Book Review: Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

Since I was racially assaulted in public a few weeks ago, I have been thinking a lot more about the rising anti-Asian sentiment in America resulting from Covid-19. Being stuck at home with a laptop, I read more about different ways racism against people of Asian descent manifests, and how the victims deal with this new social reality. One author who popped up quite a lot in my search was Cathy Park Hong. I read a few op-ed pieces she wrote, and they all referenced her recent book Minor Feelings, which explores the question of identity as an Asian American, specifically Korean American, born, and raised in America.

Hong defines minor feelings as :

the radicalized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed. Minor feelings arise, for instance, upon hearing a slight, knowing it’s racial, and being told, Oh, that’s all in your head … [M]inor feelings are “non-cathartic states of emotion” with “a remarkable capacity for duration.”

These feelings are emotions that an individual experiences pertaining to their racial existence. They sometimes make the individual doubt themselves whether their interlocutor was being “racist or racial” toward them. These were experiences that the majority around them do not feel, and the racial minority person does not have the language to describe. Thus these feelings remain “minor,” sometimes inconvenient, sometimes frustrated.

These feelings are so specific to American society that they “occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance.” America is a place full of contradictions. On the one hand,  it is a neoliberal land, proud that it offers every one opportunity. On the other hand, it’s an old capitalist society that thrives on the back of people of color since the onset. Depending on what part of America, an individual wants to see, they would see different parts.

Then Hong goes on relating these feelings to her own experience growing up in America as a minority person: “To grow up Asian in America is to witness the humiliation of authority figures like your parents and to learn not to depend on them: they cannot protect you.” Second generation often has to defend their parents. They are forced to grow up, and deal with the cruel society, which takes no excuse when humiliating your parents, and everything you think should be respected. You take their pains, and humiliations as your own because at the end of the day you see yourself in them.

The word “minor” is aptly used in this book to describe the fact that Asian Americans’ uncomfortable feelings about their existence in America. Their feelings are so “minor,” so minuscule that the mainstream society does not care. No-one would take their silent sufferings seriously:

The indignity of being Asian in this country has been underreported. We have been cowed by the lie that we have it good. We keep our hands down and work hard, believing that our diligence will reward us with our dignity, but our diligence will only make us disappear. By not speaking up, we perpetuate the myth that our shame is caused by our repressive culture and the country we fled, whereas America has given us nothing but opportunity… Racial trauma is not a competitive sport. The problem is not that my childhood was exceptionally traumatic but it was in fact rather typical.

Asian Americans are quiet, keeping their heads down, and their hands work. Asian Americans are so quiet that they become invisible. But being ignored, and being condescended to are daily experiences that they lost any belief in themselves, and their abilities.

Shame is an integral part of the minor feelings. It works insidiously to keep the victims’ heads low, and their mouths shut.

My parents are those who survivor instincts align with this country’s neoliberal ethos, which is to get ahead at the expense of anyone else while burying the shame that binds us. To varying degrees, all Asians who have grown up in the United States know intimately the shame I have described; have felt it oily flame … Shame is an inward, intolerable feeling but it can lead to productive outcomes because of the self-scrutiny shame requires.

Shame is a feeling that binds us. If you fail, your parents feel shameful for you. If you fail, your community feels shameful for you. Shame is both an individual, and a collective experience.

After the racial assault incidence, I felt more solidarity with the Asian community in this country.  Reading Hong’s book made me realize the indignity that has troubled them for decades even centuries. The concept “panethnicity” explains this feeling that I have with other ethnic groups.  I used to embrace the bright, positive, optimistic part of American society, and ignore the dark history of American racism. Covid-19 whips racist residues to the surface.

I find comfort in reading Hong’s book. It’s deeply personal, but also deeply structural. It’s a memoir not of herself, but of many Asian American artists who are trying to come to terms with the racist society that they were born into and raised. The book both liberates and troubles me. It frees me by giving me vocabulary to describe my intimate ontological feelings. It troubles me by revealing the ugly face of American society that I refused to see for a long time.

This book is also very refreshing from the point of view of race/ethnicity studies. It was written as an autobiographical exploration by a poet. Her references are very different from what I would use for my regular scholastic exploration. Normally, whenever I want to understand Asian American experiences in American society, I would go to sociology giants in my field such as  Dina Okamoto or Jennifer Lee. Hong instead cites literary giants that she admires. I see her professional inspiration, and aspiration in the book. By reading the book, I was  introduced to a world of intellectuals who study race/ethnicity issues from a very different perspective from mine. Many a times, I can feel that she is talking about a concept that I might know how to express in sociological terms. However, she talks in a way that is more relatable, more lyrical, and also more humanistic.

