Friday, January 17, 2014

Pass (Part III)

Part I is here and Part II is here.

I attended a public magnet high school in San Francisco that, while I was a student there, was just coming out from under federal supervision — a consent decree that had been in place since the year I was born — because the school’s population was considered to be insufficiently diverse: too many Chinese and Chinese-American students, the Northern California circuit of the United States District Court had ruled. Despite the federal supervision and an admissions scheme that required different test scores for students of different racial and ethnic groups, the plurality of the student body was still Chinese-American.

Lowell was a relatively comfortable place for me. After a miserable four years in a private middle school full of new money and a false, forced doctrine of multiculturalism that paid lip service to celebrating other cultures and made tokens out of the one black kid, the one Asian kid, the one Jewish kid in each class, I suddenly inhabited a world where I didn’t get mocked for — forget about not having — not caring about designer clothes and not going on outlandish ski vacations, and where being smart wasn’t bad or even all that exceptional. I still didn’t find myself in the default position, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. I remember that there was the occasional indignity or insult, but they were so minor that fifteen years on, I don’t even remember the details. It wasn’t always a walk in the park — it was high school, after all — but most of the fights I had were about editing the school newspaper rather than race.

Linguistically I was well on the outside, though I learned enough to at least be able to be polite. One of my classmates whose parents spoke limited English taught some of us who were her friends how to ask for her on the phone so that when we called her house we didn’t just have to shout: “Cynthia? Cynthia!” into the receiver at her mom and dad. I may not know how to do anything in Cantonese once I get Cynthia on the phone, and I wouldn’t even be able to understand if the answer were something along the lines of her not being there and might I want to leave a message, but I do at least know how to ask that the phone please be passed to her: “Mm-goi Cynthia tieng denwa?”

And when anyone in the media or from outside of Lowell would write or say anything negative about Chinese-Americans as a group or when parents of some of the white kids would go on about how there were just too many Asian kids who were making the environment of academic competition intolerable, I would start to feel not just angry but defensive, reflexively thinking: “Those are my people you’re talking about!” Even though, of course, they really weren’t. Maybe the most extreme example of that perspective came on a very early college-visit trip I made to the Washington University in St. Louis. I came through Kansas City, and when I stepped off the plane and into the airport, my panicked reaction was: “There are all these white people here. I bet I totally stick out.” It took me a few minutes to realize that I was the only one there who would ever think to peg me as Asian rather than white. I may have been so comfortable in my majority Chinese-American high school that I was (and still sometimes am) uncomfortable in a veritable sea of white people, but I also recognize that in most of the country, it’s a privilege that I’m the only one who knows that. At the same time, my experience in my particular, cosmopolitan corner of the world means that I don’t take the privilege of invisibility for granted on the occasions that I do have it, as I did at a distance from the crowd in the Kansas City airport. I can step out into the wider world and disappear, but I also know what it’s like to stick out, both in reality and in my own imagination.

In my professional life I have come across a startling number of people in my pretty obscure, pretty narrow academic field of study who were also products, if not of Lowell then of the San Francisco Unified School District. One of my other colleagues — senior, well-liked and respected, widely published, and a graduate of Washington High School, the school I would have attended had I not gone to Lowell — who suggested that it was something about that environment that had primed us to study religious, cultural and language contact in the medieval Mediterranean basin, something about those cosmopolitan grungy, badly-lit hallways and centralized clock systems that never worked right, those transcendent red terry gym shorts, the native hybridity sprung up in the classrooms that were too cold in the mornings and too warm all October, something from there that called us inexorably to the Med. The way she put it was this: There are lots of languages around you, some of which you understand and some of which you don’t, and that’s okay. It scales up: There are a bunch of cultural modes at play, all of which you can participate in and draw upon to lesser and greater extents without it being appropriation because the presence of different cultural paradigms is simply the mode in which everyone operates: You’re no longer responding to being in the minority or the majority, but living in a microcosm that, if never perfectly, draws upon all.

Convivencia is a term that has become a hot potato in my field. Literally it just means the state of living together and, at its core, describes readership and other cultural practices where there is significant overlap amongst Jews, Christians, and Muslims, specifically in Spain. But, largely through a deliberate collective scholarly misreading of a popular book that restricts itself to cross-cultural literary contacts, the term is viewed as an intellectual crutch, signifying a sort of happy-go-lucky kumbaya attitude in which members of the three Abrahamic faiths respected and enjoyed each other’s religious traditions and ushered in a Middle Ages in which people weren’t running around killing each other willy-nilly for God or territory. But that’s not what it is at all; I like to think of it more along the lines of people from different religious traditions reading the same kinds of things and asking the same kinds of questions, not so much in parallel but because they are living and practicing their religions within a single multivalent culture.

But to those of us who grew up like that, an honest reading of convivencia makes good, visceral sense. Even though they were East Asian rather than Mediterranean languages that surrounded us, the kind of community that one finds in San Francisco, especially in the public schools, is what made convivencia not a theoretical term, not something that needs explication or qualification, but simply what I believe it to be: a local, natively hybrid mode of cultural production. It simply is what it is; and I am lost in the textual places, be they the Twitterverse or a student research paper, where it is otherwise. 

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