Ode to my Country

because just because we live in the same country, doesn’t mean we live in the same country. there could be a multitude of experiences, within one city, one city block, one apartment building, that could be vastly different from a place a few miles away. one minute i am craving the flaky dough of a croissant — was it the one with the chocolaty filling I had on Sunday? or the Jamaican patty i had from the corner store down the road just hours before i took a nap? i love the Latin songs of the construction workers out my door — reminding me of the Baizu people who were constructing new hostel with wood beam frames who worked next to the hostel called the Lilly Pad where I would stay on the weekends, and when my father came to visit chi na he was amazed to see the women in construction, why, just a few weeks ago I was researching how to get one of those jobs, a job that typically wouldn’t be assumed by someone of my sex, i hear they pay well, cuz this girl, she’s just a preschool teacher, she’s just a nanny, she’s just browsing craigslist for female modeling jobs, just for the ones you don’t have to take your clothes off, do you see? the subtle roles of gender that we fill, that are left unspoken, uncompromised, until you see someone doing it differently:

just because we live in the same country doesn’t mean we live in the same country, so aunties, and mom, and anyone else who sees this, can you still send me packages in the mail with chocolates and cashews and unique forms of cheese that wouldn’t mold in my suitcase and even better survive in an underground tunnel case of apocalypse and in the rare case we use up all of the Earth’s resources for the coming year by next Tuesday? cuz my landlord and his lady might be excited cuz they be putting a whole foods in across the street next week but i only have enough dollars and sense to shop for brown rice at Big Lots & we stil livin’ in a food desert out there and i’m not talking about the one all the cool kids go to where they dress up in leather underpants and smoke ganja in the blistering sun of /nevada nah I’m talking about

Black Top City — asphalt — city, the one i gotta cross between me and Safeway (Se fue), i’m talking about the way u wonder at the beauty of the way gum sticks to the the stairs of the portrait gallery across from the Capitol One stadium at 12:00 midnight and somebody left a bottle of French wine there, but the President don’t like French wine, u are too busy Being in love to notice if ur dash light is on and your car battery is gonna die, and ur landlord the only one who looks out for u if something like that happens, or if security cameras are watchen u and your credit card data gonna be breeched, & then we :-*’ and then i see a rat outta the corner of my, i hear the President don’t like rats, says, some people read Tweets but i just listen to the birds outside of my apartment in the morning and u say u love how quiet it is hear and is ay thank u cuz i made it that way- you see? u say lemme take me to thailadn or france or just get outta here but i think god each morning wants me to be here, asked me to be here, just because we live in the same country, doesn’t mean we live in the same country i,

know my roommate said i can’t look away from u too many rainbos in your i’s but, i’m just trying to make a smoothie here man, can u get out and get ur own boss/ but i thank god each morning, i think he wants me to be here, asked me to be hear, wondering if i’m still here, maybe not becuase i think we live in the same country but it doesn’t mean we live in the same country gotta long way to go from this country if i’m every gonna break free mama i think they might have put me in jail for what i wrote but maybe that was a lifetime ago, u know they did that in the usa but maybe only if you were gay, but i be singing that song day by day, day by day, wondering how many hours unti i am free from once upon a time inever guessed just becuase we live in the same country doesn’t mean we live in same country


Ode to 艾 and 爱 (Ode to Ai and Love)

Today I went to go see Ai Wei Wei’s “Never Sorry” at the Hirshorn Museum.  It’s been over five years since I’ve seen the film. To be honest, at this point I define my life by “life before I went to China” and “life after I lived in China.” Most ex-pats who have lived there for any extended period of time might agree. The place changes you. I was curious – how would I feel about the film this time?

When I saw the movie five years ago, I went with a group of four Chinese teachers my father had dragged along with us. I respect my dad so much – for years Chinese teachers have been visiting his school and he always connected with them so beautifully – inviting them to dinners, Christmas, taking them shopping for groceries, and supporting them just as humans who needed to be seen and understood. Of course, having a bit of a radial edge, he always wanted to dig deeper into their experience. What was life in China really like? Were they a part of the Party? Were they religious? What was life like for their grandparents during Community rule?

So he took them to the film. Big mistake? Maybe. They yelled at the host leading the Q&A after the film. He was also Chinese. He originally came to the US to get his degree in engineering at CMU, but started learning about Chinese history in the 20th century, and switched his degree to nonprofit management. He had been working as a coordinator for wealthy Chinese high school students coming to the US. When I asked him afterwards what the Chinese teachers were saying to him he said, “They think Ai Wei Wei is a nobody, not important, worthy to be ignored. They are still so brainwashed by Chinese propaganda.”

When I saw the movie today, I noticed people in the theater laughed a lot at Ai’s antics. He is quite a hilarious activist, a modern day jester if you will.  There’s certainly shadow side to Ai in this context. He makes those privileged in the US feel safe in our complicity. To  feel good that we “aren’t” China. We are here, in a museum watching an activist film, for free, on a Sunday. I probably watched the film the first time in similar fashion. Amazed, fascinated, curious and in awe of the man. Knowing that “over there” people lived in repression and thankfully we had free access to art, music and culture. A dangerous dose of some American exceptionalism I was born into: the illusion of pure free expression.

My viewing of this film this time around was much more…human.

I cried much more than I laughed. I sobbed seeing schools destroyed by the Earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008, due to shoddy construction of “tofu-brick” buildings in schools in poor areas; meaning, tuition funds go to a fat salary for an official comes before the price of a student’s life in a safely constructed building. I cringed at the moments when Ai sat in the hospital photographing himself wearing a bandage on his head after being assaulted by the police. The audience laughed, but here I saw a man in pain, trapped in a cage he could not escape, no matter how humorous his approach.

When I came to Washington, DC in 2013 for an interview with Teach for China, I remember heading over to Hirschhorn afterwards, alone, to see Ai’s “According to What?” exhibit. Always was my favorite museum after all. I saw the backpacks of every student killed in the Earthquake lining the ceiling, the names of dead children lining the walls, read aloud by many different voices.

Knowing, in my heart at the time, these students and families would one day be a part of my own world. People I connected with, played music with, shared meals with, attended religious services with (Yes! religion exists in China!), talked about love and relationships with, danced with, cried with, spent the night in their humble homes with.

Today I sat shocked, at the lengths an artist must go to in order to humanize himself to the Other.