Sometimes she speaks for me: “At the time, I couldn’t relate to some of the Asian American fiction and poetry I came across. It seemed, for the lack of a better word, inauthentic, as if it were staged by white actors. I thought maybe English was the problem. It was certainly a problem for me.” I feel unheard many times. When I look inside into the world of books, my experience is also not recorded anywhere. My quest for self understanding both in the real world, and in the fictional world yields no fruit. Maybe I am just waiting for that book to be written. Or maybe someday I will write a book myself.

The book shows me that I am not alone in resisting to write about my own racial experience: “I still clung to a prejudice that writing about my racial identity was minor and non-urgent, a defense that I had to pry open to see what throbbed beneath it. This was harder than I thought, like butterflying my brain out onto a dissection table to tweeze out the nerves that are my inhibitions.” This precise feeling that exploring one’s own racial and ethnic identity is “minor,” as not “important” leads to the fact that there are not many materials for me to use to understand my experience.

Many a times, I feel my story has not been told. I feel my history is incomplete. I used to think that Americans did not understand me. Then I went to graduate school, and started to hang out with historians of Vietnam. I learned that archives of the Vietnam war just opened up. At least more will be told about the Vietnam War, but as of now, the history remains incomplete. But my experience, my people’s experience are not only about the Vietnam War.

For a person with an incomplete history, sometimes I become incomplete myself. I am confused in American society, because I do not fit the mold of the Vietnamese refugees or their second generation. People’s preconceived notions me fall apart when we talk. That’s the minor feeling that I am experiencing in American society.

Unless we are read as Muslim or trans, Asian Americans are fortunate not to live under hard surveillance, but we live under a softer panopticon, so subtle that it’s internalized, in that we monitor ourselves, which characterizes our conditional existence. Even if we’ve been here for four generations, our status here remains conditional; belonging is always promised and just out of reach so that we behave, whether it’s the insatiable acquisition of material belongings or belonging as a peace of mind where we are absorbed into mainstream society. If the Asian American consciousness must be emancipated, we must free ourselves of or conditional existence.

Even in the writings of Viet Thanh Nguyen, I do not find myself. His writings are sensitive to Vietnameseness, but not femaleness in me. His writings are sensitive to the sufferings of the Vietnamese refugees, but not those who grew up in post-Vietnam War  impoverished North Vietnam like my parents. His writings were about downward social mobility, when a middle-class Vietnamese family in South Vietnam became working class in America without any belonging, and their social networks. How about my family living in the north of Vietnam suffering impoverishment, and Cultural Revolution-style poliies, and pulling their own bootstrap to survive through “Thoi Ky Bao Cap” or The Subsidized Era? These stories are not told, and I could not find myself in the pages. I could sympathize with people’s sufferings, but my Vietnameseness is different from those that I have read in the pages in America, and from the mainstream American’s imagination of what a Vietnamese person should be.

In this sense, my uncomfortability, my frustration, and my invisible existence resemble what Hong calls “minor feelings.” They are inconvenient, but not world-shattering to the majority population, or even in my case my co-ethnics in the United States.

Ramen No More: Vanishing Authenticity

If authenticity is a state of mind, it’s historic, local and cool. But if authenticity is a social right, it’s also poor, ethnic and democratic.

Naked City, Sharon Zukin

Last week, I went to a friend’s birthday party in East Village. The area has become so cool that I would find myself there once or twice in a month hanging out with old and new friends. My favorite places there are the old-school punk bars where one can find a variety of beer, gritty interior decorations, which are sometimes borderline unhygienic, lots of punk music. Most importantly they offer an assortment of alcoholic drinks which are still affordable for my graduate student budget. I rarely see any fancy cocktail names such as the Vesper Martini or Hemingway Daiquiri. They just serve beer, cider, whiskey, gin and an assortment of vodkas. That is, the choices are simple. I rarely have to try to appear sophisticated, but feel down-to earth, and relaxed. The interactions with bartenders are posted as some cultural tests that I need pass in order to blend in as a cultural cosmopolite. I only need to order a Goose Island beer, and voila I’m a part of the scene.

To me and my friends, East Village is cool because all restaurants that we frequent, and bars that are affordable, and theaters that are offering off-broad-way plays are there. Sometimes we would give improvisational comedies at the UCB theater a try. Most important to us is the ambiance. There are always young people on street in East Village. It doesn’t matter what time of the day it is or what day of the week it is. It is always festive. It is not too posh, and not too touristy. It is youthful, affordable. The landscape is dotted with art galleries and boutiques here and there. It has everything that one needs, and the adjacent neighborhoods including Greenwich Village, Soho, and Chinatown are within walking distance. Hence, for me and my friends, we have found ourselves end up in East Village more often than we would have planned.

