One Step Forward, Twenty-Four Steps Back

“I’m going to Chicago to study war.”

The pronouncement coming from my mouth startled even me. I hadn’t thought of my impending move to begin a master’s in international relations at the University of Chicago in those terms before, but, I thought, isn’t that what I am doing?

The thought came as an evening of grilled salmon, wine, and friendship in an idyllic Princeton backyard was winding down. The setting was in sharp contrast to the topics of poverty and violence which had dominated our conversation.

Chicago brings a lot of conflicting thoughts and emotions to mind; it always has. It’s where I was born, though not where I was raised. My parents wanted my siblings and I to grow up in New Jersey, for many good reasons.

In truth, I wasn’t really born in Chicago, but a few miles south. Growing up, “going to Chicago” was the phrase my siblings and I used to mean the city itself and the suburbs surrounding the south side, the area upon which spread the bulk of my father’s family.

When I think of Chicago, I think of family. I think of laughing harder than I ever have with any other group of people in my life. I think of music, the likes of which Jersey musicians can’t compare. I think of rap cyphers in parking lots, heated family arguments, and dancing. I think of Fox’s pizza, Giordano’s, Polish sausages, and Harold’s chicken. For some reason, I think of lightning bugs. I think of basketball, and the pride I feel for the amazing things my family has accomplished. I think of how proud my family is of me. I think of the church my uncle pastors, where we attended growing up whenever we visited the family.

I think of my cousin’s best friend, shot and killed in front of that church just moments after my cousin walked away. I think of how alienated I felt from my high school classmates in New Jersey when it happened. I think of my most recent trip to Chicago last fall, listening to a conversation among some family members about times they’ve been shot at or had guns pointed at them. I think of how middle class black families never completely escape the woes of the ghetto. I think of how the violence in Chicago is getting worse, and no one seems to have solutions. I think of the hard work my family does in the community to fight Chicago’s worst tendencies, and how it never seems to be enough.

I’m going to a city where people who look like me get shot every day, while I isolate myself in a protected bubble with people who don’t look like me, puzzling out the intricacies of what brings nations to the point of ordering the deaths of thousands. The enormity of the effect this could have on my soul was beginning to hit me, when my friend remarked, “It’s a good thing you’re a Christian. Be in church as often as possible.”

I might have slipped into dismayed brooding but for that remark. It made me realize that, though the University of Chicago is my dream school, though I’ve known for several years that I want to return to my “roots” and live with my Chicago family, there is a certain amount of emotional preparation I need to do along with my packing, and there is a certain amount of spiritual and emotional upkeep I will have to insist on while I’m there. While I’m studying wars and conflicts in countries far away, I won’t be able to block out what’s going on in the city around me. Whether that becomes a strength or a burden is entirely dependent on my approach.

Always clinging to the rock that is higher than I, I look forward to the challenges of the step to come.

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Privilege Check

“Thankfulness carries an attitude of humility.”
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Privilege is one of those buzzwords that’s become a behemoth of controversy in our culture. The debate surrounding the word seems to have taken on a life of its own on the internet and college campuses. Of course, the word itself, and even the sentiments behind the modern usage of the word, have existed for a long time. To my thinking, the controversy has more to do with its usage and the political power of the word than with the concept of benefits of unearned advantage itself. Take a moment to appreciate the origins of the modern repackaging, and the sentiment behind it: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-origins-of-privilege.

This is just a quick look into some of the privileges I’ve had in life. I felt compelled to make this list for many reasons. For one, I think it’s a good lesson in humility. Note that I find all of these “privileges” (or blessings if you prefer) to be good things in and of themselves; however, many of them exist as a result of some not so good things. That’s the root of reason number two why I felt compelled to not only create the list, but share the list. It’s good to openly admit the positives and negatives surrounding privileges. Next, I realize that I don’t give nearly enough thought to how these facts impact my life, and how others’ perspectives are equally informed by their experiences. Finally, it’s an exercise in thankfulness. You can’t be grateful if you don’t know what to be grateful for.

1) it’s a privilege to be born and raised in America. America is far from perfect and experiences vary but there’s no denying that being an American in the 21st century means that you reap the benefits of freedom fighters, colonizers, imperialists, and revolutionaries of every stripe that came before you.

This is a strange privilege for me to wield, because I never really thought of myself as American until I began to travel outside of the US. Echoing Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on her Jewishness, being American was one of those indubitable facts of life that I was aware of and would never have sought to change, but certainly never gave much thought to. I was much more conscious of myself as black, or as a woman, before I was conscious of myself as American. It wasn’t until I studied abroad in Taiwan a few years ago that I really began confronting what it means to be American.

