Not a boast, but the absence of shame

As we come to the end of Pride Month in Auckland, I’m thinking of all the events I wasn’t able to share with my Aucklanders this year, of the people who shared their stories, who worked in solidarity for visibility and strength, who marched, danced and advocated for those who couldn’t themselves. Thank you.

I made it almost thirty years without being called an activist. I flinched at the time: it was in the context of advocating the worth and integrity of Samoan knowledge, customs and values. Now I know that being an activist is just caring about something enough to do something about it that benefits more people than yourself.

I’m all right with that.

My heart is tired and I’m recovering, but every day I am gaining strength and I thank every one of you for lending me yours. It makes me think about all those students out there walking into university who don’t have the benefit of staff fighting for their rights, of family and friends at their back, or of faith as their shield and foundation.

A couple of months ago, I shared a small chapter of my story as it related to being a member of the LGBT, Christian and Samoan community. There were predictable reactions that I won’t go into, but I want to thank everyone who weathered them and stood up for me in that public forum. Thank you to my church, family and friends who shared that story and didn’t hesitate to reach out with love and support.

What you might not realise is that every time you did that, you were standing up for others like me and those who didn’t realise they had an ally in you. What you didn’t see were all the LGBT and non-LGBT people who contacted me privately afterwards to say ‘thank you’. Who approached me out of the blue in person to say how proud they were of me. It’s pretty surreal.

All of them were Pasifika.

Many of them were scared, tired, and didn’t have the security to like, share or express a positive opinion on such a story online without fearing repercussions from their social circles. These people are your family, your friends, your co-workers. They are finding their way and it’s a powerful source of strength simply knowing you are not alone.

To these people, I sympathise as someone who knows too intimately what it feels like being exhausted down to their core: please stay alive. It’s going to be okay. We’re going to be okay. If once in a while you fracture or break, that’s also okay. Just keep going.

And if you can, march this weekend in our Auckland CBD for yourself, for someone you love, for those who don’t have the freedom to do so yet. Pride is not a boast of superiority, but the absence of shame. Do not be ashamed. No matter your age, you are a beloved child worthy of love and respect, and we’ve got work to do.

Be kind to yourself. Rest when you need to. Keep spreading that good stuff.

Ia manuia.

The postgrad’s prayer

At a previous writing retreat for Pasifika postgraduates, one of my peers shared how her writing had changed over the course of her PhD journey. Once removed from the context of her subject area, she could speak with the benefit of distance.

“Your writing is less angry than it used to be,” her supervisor apparently said.

Another peer told me she listens to Eminem while writing her thesis. She didn’t listen for Eminem’s fast-running lyrics, but because the verbal punches and rhythm inspired something like anger, motivating her to write.

Passion is definitely an effective driver for postgraduate studies. Anecdotal evidence may show us that students would classify the postgrad journey as “an arduous experience” (that’s how we write when we can’t be bothered to qualify our statements with evidence, yo). It helps to care about what you’re studying.

When pinning down our research, we’re encouraged to think of our project in terms of what problem or opportunity we’re responding to. My current research project is one part of a long journey towards the negotiation of cultural identity as a foundation to academic and, subsequently, professional achievement. (If you want to know what I’m actually studying, please go here.)

I have an interest in social justice, awareness and wellbeing: people being given every opportunity, respective to their situation, of being able to live and live well. I live my life by a theology of compassion. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. But you’re going to encounter a lot of Christians in your life, and I’m the one following Jesus as he’s flipping tables in the temple, chasing merchants out with a whip for exploiting people and sullying places of worship with greed.

what-would-jesus-do-flipping-over-tables
I’ve been laughing at this meme for about four years.

I’m working to realise an opportunity. In my feeling place, I’m pursuing this research to help lift up my Samoan people. But on a day-to-day basis, it’s spite that fuels me and it’s the problems that grease the gears. I’m annoyed by all the potential wasted by ignorance or laziness. I’m disappointed by the prideful reproaches that barricade conversations, prioritising saving face over saving our families. I’m angry at the families that don’t fight to make a place for their members who diverge from a norm. And I’m angriest at myself for each day when I don’t achieve what I set out to do.