Last week, after the birthday party there, I had a minor sociological struggle to understand the lived experience of gentrification and authenticity. We celebrated my friend’s birthday at a nice bar, whose policy allowed us to bring our own food. A small group of us started looking for some delicious ramen to calm our hunger at around 7PM. The weather was crisp, yet a bit chilly. It was the kind of an early winter night that was perfect to savor a bowl of soup. As any Millennial who’s constantly checking their smartphone for emails, and social media messages, we relied on Google Reviews to locate a ramen place. Google Reviews led us to an upscale place that sold only Ramen. The place was rated 4.8 out of 5 on Google Reviews. It was an open-space restaurant with tall windows, high ceiling, and tall – standing wooden tables. The first thing we saw after entering the main entrance was that a group in front of us were ordering their ramen at a touch-able screen. Next to us was a billboard showcasing different kinds of ramen being offered. It was an utterly modern restaurant, which utilized way more automation than we were used to.

Having seen our confused faces, an amicable waiter approached us, and gave us some instruction about how to proceed at the restaurant. First, we should choose our food at the two touch-screen stations, then after the orders were placed in the system, and paid for, he would bring us to the available seats. We followed the instruction, approached the touch-screens, and studied the available options. The process was similar to how one could customize a burrito or a burger, but the product this time is a bowl of ramen noodle. Everything could be compartmentalized. One could add an extra egg, seaweed, tofu, vegetables, and cheese on one’s ramen. The dishes looked very artistic on the screen, yet sterilized. There’s no gritty, rugged feeling to any option. At that very moment, my only urge was to get out.  When the ordering became Fordist, and automated, where every ingredient could be taken apart, the whole could no longer be the same. A bowl of ramen was not equivalent to a burger. Making ramen is no rocket science. It is relatively simple. However, it is at the end of the day, an art. It involves fresh ingredients, which could not be seen, smelled, and felt from a picture on a touch screen.

Given that ramen is a fast-food, it is bound to be wept the process of McDonaldization of the modern world. The McDonaldization thesis suggests that our modern world is subject to increasing rationalization in every aspect of life. Everything is organized around the four principles: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control. I agree that one expects to see these qualities in production of more things in this world. But can God be mercy, and leave my ramen alone? When it comes to food, especially ethnic food, I am longing for some sprinkles of love, authenticity, and the history of a place where it came from.

Having recently watched the documentary Ramen Heads, I learned that ramen was created during a difficult time of in Japanese history and economy.  It was essentially a poor man’s food, and indeed fast-food for the Japanese now. It is made with ingredients found in the island nation including wheat noodles, fish, seaweed, miso, etc. That is to say, the “poor” and “democratic” history of ramen makes it so appealing. Once the dish is modernized, all the “gritty” flavor is gone. Its broth is no longer made of tiny little fish, it is replaced with beef stock or chicken stock in America. The hearty feeling is lost forever.

The moment when we all realized that we could take apart every ingredient in our  bowl of ramen, we decided to leave the restaurant. Of course, knowing what is on your food is important, but making everything completely transparent leads to a boring dish that could be reproduce-able everywhere. My hearty little bowl of soup is no longer special. It’s as sterilized as a McDonalds burger. I walked out of the store thinking to myself why on earth was the restaurant rated so high on Google Maps? Why consumers would silly consume the in-authenticity of this place then rank it so highly? What criteria did they use to rank this place? I didn’t come to any conclusion specifically to the consumers, but one thing I was sure about was that Google Reviews were unreliable.

When it comes to ethnic foods, Google’s crowd-sourcing machinery is the most unreliable thing to count on. Why? Because there are no parameters in determining what a good restaurant is. Maybe customers at that restaurant only rank its modern aesthetics. They rank their efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control, but authenticity is never mentioned because they themselves do not know what a bowl of authentic ramen is. They just want ramen. They don’t want authentic Japanese ramen. They want to consume ethnic food, but not the little fish powder in the broth. When one has to do an ingredient analysis for an authentic bowl of ramen, customers would see ingredients like fish powder, fish paste, and a lengthy list of complicated and sometimes coded as “disgusting” condiments. The cook might easily lose his patience, and appreciation to the mainstream guests.

Instead of looking for another ramen noodle place because I had lost my trust in Google Reviews, we just walked across the street, and entered a Japanese-looking restaurant. This one was not at all modern-looking. It was covered with wooden decoration outside. One could not see inside what other customers were having. Privacy was maintained. Pedestrians could not window-shop the experience of those who were actually eating inside. We had to enter the restaurant to see how it was organized, what kind of tables they had. It had such an authentic, yet old-schooled feeling to me: there were small chairs for single restaurant goers to enjoy their single meals; there were a few big tables for groups who preferred to eat at a table. There were also small, low wooden tables, where customers sat on Tatami mattress and consume the Japanese style. The physical organization of the restaurant was completely opposite to the other one. Instead of making it an open space that embraced the ideals of space, air, light and clean design, this restaurant embraced diversity, and tried to accommodate all kind of customers. Restaurant goers chose where to sit, and how to eat their food. I felt like a queen at this location.

