Wednesday, November 25, 2015

I, too, am America

(I am not sure if the newspaper editor will publish the following essay as an opinion piece ... I thought I might as well blog it then!)

I could not wait to become a citizen of the United States. I filed the application practically the minute I became eligible and then impatiently waited for the letter that would provide me with the details on the swearing-in ceremony. Finally, that cherished day arrived, during the halcyon days of the year 2000. There were the usual congratulations and wishes from friends and colleagues. One gift was special—a quilt.

A friend, who was a Japanese-American, brought the gift and explained that it was her mother who made the quilt. It had red, white, and blue in the square patches, obviously to reflect the colors of the American flag. But, those colors alone did not make the gift special.

The friend’s mother was one of 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were forced to relocate from their homes to the concentration camps. She was a young child when she was forcibly moved to a camp in Manzanar, California. The quilt was, therefore, very special because she loved the country despite how she and other Japanese-Americans were atrociously and inhumanely treated by her government and fellow-citizens. Her commitment to, love for, and pride about the United States were all there in the quilt that welcomed a new citizen.

I was reminded of that quilt and the Japanese-American friend when viewing the traveling exhibit—Art of Survival: Enduring the Turmoil of Tule Lake–at Eugene’s federal courthouse. The photographs and descriptions were about the conditions of the Japanese-Americans who were forced to live in the concentration camp in Tule Lake, which is in the dry elevations of northern California’s Siskiyou County, immediately to the south of Oregon’s border.

It seems so unreal that the federal government, under the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who led the country out of the depths of the Great Depression and instituted various programs including Social Security, rounded up its own people and sent them to camps where all their constitutional rights were stripped away. Their only crime was that they looked like the people of the country that attacked Pearl Harbor. The calculation apparently was that because Japan attacked America, Japanese-Americans were suspects.

Years later, the federal government, under the presidencies of Reagan and Bush, formally tendered its apology to Japanese-Americans. Of course, there is no amount that one can ever pay as compensation to those whose lives were so rudely interrupted, and which tremendously affected the rest of their lives after being released from those camps. 

Even though it happened seventy-plus years ago, it was chilling to look at photographs that had signs saying: “Japs Keep Moving, This is a White Man’s Neighborhood.” It was also surreal to view the images at the exhibit, and to think about the horribly simplistic thought that people had made equating Japanese-Americans with the enemy.

It is even more surreal to think that we are employing that same crude thinking in the context of the refugees from Syria and Iraq, and about Muslims in this country. Because the al-Qaeda and ISIS terrorists are Muslims, and because the recent terrorist acts in France and elsewhere are by ISIS, this country is quickly sliding into a dangerously erroneous conclusion that the Muslim refugees from Syria and Iraq are terrorists, and that even American citizens who are Muslims cannot be trusted. It was shocking, to say the least, to hear one presidential contender talk about the need for a database to track Muslims in the country.

I suppose my brown-skinned and bearded appearance, along with an accent that makes it clear that I am not from here, could make some believe that I am a Muslim who needs to be monitored. As the political hysteria gets louder, my worries about my own welfare increase, as was the case in the days and months after 9/11. If that’s how I feel, when I am not a Muslim and when I am not from Iraq or Syria, I would think that Muslim refugees and brown-skinned Muslims in this country are way more worried than I am. And then I think about the Japanese-Americans who were sent to concentration camps for the only reason that Japan had attacked America—what they experienced seems to be of a magnitude that I cannot even imagine.

The quilt from the Japanese-American mother was more than a mere gift. It was a profound statement on her love for America, with its warts and all. It was a patchwork quilt that echoed the African-American poet Langston Hughes’ line, “I, too, Sing America.”

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

So what if I am inefficient!

In graduate school, when I was just about learning to write essays--boy was that a struggle!--I wanted to write a paper questioning the primacy of efficiency and productivity.  But, back in those days, I had difficulty even piecing together a couple of sentences that made sense, leave along a 2,500-word essay.  I tell ya, no wonder I keep getting those nightmares every once in a while! ;)

I am far from a chop-chop guy; I am always wandering about.  The things that I like are never about efficiency either--from cooking to playing bridge to reading to grading essays to ... I mean, even on the "bike" path, I don't care to bike but prefer to walk.  Biking seems like wanting to rush through the experience.  It is not that I am wandering like a cow on a grassy meadow; I have a plan, of course.

So, where was I?  ;)

Contemporary economic conditions prize efficiency and productivity.  The drive to more and better while being faster. All the speed for what?  Especially when it is even in our personal lives?
If I’m using Google Maps, it’ll quickly alert me when a faster route becomes available. I speed even when I’m not in a hurry, just to see the minutes disappear on my ETA—to see that I’ve saved precious time. The very idea that I’ve “saved time” can give a sensation of pleasure and satisfaction.
Meanwhile, commercials offer quick-and-easy alternatives to any and every cooking, housecleaning, or maintenance job. Dinners get hurriedly prepared in microwaves or crockpots, coffee in Keurigs or even instant packets. Because efficiency—time saved—beckons to us like sirens from every corner.
What the hell do people then use that "saved time" for?
There’s nothing wrong with such desires. But when efficiency becomes an obsession, our lives become a constant, headlong rush. Our obsession with saving time results in no time—at least no time for the sorts of slowness that lead to bursts of intellectual creativity, physical health, and spiritual contemplation.
The ones who "saved time" and are in a rush always seem to be in a rush.  And then there are people like me who seemingly move like sloths but get the job done anyway.  What is with the speed?
 Speed has become the measure of success—faster chips, faster computers, faster networks, faster connectivity, faster news, faster communications, faster transactions, faster deals, faster delivery, faster product cycles, faster brains, faster kids. Why are we so obsessed with speed, and why can’t we break its spell?
Maybe speed is nothing but a fear of being alone.  Wait, let me explain.  In the old days, men and women in the villages were in their group settings.  They talked, laughed, cried, together--essentially wasted time.  That was the life they led.  Now, after the efficiency revolution, we are increasingly by ourselves.
Over time, technological developments have enabled workers to move away from a reliance on colleagues for support and instead trust in a system for getting things done.
Alone at work and at home.  We then don't know what to do with ourselves.  We want to run far away from that loneliness.  But, as much as we run, well, we find that we are alone all over again.  And then we run at even faster speeds!
I often wonder, too, if our obsession with productivity—with “filled time,” in essence—is stemming from a fear of free time. If we’re ever stuck in a moment of silence, we usually turn on the radio or television, grab our phones, or log onto our computers. We have to fill the empty space.

You see how quickly got to this point? ;)