I’m working to spite my inner child growling in the corner who’s given up.

I pray for a day when I don’t need the spite, where my relationship with God is intimate enough that I understand how to work from a place of compassion free of aggression.

But then I look to Jesus with the tables, and I think that maybe a little anger once in a while is within reason. I can forgive while holding people (including myself) to account; but forgiveness may mean that sometimes we have to move on without an admission of wrongdoing, while we expect accountability in the future.

I’m praying for a day when I can be more compassionate with myself without becoming lazy. Praying for that day when I can sustainably extend this courtesy to everyone around me. Praying for that ongoing courage to change the things I can, the peace to accept the things I cannot, and God’s wisdom to discern the difference.

When you just want to eat your steak in peace but you have responsibilities

“Sometimes I wish I could un-learn the past year-and-a-half.

I wish I could go along to a big blockbuster film without seeing its story, characters or casting choices as a reflection of its creators’ ideas on the world and their place in it.”

Wherein a film review of “Independence Day: Resurgence” becomes a reflection on lazy storytelling and treatment of indigenous communities in film, and I segueway into the Matrix.

#TheRedPillLife #CompleteWithReferences

Dragons and demigods — your stories are not my stories

This evening, I was speaking to an acquaintance in Britain who expressed a wish to learn about other cultures.

I thought, “Okay, I’m no expert but I can at least speak from personal experience, what I’ve been taught between scholars and cultural experts, and about my research.”

After an abbreviated romp through Polynesian migration, we got onto the subject of Samoan myths and legends.

“Are there dragons?”

What an English thing to ask, I unfairly generalised, while mentally flitting through images of steel knights lancing red dragons.

Now, I’m still learning about our fāgogo (folk tales) and tala o le vavau (myths and legends), but I confessed, “I’m fairly sure we don’t have dragons – at least not in the way you’re probably thinking. Not like East Asian dragons, either. And if we did, they probably would have been of the sea, more eel or shark-like.”

As I spoke about the legends of Sina and Nafanua, I caught myself hesitating.

Wait. If I tell you this… am I going to see a poor man’s rendition of this coming through in your work?

Are you going to be the Christopher Paolini to our Tolkiens and so blatantly borrow to render our heroes, journeys and signature moments as your own? (more…)

Eat your broccoli: an informal and unsystematic treatise of undergrad vs postgrad life

Almost one year on from starting my Masters program, I’ve been blessed to form a circle of friends blended with postgrad and undergrad students.

Observing undergrads in the bubble of their study rooms, I sometimes reflect — because the rooms are walled by glass, and this is a lot of hair to fuss with; but then I reflect on when I was at their point in the academic journey.

Have you ever thought, “I wish I could go back to school with what I know now”?

Being a postgraduate is a lot like fulfilling that fantasy.

Usually people think of this because they want to go back and ace all that assessment, but consider it holistically for a moment. Pursuing a research project has different objectives from when I was a coursework-driven undergrad. I have no desire to relive the days of sloughing through assembly language all-nighters or waiting out awkwardly silent English tutorials, but I recognise now that was a necessary hazing.

Last semester, I was a teaching assistant. Our students went through weeks of testing new technologies and techniques. They may not use a lot of these for a long time, if ever again. They may find some of what they learned saves them from certain dead ends. Who knows with complete certainty what will work best for them until they try it?

We called this the “eat your broccoli” stage.

Coming back as a postgraduate is like looking back on those days when people force-fed you all kinds of vegetables of knowledge. We all ate our broccoli: subject matter, study techniques, tool, tricks, and survival tips.

So, now you’re a postgraduate, and you see the broccoli from the salad. You know how to make a freaking amazing salad. You know what you like and what makes you retch. Let us compare.

In the days before broccoli: You spend 80% of your days amusing yourself with things on the internet or raising your game in Tekken. You regularly check in with friends to see who else hasn’t started the assignment yet and high-five each other over take-away.