Then we proceeded to order our food. The menu was extensive with different kinds of tempuras, Udon noodles, don buri, bento boxes, various appetizer and sake options. However, one column in the menu was blackened out with duct tape. We were curious, and tried to lift the upper corner of the duct tape to see what’s underneath. It was the ramen column that was completely wiped out. We asked the waiter to confirm if they still offered ramen since we’re craving some ramen. He said that they completely dropped ramen out from their menu because there were too many ramen places nearby. They simply could not compete. Therefore, we ordered something else instead of insisting on getting something that was not on the menu.

However, we encountered an authenticity paradox: it’s too authentic. One of us was a vegetarian, and he refused to eat any fish products. Since Japan is an island nation, the most abundant thing that it has is fish. Fish finds itself in almost every Japanese dish. Fish is as essential to the Japanese cuisine as butter to the French. My friend ended up getting some vegetarian tempura which was the only vegetarian option available. While I was having a grand time with a bowl of authentic beef udon noddle, my friend was unhappy with the lack of options. Authenticity is exclusive. It could not accommodate everyone. What I was yearning for was what my friend hated about Japanese food: exclusivity.

While gentrification drives authenticity away, it brings in diversity and flexibility. While feeling guilty having made my friend unhappy about his food options, I asked myself whether a diverse place can offer a new kind of authenticity. Are gentrification and authenticity always antitheses?

Soziopod: Sociology Podcast from Germany

In the past, I have reviewed two sociology podcasts from the United States and the United Kingdom, namely The Annex Sociology, and Thinking Allowed (Than 2017). Still an avid listener of both channels, I am constantly learning about new ideas and the development in my field on the two sides of the Atlantic. Yet, the previous blog post reveals that my consumption of sociological knowledge is very Anglo-American centric. That is, outside of what is available in the English language, I almost never tried to read sociological knowledge written in another language. While in Berlin, I discussed this issue with a good friend, Herrmann Königs, a sociologist in training at Humboldt University in Berlin. He suggested that I should listen to a sociology podcast in German. It’s called Soziopod. I took a listen, and was pleasantly surprised by its content, the quality of the debates, and the number of episodes available. This blog post summarizes my overall evaluation of the podcast.

Soziopod

One can find more information about the podcast here. According to Wikipedia, it is dedicated to sociological and philosophical topics, and started in 2011. The podcast is unfortunately in German, which means that it is non-accessible to many. Unlike the two podcasts mentioned above, which focus mainly on sociology and other related social sciences, this podcast brings philosophy to the center of all social debates. This element in itself is very refreshing.

The podcast is hosted by Dr. Nils Köbel and Patrick Breitenbach. Dr. Köbel is a trained sociologist of children, youth, and religion, and Patrick Breitenbach is an expert in digital media. They make a good pair of hosts because both of them are invested in various topics. Since one of them is a media expert, he could translate abstract concepts into layman’s language. Many a times, the podcast avoids sociological jargon, which only insiders could understand.  The purpose of the podcast is to make sociological knowledge accessible to everyone. Dr. Köbel stated that they try present the topics in a manner of general understanding to “bring Sociology to the streets, where it belongs.”

A typical episode lasts around one hour. It is structured around a topic such as social inequality, migration, power, right-wing extremism, religion, or the Frankfurt School of social theory. That means, it’s a wealth of knowledge for anybody who is interested in social debates in Germany. Every once in a while, they also air a special episode where the hosts discuss an issue with a body of audience, and interact with them. Sometimes they invite experts to comment on certain topics. That means listeners could directly raise a question to the hosts/moderators, and sometimes debate with the two hosts as well. Since its inception in 2011, the program has produced more than 70 episodes, a few public forums for an audience to interact with the hosts, and they have published one book. This is quite impressive!

After the topic is being introduced, the hosts would define an important concept or concepts. Then they introduce the different social theorists who have written about the topic, and elaborate more on how these theorists are in conversation with one another. More importantly the discussions are situated in the context of contemporary Germany, which makes abstract scholarly debates relatable to daily life experience.

The discussions have a lot of pedagogical values. During the course of one hour, one can learn many important social theory concepts, and could look for appropriate examples to make sense a particular concept.  Each episode contains lots of knowledge about social theory.  The hosts often highlight theoretical concepts which have been invented by German theorists such as Jürgen Harbamas,  Thomas Luhmann,  or Theodor Adorno. I found these discussions fascinating because I have never really read these authors closely, nor used any of their works before. What is even more intriguing is that the hosts would relate sociological concepts to philosophical concepts. In other words, they acknowledge the foundation of sociology: philosophy. When unearthing the genealogy of a particular term, one could trace it back to some philosopher who wrote about similar topics. This is a contrast to my current sociological training in the United States, which as a field has developed into something that has been moved quite far from philosophy, or social theory.