I’ll say this about being American: due to many factors, it was the most successful at doing what all the other 20th century powers were attempting to do. In the 21st century, that gives you an identity and passport that many would kill for.

2) I come from a comfortable middle class family. Coupled with the first fact, this has afforded me tremendous benefits in life. The older I get the more grateful and frankly the more in awe I am of my parents, that they were able to carve out such a life for my siblings and I.

3) This is one that I don’t hear brought up much in discussions of privilege, but coming from an in-tact two family household has definitely had an overwhelmingly positive impact on my life. The shocked reaction that so many people have when they learn that my parents have never been divorced, and yes, all five of us come from the same parents is a sad statement on the state of marriage in America.

4) I’ve been fortunate enough to receive a degree from one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country. But even before that, I benefited from being a part of special programs in high school and of going to pretty good public schools. This educational background gave me the opportunity to travel to China and Taiwan in high school and college, participate in a myriad of competitions, receive research grants, and in general expose me to so much more than I knew existed when I was younger.

5) I haven’t quite traveled the world, but I have done pretty extensive traveling around China and Taiwan. In fact, I’ve been living in Taiwan for about two years now. Experience traveling and learning a new language has broadened my outlook and given me experiences that I never thought I would have.

6) I have been blessed with a healthy and able body and mind. Though I am very grateful for all the blessings in my life, I have to admit that this is one of the blessings I am most grateful for. I have had so many rich experiences in my life quite simply because I am physically able to have those experiences.

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So that’s it. The thing with youth is that most of what you have in life has been given to you, in the developed world at least. But even in the things that we have worked for, there is always the element of unearned advantage lurking beneath the surface. This isn’t a bad thing, but the appropriate response is always acknowledgment and a grateful attitude.

Dance

I’m back! (cue James Brown voice)

It’s been almost a year and a half since I’ve blogged; in fact, I haven’t blogged since graduating from college (woot woot!). After graduation I moved to Taiwan and worked for the year as an English teacher, as well as a missionary at a church. Now, I’m teaching English and trying to figure how to move forward in life.

Not long after moving to Taiwan, I started taking salsa lessons at a local dance school (shout out to Bailalo). Back in the states, I had friends who danced salsa; a couple of friends in particular always invited me to take classes and go out to salsa clubs with them, but I never did. I’m pretty shy by nature and do not enjoy having lots of attention on me, particularly when I am dancing. We’ll get back to that later.

When I saw the advertisement for bilingual salsa classes, I decided to grab the opportunity and sign up for classes. I wanted to improve my body movement, and I thought this would be a good way to. The social aspect of salsa had never crossed my mind, and it did not occur to me that there was a whole community of salsa/Latin dancers in Taipei. I certainly did not expect that I would come to love dancing as much as I did. In fact, from the very first class, I was hooked. Now, a little over a year later, I’m a regular at many salsa events in the city, and I generally dance at least twice a week.

Salsa classes opened the door to a world of Latin dance. Salsa, bachata, merengue, all of those songs that I used to kind of shuffle around to when they came on at parties in college suddenly make sense to me. But, I also got what I originally wanted from the lessons: improved body movement and decreased dancing insecurity. I still dance to the same hip hop and R&B songs that I would dance to in high school and college, but I no longer dance to them the same way. But what has shocked me more than anything is how much a desire to dance in church has been rekindled and ignited.

1 Corinthians 13:11 says “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” For me, many of my childish things have been wrapped up in insecurities and frankly caring too much about what people think of me.

I grew up in the church, in a family full of pastors, preachers, and ministers. Being a PK puts a peculiar kind of pressure on you, where people simultaneously expect you to be both perfect and a fallen, messed up rebel simply because of who your parents are. I’m not kidding, I literally had people tell me growing up “Pastor’s kids are always the worst behaved” at times, and at other times remind me that I was responsible for representing my family, God, and the church. Now, my point isn’t that I had a particularly troubling childhood: it was filled with ups and downs like any other. My point is that I absorbed these lessons a little too well, and by the time I went to college I was sick of it all.

Most people do not like to do things that they don’t excel in. It’s even harder to watch (many) others excel in something that you try and fail in. For me, dance was like this. Everyone could dance. Everyone. Except me. At least, that’s how it felt growing up. We had a good dance team at our church that most kids participated in at one time or another. Everyone else seemed to have a natural feel for how their bodies should move to the music, whereas mine seemed to jerk about awkwardly. It wasn’t any better at home, where family members could hold their own. I seemed to be the only one that couldn’t dance.

