Tuesday May 12th

Poverty and Freedom

I wanted to talk about being broke

  • I am currently studying through funding (via a stipend), but I don’t feel broke or poor. In fact, I live quite comfortably. Having the comfort of the Academic community gives a certain guarantee that things will be okay; things will work out. They may not be as grand as you expect, but they’re in no way the same way as the times when I didn’t have much or I was seen as not much.
  • In Academia, you are still one of the chosen ones; you have potential. But sometimes that is in conflict with the very systems and entities with which you are supposed to interact, or to represent.
  • I’m reading a book at the moment that is pertinent to my area of research, but also talks about people who don’t have much. I also read a paper recently where the author was so angry that his words were like bile etched onto a page. It definitely was not a Computer Science paper, because we…(don’t have empathy? A soul? Have important algorithms to explore? Would rather fight over syntax than over the human condition?). It was the first time in a while I had felt that kind of rage come out of a book.
  • Most books are filled with fake niceties; the raw emotions are edited out. “You can’t use that word; it’s much too…caustic.”
  • Right now, quite a few of my friends are struggling, but there’s a distinction that is clear between those who are hanging on and won’t bounce back as quickly, and those for whom things will turn out just fine (because of their skills, support group, etc). And it feels uncomfortable. I mean, you can’t really tell someone “things will turn out okay” when you know you’re full of it. You can’t even lie to them about it.

It’s a different feeling in the latter category

  • I can still ride the bus and swipe my card for free; people on the bus can see the logo from my school and know that I go to a place that will ensure that things will turn out okay for me.
  • But when I was getting started, it was different. It was a different reality of being cheap labour without any pedigree; just another immigrant. It was a different feeling of staying up until 1am to make sure that money hits your account (just in case).
  • It was a different feeling riding the train or bus, coming home, and still having the smell of homelessness on you, or praying someone wasn’t smoking so close to you that your clothes would reek of marijuana, because you really couldn’t afford to do another batch of laundry (by coin wash, of course).
  • It was a diffeent feeling of knowing that the only way things would work out financially is if you shopped at the stores where all the other underpaid immigrants shopped. That changed after I got my green card. It was as though I had stepped into the echelons of society where I was valued. It was a strange feeling the first time I travelled back into the country, terrified of my conversation with border control (was he going to ask me if I had a boyfriend who smoked weed again, like I would stupidly admit to consuming illegal drugs to a man in a uniform?), that he just didn’t care. In fact, he had a smile on his face. Welcome back to America!

A story

  • Many years ago, I took a job because I needed to get a work visa. The rates were rock bottom, but I got by. Because I was (am?) a fighter, I saw myself as more than I was where I was at that point in time, so I did as much as I could to still be my own person. So I invested in myself and sunk the money that I didn’t save into bettering myself (by taking classes, workshops, etc). I guess because of the way I grew up (fairly privileged), I never really felt that things wouldn’t work out for me, but I’ve hung around a lot of people I wasn’t sure it would work out for while I was working my way up.
  • Even at my worst, for example, when I barely had enough to eat, there were people who saw more in me than I could see in myself. The owner of the first company I worked would ship me business books; he could already see a leader within me, straight out of school. On one occasion, I didn’t have lunch, and was hungry, and the owner of a fancy restaurant took me in, and the staff really liked me, so they’d feed me a three course meal for $2, or sometimes for free. He didn’t see me as a bum, but I could have been? Instead, they made me quesadillas with goat cheese and giant shrimp, coupled with a glass of the richest port wine, and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies as large as my hands. There were constant reminders that this was just temporary.

Even then

  • I would still spend Christmas feeding the homeless in LA when I didn’t have, because I still knew I’d be okay. Someone I knew once went out with me one day, and when we were checking out at the cashier’s, they skipped ahead of me, with the assumption that I would pay for both their food and mine. Some might say it was insincere and a crappy thing to do (and I could agree with that), but it was also a reminder that the person thought I had more than they did, and they were desperate; it was an act of desperation at the time. There are things that remind you of those differences.
  • There are some incidents that stay with me forever, though. It’s the feeling of being surrounded by those who have given up hope, which you see a lot of if you’ve hung around people who don’t have. One such moment was seeing a construction worker sick to his stomach on the train just 20 feet away from me on a packed train. There’s a lot of that in LA. There’s that famous line from that Avicii song that goes “California…seems so golden..but there’s struggle everywhere”.
  • One night on a train ride home, a girl went to a party with her friends and someone got into a fight and her friends were trying to make sure she stayed up on the train, because she might have gotten a concussion. Another time, two seats away from me, an African American guy and a Latino guy got into a fight and started swinging at each other on a moving train, and the Latino guy was clearly drunk, so he wasn’t the most accurate at taking a swing at the other guy, while the rest of us just tried to get out of the way, after late, long shifts and night schools. Running for the train and missing it by a minute (because your connection was late) meant waiting forty five minutes for the next one. Eventually we made the best of it by waving at each other; we had gotten used to being the regulars running for the hourly train. Another guy once told me he was on the train once, listening to music, and then he heard nothing; someone had stolen his iPod while he dozed off.
  • I remember a friend of mine telling me that he wanted to move because someone took a dump in their shared washer and dryer again. The neighbours were too loud and someone stole another pair of jeans from their laundry again. Another friend of mine was paying to set up in someone’s garage and asking (again) if someone knew of anyone who had a couch they could crash on. Another friend was staying in an apartment where cockroaches would regularly come up from her sink. Yet another said if things didn’t work out, there was this guy they might try to marry to stay in the country (uh..totally illegal). At the same time, I would go sailing, or to these glittering screenings or visit the B&O store in Beverly Hills. I remember one evening, I was waiting for the bus and saw a bunch of kids on a Friday night using the ATM, and it was as though they had hacked the ATM; money kept spitting out, while they laughed at how funny the sight was. But that’s LA.

But being ignored can be liberating

  • I’m not writing this to bring up thoughts of poverty porn, but rather, with the memory that being at that stage where I felt most ignored, or the most like cheap labour, I felt strangely liberated. I had absolutely no qualms about telling people exactly how I felt, spoke my mind and made a scene if I deemed something to be unfair (within immigration reasons, of course). And so, one of my concerns is that I don’t want to lose that in Academia; it’s a part of who I am.
  • Having to fight and struggle for part of my life meant that I was absolutely transparent about how I felt, and had a strong sense of identity and sense of fairness. I was also not afaid to take risks, because I had nothing to lose.
  • But there is a dodginess I have felt in places like San Francisco, where people are afraid to say what they really mean. Everything is veiled under a veneer of niceness, even though the truth is in plain sight. People are so afraid to lose what they have (don’t they know that it can still be taken away from them?).
  • One of my professors once called LA “The belly of the beast”; you are confronted with the very wealthy and the very poor; it hits you in a way that you can’t ignore. You are confronted and have to deal with it mentally and emotionally. I got used to it, and it sometimes amused me to see people who had just moved unexpectedly have to deal with that reality, uncomfortably.
  • I hope I never lose that courage and fire and the desire to seek out truth, because it’s why I am where I am today.
  • I think that it’s important for people who have the freedom to have that voice (and that honesty) to remind us what that still feels like. Remind mega-tech companies that not everyone has a smart phone, so when they make their free swag only redeemable by QR code (true story!), tell them that not everyone has the privilege of a smart phone.
  • Because as things change for some of us, we forget. Even though we’ve lived through it. We write a paper about it and hope it gets a lot of citations.

And that’s it

Written on May 12, 2020