Even though the podcast is a great pedagogical channel, as an American trained student of sociology, I cannot help but point out some of its shortcomings. First, its main topics would be categorized under the umbrellas of social theory or political sociology in American sociology terms. According to the recent sections that are listed on the American Sociological Association’s website, social theory and political sociology are two among its 52 official sections. In other words, the podcast covers a very small fraction of all possible sociological topics that one can study.

Given the nature of its leaning toward social theory, and philosophy,  most discussions stay on the abstract level. The discussions are centered around a topic, relevant sociological concepts, and different possible directions that could be taken to deal with the topic. What is barely discussed is empirical evidence to test whether the theory actually works on the grounds. The general structure of one episode is organized as follows:

  1. Definition of a concept
  2. How to operationalize the concept?
  3. Can one use the concept in a particular context in relation to the given topic?
  4. Who else has talked about the concept and this phenomenon since ancient philosophy?
  5. What else can we learn about the phenomenon?
  6. Is there any unresolved contradiction?

The hosts barely cite new research conducted in contemporary Germany. They often talk about big thinkers, who came up with concepts that could be applied universally. There are almost no discussions about methodology and data, which in my opinion are the strength of sociology. We are a pluralistic bunch of scientists who employ a variety of methods, theories, and data to study the social world. The podcast’s main focuses are concepts, and argumentation. As a student of immigration, work, and the urban, I find the podcast lacking because those fields are by definition not the main focus of the podcast. Because of its emphasis on theory, the podcast is also not paying enough attention to the lived experience of a particular group, which quintessentially showcases how a person inhabits their living environment, and reveals their social world.

When I brought up my observation about the lack of empirical research discussions in the podcast, my friend, Herrmann Königs, commented that this illustrates what is valued and emphasized in sociological research and pedagogy in Germany. In his words: “German sociology emphasizes intellectual history of a concept, and whether the concept could be applied universally.” We then went on to debate the question: Is it necessary to learn about the historical context, through which the concept arose in order to understand a contemporary social phenomenon? We couldn’t come up with a consensus whether it is productive to learn about intellectual history of a concept, or whether it is more productive to learn how to apply it in a contemporary situation. However, our discussion highlights the differences in our training on the two sides of the Atlantic. American sociological training tends to emphasize the empirical; the German, the theoretical.

Due to their training, my German counterparts impress me with their expertise in close reading of original texts, and the logic of their argumentation. However, I find their main interests on formal institutions such as the church, the school, and the state to be limiting. Sociologists can also study sub-cultures such as that of the urban squatters, Punk Rock culture, the Fusion (the equivalent of the Burning Man), the proliferation of Yoga, and the immigrants. All of those marginal groups might one day become mainstream, and by studying these subgroups, sociologists could reveal social transformations.

One could criticize that I am too American-centric, and that I cannot impose an agenda set by my profession on one side of the Atlantic to the other. I agree that I am an American trained sociologist, but I also think that as a profession, scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have much to learn from each other. German sociology provides rigorous theoretical training that I wish American graduate programs could provide. I would like to see students from day one to engage more with theoretical texts, and learn how to do it properly rather than seeing people like myself scared of social theory, and opt to do empirical research from day one. Thus, many a times sociology papers read a-theoretical to me. However, American pragmatism is much to be praised. With this pragmatic orientation in mind, we are looking for mechanism of why something is the case, and using our sociological imagination to reveal it. The two papers that I have read lately that showcase how a mechanism-focused researcher could be done are “When two bodies are (not) a problem” by Lauren Rivera (2017), and “All that is Solid” by David Peterson (2015). They exemplify some of the best contemporary sociological research that American academia has to offer.

Another aspect that I find not satisfactory is that the main (if not only) geographical focus of the podcast is Germany. It doesn’t give any air time other German speaking countries such as Switzerland, Austria, and Lichtenstein. If the social concepts are so universally applicable, why are they not applied in other cultural, sociopolitical contexts? According to Jaeeum Kim(2017), the field of sociology is openly anti-area studies. In other words, American sociologists tend to study American society; Germans study German one. Despite all odds, many sociologists travel across nation-state boundaries to study a particular social phenomenon. A few great books that I have read in the past two years include Jaeeun Kim (2016)’s Contested Embrace, where the author examined immigration from the Korean Peninsula, and their diasporic politics in the 20th century. Another example is Kimberly Hoang (2015)’s Dealing in Desire, which is an excellent ethnography that looks at the co-production of gender and capital in the sex market place in the context of globalizing Vietnam. Two growing subfields of sociological research are China Studies and Asian Studies. The 21st century has been dubbed as the Asian Century. It would be a mistake to not pay any attention to this important geographical area. In other words, only paying attention to social phenomena that occur within the geographical boundary of the German nation is a disadvantage for German sociologists in the context of increasing interdependence and interconnections of different areas of the world.

