Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Response to Dan's "On Pain"

Did you know googling ''Dan Shih" gets you his picture on the first page of google images?
I have yet to find mine under the google image search.

Dan wrote an excellent blog today, yesterday, whatever, I don't remember whether Australia's the future or the past, on pain. I  wanted to respond, but as always, it got too long. So this is my response.

To talk about pain, I want to talk about my upbringing. I hated my upbringing.

Of course I would, I'm a product of my culture. Hating your origins is as natural as divorce, college education and awkwardness. And because of that, I am deeply thankful for my tendency towards the unnatural. I hated it. Note the past tense. I no longer do.

Stereotypes, despite their exaggerations, have their origin in reality. Consider, if you will the one associated with Asians: cowardly, small, weak, awkward... but at the same time, over-educated, under-endowed and the only compensation is a ridiculous ability with computers and money. I've grown up in the Asian-American community. I went to one, no two, prestigious institutions in my life. I've been in the locker rooms. It's not completely false. It's not even mostly false. It's mostly true.

And how very much of that stereotype finds its origin in our upbringing? It's not going where you think it is. Yes, my upbringing caused me pain but I dealt with it. I'm not going to spout some emo trash here. What I want to talk about is why that upbringing even existed in the first place.

Why do Asians put such an inordinate value on harmony, safety and education? Why do they demean ideas like pursuing your dreams, doing what you love and the life of the body?

My father was a city boy. He graduated at the top of his class (and for all the hucksters who think this is stereotypical, consider that the rest of his class was Asian and they were not the top. So we have 1 case for promoting this particular stereotype and the rest of the class for refuting it.) about to head off into college and become a math teacher (no defense here). Then the Cultural Revolution hit. He was shipped off to the countryside to smash Ming vases to make chicken feeders. He was imprisoned. Seven times. And on the seventh time he escaped. One of my most vivid memories in life is when he called me into his room when I was young, still a pre-teen. And then he showed me the scars he received from the attack dogs in prison. How many of your fathers have prison scars?

He came to America during the era of Democrat mayors. Anyone who remembers this time remembers that it was an utter shit-show. I, even I, was too scared to ride the subways alone at any time during that period. This is not the Republican era New York City of today, this is the Gotham of television and movies. I've been mugged three times in my life. Twice by gunpoint, once by a mob of about fifteen kids from the neighboring school. All of this happened during the Democrat era. My father did not have my language skills. He did not have my physique. He did not have himself being my father to strengthen him. He had his mind and his will to survive. Two days after he arrived in America, the great New York blackout happened. This was the summer of the Reggie Jackson era Yankees and the Son of Sam murders. He lived in Harlem.

How would you survive, reader?

Dan writes from a certain perspective. I agree with it. I might even go as far as to say that I find my own words spilling out into his blog at times. It's my life perspective as well. But consider the difference in my father's position and mine. His life was accustomed to pain and hardship, of reboots, riots and racial tensions. He worked a Chinese take-out place in Brooklyn once. They left the back door open in the summer because it just got too damn hot. One day some black kids from the neighborhood threw a lit firecracker through the back door. If this was your life, wouldn't you carry a butcher's knife with you at all times? Wouldn't you walk expecting to use it at any given moment? Wouldn't you live in fear?

Does it seem so far fetched to discourage your loved ones to avoid the risky route? Did they suffer so much, endure so much, and love you so much, that they could so easily allow you to try to be a professional musician, athlete or actor? It's form is rather similar to the prisoner's dilemma. Choosing to absorb the tedium of life gives you a higher chance of experiencing epic failure. If they didn't go through life like this, their culture certainly did, and as a culture, as a massive living consciousness, they've adopted a risk-averse, pain-averse strategy as a method of survival.

The East never experienced the Romantic Era as a distinct period. No Beethoven or Byronic heroes, no smashing your patron's vase against the wall like the composer and no dashing off with medical supplies to aid the Greek liberation movement like the poet. People like me, who would rather raise a fist than bow a head, are still very much a novelty. We all know someone weird like that, but it's nowhere to the level of having cultural roots.

You know, I wanted to throw up a picture of an Asian dork at the top of this post. It was about 5 in the morning and I didn't think too deeply about what I was doing. Imagine my surprise when I had to dig really far to find anything that remotely resembled what I wanted to use. Culture is changing. My immigrant generation, ever so slowly, is realizing that their parents' values do not serve them in a land of security. To hell with your homeland security warnings, would you rather live in LA or Lebanon or Liberia? We live in comfort and security. What preserves life in crisis situations suffocates life in times of abundance. I wish I asked that Hispanic girl out back in Junior High. She was uncommonly pretty. I wish I punched that Irish boy back in Elementary school. He tormented me mercilessly. My life might've been much different today.

Indulge me in a brief tangent if you will. I think one of the reasons I have this perpetually simmering anger at the people of my church is that it seems so few people realize that they don't have to live this way. I want so badly for them to stop living under the constant fear of some nameless, vague, unidentifiable terror. Why do I bully the boys at my church so badly? It's because I want so badly for someone to stand up to me. To take a risk. To look me in the eye. God, I want someone so badly to look me in the eye when I talk to them. Why is it that I try to teach them the ways to subdue me? I would like some of them to use it. I want someone to see that if they apply their mind and efforts, they can surpass me. But no one has risen to this challenge. And so week by week, I wonder if I should just shake the dust off my shoes.

The world surrounding us in 2010, for those of us living in the urban west, rewards risk-takers because the repercussions of failure are so very light. How many home runs might be hit if batters needed 4 or 5 or 6 strikes to get struck out? But in life, we are batters that can stand at the plate for a near infinite number of strikes. That girl said 'no' to you, you super pathetic Asian male? The next one is sitting not 5 feet away. That college turn you down? TO HELL WITH COLLEGE. Shit on Yale. Punch a Harvard Grad in the face. Slap the word UCLA out of someone's mouth. And yes, when someone says NYU laugh in their face too. Show this blog to your parents. Read a manual, learn on your own, use your strength, your mind, your will and forge ahead. Where's your initiative and resourcefulness? What's the worse that's going to happen? You have a job as a day laborer and make a living? HALF THE WOLRD LIVES ON LESS THAN TWO DOLLARS A DAY. If you live in the urban West, no matter what you do, you have a very low chance of being worse off than half the species. Why are you still so cowardly? Why won't you step off the beaten path?

Now, keep in mind that this is hyperbole. College can teach you a lot. I valued my time in Baruch and yes, even NYU. It's unwise to live avoiding risk, avoiding the potential for pain when the pain is so light and the risks so few, but it's just as unwise to take risks for the sake of doing so. There is a matter of wisdom to choosing your risks. I, as you might know, work as a government paralegal. Yes, I chose this because it is safe. Because I lean on expecting 80 years of life, because I know what I want and the highest chance of getting there means taking the right risks. The wise path is to properly assess the risk and potential for pain. It requires you to use your mind, to think, to consider and to make your own damn decision. It's equally cowardly to have one manner of decision making, always on or always off, for every decision in life.

Next, I'm going to write on how this parlays into Pain Avoidance and Life Achievement.

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