, or they simply call it quits at some time. Believe me, we have seen so many of such pictures and make-believe love statements of one and the other, and almost similarly many do we ever hear stories of their breakups, their private fights, or that either one of them cheats the other. A-ha! Lesson learned: a relationship belongs to only two persons, not to 500 Instagram followers or 1,000 Facebook friends. But, again, even switching our relationship mode to private doesn’t guarantee a relationship will last longer: we do still hear stories of how people simply end their relationships.

What are the secrets to everlasting love, then? As someone who has yet to have a relationship partner, I don’t have much to offer. But I can learn some things from my parents: they dated for 7 years, only once, and got married afterwards. What do I learn from their relationship? Well, honestly speaking, way a lot. Patience, compromise (even though it’s uneasy), agree-to-disagree motion, understanding of each other, open acceptance, long-term outlook on anything, and most difficult one, willingness to sacrifice. That’s what my parents (and myself) have always advised me. If you indeed love someone, it is, indeed, inevitable that some sacrifices have to be made, say, investing extra time for your partner, or some portions of your money to ensure that both of you remain happy.

And, again and again, I’m sort of unready to implement my own advice pieces. Indeed, it will take me quite some time to learn loving someone as time goes by.

This is my ’embarrassing’ confession: I told my parents that I already fell in love with someone, and I did that repeatedly. As kids mostly had no ideas about ‘serious love’, I simply called ‘being attracted to someone’ as ‘being in love at first sight’. I couldn’t remember how many girls I had “fallen in love” with, but probably the figure was 3, 4, or, well, just forget about it.

I had my first crush, nonetheless, in my high school. Indeed, it happened two times. Each of them lasted not beyond one semester, as, you know, the lesson that ‘I have yet to learn so much from it’. I tried to declare my love on one of them, and I was rejected.

In university life, things were completely different. As we are no longer pure teenagers (heading towards adulthood, yes), definitions about love – and romance – also need to change, subsequently. Not outdone with my prior failures, I again tried my luck (well, that’s ironic) on three other friends of mine, but again, each of these efforts lasted not more than one semester. One of these efforts even almost jeopardized our friendship.

I learned my lessons in the long run: I hardly matured up myself while attracted to someone, and I spied on them. It took some time off to reflect on my mistakes, and, well, these were my hard-earned lessons in at least trying to show that if I like someone, I also have to respect her. Now that I have my sixth crush, which to be honestly speaking has lasted over a year, I am still learning from past mistakes (I won’t describe in details about the sixth person I have been pursuing in the last year). I am still hardly ready to be engaged in a relationship, because I know one main requirement I want to emphasize on myself: once you love someone, you should really show that you love her, no matter what. For me, this will really take some more time.

Well, much ado about love.

Last City I Loved: Abu Dhabi

UAE

 

An international student studying in the capital of the United Arab Emirates reflects on her personal life she’s spent in a place she both loves and hates, one to happily enjoy and to sadly demure, and also one she never really calls it ‘a home’ (as she says most of the city’s inhabitants, mainly consisting of temporary migrants from hundreds of different nationalities), but one with an everlasting knock-of-heart on her chapters of life.

You can read her touching, honest essay in one of The Rumpus’ sections, Last City I Loved.

 

Excerpt:

 

I fly often too, although I get no joy from it. I fly long distances—fourteen, sixteen hours at a time. What do I do on all those flights, hours of my life being whiled away on nothing? I sleep, mostly, and do not dream. Sometimes it feels as if time doesn’t pass up there, as if we were stuck in a different dimension, far away from any notion of real life.

But then, real life often seems to me more of a dream than anything I could imagine. I have the habit now of tracing foreign words on surfaces in my own made-up Arabic calligraphy. The curling letters, the way they flow into each other like rivers joining to meet the sea. Although I know the Arabic word for dream, I prefer my own. I trace mine over and over again, thinking it, an endless script in my head. I feel a warm affinity when I hear Arabic being spoken, a sense of familiarity.

And yet my sense of home has somehow melted away. When I am in Abu Dhabi, I miss New York and Chongqing and Buenos Aires and all the other places in the world that mean something to me. And when I am in those other places, I miss Abu Dhabi. What a terribly strange thing it is to always be missing someplace wherever I am in the world. What a terribly strange thing it is to belong nowhere because I could, if I chose to, belong anywhere.

At the same time, my wonder at seeing new places has also diminished. The more places I go, the less charm travel holds. That awful human trap: becoming used to wonder. The ability to travel is an astonishing gift that I should never, ever take for granted—and yet, I do, sometimes. Often. Of course I do. It’s not new to me anymore.