In conclusion, Sociopod has provided me with a substantial vocabulary to talk with my sociology colleagues on this side of the Atlantic. If you’re comfortable with social theory, political sociology, or pedagogy, you should give it a try. It is packed with bite-size discussions of theoretical knowledge. Its ability to reach a popular audience is aspiring. Bringing sociology to the street is such an inspiring goal, and it ought to be supported. In the context of the increasing emphasis of public sociology, I wish that all academics could use some of the hosts’ techniques to mainstream sociological knowledge to the wider audience. Sociology indeed belongs to the street, and that the knowledge of the profession should not be contained within the walls of the academe.

 

 

 

“Ausländer Raus!” : The Unleashing of Populism & Collateral Damage to All Ethnicities

Last weekend, I planned a trip to Hamburg to hang out with some friends. At 6 o’clock  on Saturday, I darted out of the apartment headed to Ostbahnhof Station, which is located in the Eastern Part of Berlin. With my rucksack on my back, and a tot bag on my shoulder, I hurried to get out of the door. On the way, while waiting for the pedestrian traffic light to turn green, I saw two men in their late 20s or early 30s on their bikes approach the zebra crossing. Three of us were to converge at the same crossing line. As soon as the light turned green, I headed toward the other side of the road. While trying to plug the earphones to Iphones, I heard: Ausländer Raus!,” which means “Foreigner  Out!.” Puzzled, and shocked, I looked around, trying to figure out where the voice came from.  There were only three people on the street: two German men on their bikes, and myself, an Asian woman walking across the street. I stared at them for a moment, puzzled, upset, and literally FURIOUS. Agitated, I held my hands up, gave each of them a middle finger. Then one of them said “not you” in English. I didn’t want to pick up a fight, and knew that if the fight had happened, I would not have been able to handle it. Instead I kept walking without looking back.

The entire interaction unfolded in less than 30 seconds, but it took me almost a week to digest, and come to terms with what happened. How did these men dare to shout such a xenophobic phrase at me? Who were they? What did they really mean? Why did they say “not you” at the end?

The Expression „Ausländer Raus!”

To me the expression represents the AfD’s position towards immigration. They basically do not want any person with an immigration background in Germany. I learned it in Dresden 4 years ago, when Pegida, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, was demonstrating frequently in Dresden to show that their Islamophobia and anti-immigration politics. Simply put, they don’t want any Muslim person in Germany. This sentiment has been going on in Germany for a long time, and those demonstrations took place even before the European refugee crisis, starting in 2015. Then every time I visited Dresden, what I didn’t receive any a direct anti-immigration utterance, but silent stare from Dresdeners. It was not comfortable, yet I didn’t feel that my existence was being attacked physically or psychologically. The harmless stare could mean many things. There was simply not enough evidence to come to any hasty conclusion.

This incidence was different. It challenged my physical appearance, and it left a permanent psychological disturbance. It took place in the neighborhood of Friedrichshain in East Berlin, where the majority voted for the Green Party, or the Linke in the last state election. I didn’t expect such a characteristically AfD behavior on the streets of the district. In the period of two years I had lived in Germany before, I never encountered such an incidence. Yet now as a tourist, the expression was directed to me, and it disturbed me tremendously. How daily civility has changed in this city!

Men in their late 20s, early 30s during day time brazenly showed their hostility toward me. What emboldened this behavior? Is that true that Germany can no longer contain, or manage xenophobic sentiments toward any person who doesn’t fit in the popular imagination of who a German should be? Why is it happening now?

What did “not you” mean at the end?

For a moment, I thought the phrase “Ausländer Raus” was a word play or a game between the two of them. Trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, I  fancied that they maybe didn’t mean it. First of all, they were young men of the age of late 20s, or early 30s. They were out and about at a very early hour in the morning. Possibly, they were coming back from a party; hence they’re possibly drunk. Maybe they thought that I didn’t understand German, and wanted to test to see whether I was indeed a foreigner. But “Ausländer Raus” was not an expression to approach a stranger regardless of their nationality. It’s rude, and it’s hurtful. Assuming that I didn’t understand German, and I simply walked away without any reaction, what would they have talked among themselves after I had left? Would they triumphantly claim that I was indeed a foreigner, and I had no right to be in Berlin at any moment in time? Was the expression “Ausländer raus” a Freudian slip after an entire night of drinking?