I’ve come to recognize over the last year that a lot (most) of that awkwardness was just insecurity. I can move, but weighted down by the burden of insecurities I could barely lift an arm. After years of hating dance, my parents finally let me quit the dance team when I was around 11 or 12. I continued to love dance but not dancing. I particularly loved to watch praise dance and hip hop. For years, I stayed in a limited box with my dancing. All throughout high school and most of college I never strayed too far from my little two step and a little hip movement. I briefly ventured into the world of choreographed kathak in college, which was fun, but I stopped when I felt like it was getting very difficult, and the other dancers seemed to be grasping it quicker than me.

So, that was it for me for 10 years or so. Until starting salsa classes, that is. By the time I got to college I was sick of my own insecurities, but also the role I had allowed the church to play in those insecurities, so I began the process of intentionally stripping those away. The process accelerated post-college, partially due to my innate love of dancing outweighing and conquering nerves that might have kept me from going out. This love of dancing that I’m discovering even has me wanting to dance in church again. I long to use dance to express my devotion to my Creator, although here in Taipei the options are limited. For now, I have my apartment for that 🙂

Dancing didn’t bring me freedom, but it did signal freedom.

Now, I dance.

Stress

I’ve been stressing out a lot lately. Between an impending graduation, final papers, honors exams, and fundraising for my move to Taiwan in a couple of months I have been struggling not to feel overwhelmed. And I’ve been struggling trusting that God will bring me through, that I will do well on honors exams, raise the money I need to get to Taiwan, and succeed as an adult.

Today, I was having a conversation with a friend over dinner. As we discussed Jesus in Matthew, the multiple stories of Jesus feeding multitudes of people with just a few fish and a few loaves of bread was brought up. I made fun of the disciples, and even felt frustrated over them, that after watching Jesus miraculously feed the 5,000, they still worried the next time they did not have enough food for 4,000. How could they so easily forget what Jesus had once done right before their own eyes? And how could they forget the many other miracles they had witnessed Him perform?

It only took a second for it to hit me just how hypocritical it was of me to deride the disciples for something I do every day. Even though time and time again I’ve seen God come through and make a way where previously I thought none existed, I still continue to doubt Him. I’m happy that He performed the last miracle, but I’m far from confident that He’ll perform the next one.

So this is what I must work on during this (stressful) season: confidence that God will come through, and not living in stress that He won’t.

My song for this season: “Let Go” by DeWayne Woods

~Tiffany~

On Finding Balance (and contentment)

It’s incredibly hard to find balance at Swat.

Students often joke that there’s a “trilemma” at Swat — between good grades, a good social life, and sleep, you can only have two of the three. I wish I could say that as a senior I’ve proved this to be wrong, but sadly, in my experience at least, it’s been the truth. I have always sacrificed sleep to grades and friends, as well as to extracurriculars and pursuing a relationship with God. And I’m tired. Really, really tired.

Lately, the pressure has been even greater because I’m a second semester senior. I feel like this is my last chance to see certain people, do certain things, and have certain conversations. So I find myself again sacrificing sleep, and in some sense my sanity, to other things. Something I really wanted to focus on this year is being more self-reflective. Plato’s statement that “the unexamined life is not worth living” really resonates with me. And I’ve definitely seen how unhealthy my own life is when I’m constantly going, going, going and not spending any time just relaxing alone or thinking. So I told myself that this semester I was going to take time to myself, going to reflect on life, and going to write it down. I’ve largely failed.

So I’m again at the point in the semester that I always reach where I feel unreasonably angsty and over-worked and just generally not satisfied with my college experience, but not really knowing what to do about it. Except this time I do know what to do about it. It starts with getting some sleep. And taking some time to myself. And thinking a lot more about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. And making the choice to just ignore all the different voices around me and feel comfortable about where I am in life. And finally, I simply need to stop feeling so angsty. It really is unreasonable. I have great family, friends, education, a comfortable life, and a million and one possibilities and opportunities for the future. And most importantly I have a God that loves me. Could I ask for anything better?

When my life gets really out of balance (which is true for most of the semester) I often find it very hard to be content at Swat. It’s good to remember that while Swat is far from perfect and while I’m not completely satisfied with my life here, I should not allow that to consume my happiness. And I should not map that frustration onto the school.

I’d like to end with this thought from Paul: “For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances…I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry,whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:11-13)

~Tiffany~