In the days after broccoli: If you’re not working, you still spend 80% of your days amusing yourself, but you’ve now expanded beyond the internet. You’ve taken up the gym. You like to cook. Maybe you invest in having a clean house. There are so many parts to being an adult that involve paperwork, and you can’t neglect them. Your procrastination game is so en pointe that when you procrastinate, you’re still being productive. You commiserate with friends over the fact that you all treat your project schedule like a pirate treats the pirate code. You regularly recharge with coffee to cure your three-thirty-itis before powering through eight hours of work in thirty minutes.

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On the circle of life

This year I turn thirty, but it feels like I’ve been thirty for a while.

Between all my twenty-something friends I keep reminding to respect their elders, and the larger circle of friends who all crossed this milestone years ago, I’ve been here for a while in my mind.

I don’t mind getting old. In fact, I love it. As Maurice Sendack once said, “It is a blessing to get old. It is a blessing to find the time, to read the books, to listen to the music.”

Like Maurice, I am in love with the world. I am blessed to have been born to the parents I was, who gave me every opportunity to excel not only in what I was good at, but what I loved. I am blessed I had a sister born ahead of me to take down the worst of the world’s obstacles and send me back some pro survival tips. I am so fortunate that I was born in a country with good education, good healthcare, that embraced foreign students, that let us live free of persecution, that taught us how a community could live inclusively and compassionately.

I’m religious, so I call it a blessing. My non-religious friends call it luck. It is what it is — and not everyone gets that chance.

I am grateful for every year that I’ve had with the family and friends I adore, because nobody knows how many years they have left. Every year is another measure of time in which to make this world a blessing for someone else. Every month is another opportunity to leave this world a little better than how we found it. Every day is a chance to make someone else’s day just a little bit easier.

I love getting old. As a gamer, we call it “levelling up”. As a writer, we call it “growing grey in wisdom”.

The only prospect that makes me sad about ageing is having to gradually say goodbye to all the people I love. When I was younger, I selfishly asked my sister to die on the same day as me. Used to my influences from Gothic horror and Winnie the Pooh logic, she slanted a narrow look at me, “Er, no.”

So, instead of trying to extract morbid death contracts from the people you love, just love them while you have them.

Listen to that friend who needs a sympathetic ear and a little tough love. Prop your colleagues up with your shoulder, and give them the chance to shoulder you one day, too. Take the time to sit with your grandmother, even if you’re separated by a language barrier; there is no barrier to the love expressed by taking the time to just be someone’s companion. Call your parents, don’t make them call you first.

Tell people you care about them. Tell them every day, tell them creatively: nothing says “I care” like I’m sharing life’s challenges with you, and I did these dishes all by myself.

Oh, learning, why you so hard?

“You’re postgraduates, you don’t get a break!”

— Our Masters program leader every time we accidentally utter the words ‘semester break’. We really must develop a better method for tracking the passage of time.

It is no secret that university works us like dogs (and if it doesn’t, what are you paying for?).

In my program, undergraduate or postgraduate, we don’t seem to have exams. To make up for this sin, instead, we have projects.

I was recently talking one of my students through her project progress when I got the distinct impression that she was glazing over. I stopped and asked what was on her mind. She gave me a small, apologetic smile and said, “It’s just – I haven’t really slept in two months.”

I instantly sympathised. By the end of my first semester in Masters, completely out of my element and intellectually deconstructed to the point I was no longer laughing at the words “existential crisis”, I felt the same.

I’d resorted to travelling with a pillow to uni and did not care how it looked. Shuttle bus trips became planned power naps between project sprints. I went through a phase of coffee-charged microsleeps and consumed cat videos like candy to stay awake. I was so tired I began lowering my standards just to get work done; my friends and I cheered that throwback undergraduate mantra that “P’s make degrees”, which is true but felt like a significant personal betrayal.

Eventually, we completed the semester and I told myself that if I could work that hard in the year ahead, this thesis would be in the bag.

So, about that.

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