The men didn’t look violent to me. They rather look like some of my Berliner friends whom I would hang out with whenever I were in Germany. They seemed to be like any young Berliner, who enjoyed techno music, good beer, and would cheer for their national team during the World Cup. They didn’t look like “Nipsters,” which refer to young neo-Nazis who embrace the hipster culture. In other words, they looked like any resident of Friedrichshain: maybe students, maybe working class men. They were on their bikes. That is to say, they possibly supported a pro-environment life style. But they expressed some of the most anti-foreigner utterances toward me. People can be leftist on one thing, and extreme-far-right on another. It’s politics: full of contradictions.

Why did they say “not you” in English to me at the end? Maybe they wanted to make up for their racist/xenophobic utterance. Now they assumed that I understood English. How many more assumptions did they have about me? How would those assumptions help or hurt our interactions? Did they really mean not me or just not people who look like me? At that traffic intersection, there were only three people: two of them, and myself. Who’s the foreigner here?, I asked myself. I was outraged. The damage was done on my psychological being, and no amendment could be made. If I could stand there, and call the police, I would. I would like to suit them for psychological damage if possible. I wonder how many therapy sections I would need to unpack the various layers of meaning of this very incidence. Over the weekend, friends freely gave me some quick kitchen therapy, so I could let my outrage out, and to come to terms with what happened.

My expectation was the word “sorry,” not the phrase “not you.” To me speaking English didn’t signify a level of cosmopolitanism that these men had cultivated. It just showed the most ignorant way of correcting a wrongdoing. Almost three decades ago, this very neighborhood was squarely located in one of the most closed-off country one earth – the GDR. As much as they tried to be cosmopolitan, this recent past could not be erased that fast. As much as they tried to show their understanding of the new global linguistic hierarchy, the bridge had been burnt. It often takes more time and effort to build a bridge than to destroy one.  The bridge between me and them was not even been constructed yet, they already smashed it by a simple phrase.

“Politics of Silence”

What I am most uncomfortable with in Germany is not that there was no right to free speech, but the right to remain silent. There is no vocabulary to discuss about racism because the concept “race” has been artificially suppressed. Of course, the reason for the lack of the concept has to do with the Holocaust. Undoubtedly, this absence of a controversial topic has helped German society to move on from their past experience. Yet the lack of it made people of non-German background to be not able to express their lived experience. It is estimated that actually out of the 82 million people, 62 million are actually German. That leaves 20 million other people to be of immigration background. That is to say, almost a quarter of the population do not have the right vocabulary to describe their lived experience.

In the absence of the vocabulary one has to resort to the next best thing. Now one of the controversial discourses about integration in Germany has to do with cultural assimilation of Muslim immigrants, and refugees. The framing that immigrants are un-assimilable because they come from a different culture would not really result in any substantial change. Assuming that all Muslim persons in Germany gave up their religion, cultural practices, their lived experience would still be very different from an average German simply because of their physical appearance. Taking one’s ethnicity, and other factors into consideration, cultural assimilation does not lead to social, political, and labor market assimilation. Assimilating an immigrant culturally first does not guarantee other integration aspects. In many ways, cultural assimilation is something that one cares the least about when one’s being an immigrant. Who cares about giving up some bit of cultural practices, when you don’t know where to sleep tomorrow?

Regardless of how much I have been Germanized, I would still be a visible minority, if I were to settle in Germany. This would be a hard fact. In other words, the silence of a discourse results in the proliferation of another discourse that might not lead to any concrete result. The current cultural conflict discourse could be very much enter a vicious circle, which brings everyone back to the starting point, which is everybody who doesn’t look like an imaginary average German is deemed to be un-assimilable. 

Collateral Damage of the “Not-you” Mentality

The two men assumed that by saying “not you,” I would be able to forgive their behavior. That’s wrong! In contemporary immigration history of reunified Germany, that mentality has had a serious consequence. People who looked like me: the Vietnamese, suffered from collateral damage because of a xenophobic attack against the Roma refugees in Rostock in 1992. Let me remind everyone of the Rostock-Lichtenhagen riots in 1992. Young neo-Nazis didn’t plan to attack the Vietnamese, those who came in the GDR as contract workers, who then remained living in Germany after the reunification. Their targets were the Roma asylum seekers. The young men and women of the town set a few residential buildings where immigrants, and refugees lived on fire, while the police were silently witnessing those houses burned down to the ground. In that situation, everyone was hurt. The politics of silence contributed to the violent act of young people. The Romas got hurt; the Vietnamese were terrorized, psychologically and physically damaged. The entire episode was documented well, and one could watch the movie “Wir sind jung. Wir sind stark” or  “We are young. We are strong,” on Netflix to remind oneself of the violent recent past.

How many generations of immigrants have been psychologically terrorized by these seemingly harmless incidences on the streets? Have immigrants transmit that knowledge to their kids? The concept “Cultural Trauma” by Jeffrey Alexander might be helpful when thinking about this inter-generational phenomenon. One could predict that these interactions will have generational effect from one generation to another. Coupling with the politics of silence in Germany, one will have to deal with it throughout life. Instead of collectively mourning over these incidences, one is asked to privatized those feelings, and seek to fix those feelings oneself. Maybe God helps. Maybe a personal therapist.

I love Germany no doubt. But the more I love this country, its culture, and its people, I would hope it to be different when working with its refugees, immigrants, and minority groups. The people who are called “undeutsch” by  Fatima El-Tayeb, or people of color in the American context, would keep their experience private, or suppress their feelings because they are not able to mourn about their existence. Besides, blaming all xenophobic acts to the neo-Nazi youngsters would never be sufficient. It’s a systematic failure to address the politics of silence that is at the heart of the problem. What if the youngster neo-Nazis don’t grow out of their teenager ideology; they simply grow old, and become gatekeepers of various institutions in Germany? What if one of them became a director of a social science research institute?

Clearly, more questions than answers have been raised in this blog post. Mostly likely I will talk to a therapist when I get back to New York to unpack the convoluted feelings evoked during this summer. In the future, I might forget that this encounter ever happened. Yet not all “undeutsch” people have the privilege to bring a complex social problem to solve in a private office of a well-trained psychologist. Not everyone has the option to leave Germany. Many people immigrate to this land, and are stuck in their situations for various reasons. At the end of the day, all visible minorities suffer regardless of which group is being targeted. Once populism is unleashed, harm is being done to everyone on a daily basis. This year Germany celebrates the 200th birthday of one of the most well-known, and well-celebrated German philosophers and social theorists: Karl Marx. Instead of writing more biographies about him, I would call for more reflection on his  seminal essay: “On the Jewish Question.”  It’s an attempt to deal with the question of race in Germany almost 2 centuries ago. It’s already the time to re-open the question.

 

May book reviews: Trans, Contemporary Theory, Mixed Methodology, and Professionalization

At the beginning of the academic year, I asked Larry Liu, a blogger, and a sociology graduate student  about how he chose books to read. From the discussion, I realized that as a social scientist in training, one is often overwhelmed with the amount of books one ought to read. In addition, one ought to walk a fine balance between depth and breadth. Depth means that one ought to read works within one’s sub-field to make sure that he/she is indeed becoming an expert in certain topics. Breadth refers to the fact that more sub-fields are created, which means that one needs to read some of the most cutting edge research from other sub-disciplines to get a feel of what is going on from other corners of the sociology research world. My friend, Larry Liu, suggested that one also needs to remain as humanistic, and intellectual as possible. That is to say, one should also read writings from literature, and other related disciplines. At the end of the day, a sociologist is an intellectual, not just a researcher of some social inequality phenomenon.

In generally, I read eclectically. My three sub-fields of concentration are immigration, urban sociology, and organizations/work. I often pick up books from those sub-disciplines within sociology. This month, I read books that mostly deal with social categories (theory), a book that provides an overview of contemporary sociological theories, and a book that shows how to do mixed methods for a qualitative research project, and a book that deals with how to get a job in an increasingly difficult academic labor market. In short, the readings focused on theory, method and things grad students need to know other than books. I will go through each one of them in this blog post.

The first book is Rogers Brubaker (2016)’s Trans: Gender and race in an Age of Unsettled Identities, published by Princeton University Press. It is a sociological take of a popular debate of two different “trans” phenomena: transgender and transracial. Brubaker takes the two trans affairs one about Rachel Dolezal, and the other is about Caitlyn Jenner both in the summer of 2015. Whereas the former was criticized because of her inauthentic identity as a white person claiming black identity. Her claims were perceived to be not genuine. The latter, an athlete, and celebrity was approved by the public as a trans-woman. Rogers interrogates these public discussions, and use them as a lens to examine different social categories in American society. The book is about systems of categorization, and how they are being changed, challenged, altered, or reinforced. From the outcomes of the two cases, one could see that the American public is less militant in policing the gender boundaries than it is to racial boundaries. One important take-away from reading this book is the three different ways that one can think about individuals who transgress social categories: the trans migration, the trans of between, and the trans of beyond. These three distinct analytical frameworks help us to understand how each case is being evaluated.  Brubaker is a great writer, and a great theorist. He shows how one could think about social categories in a systematic way. In a lot of ways, the discussions mentioned in the book have underpinned American social life for decades. Increasingly they have become daily discussions at a dinner table. Though full of theoretical arguments, typology, and critiques of social categorization, the book is relatively accessible because of Brubaker’s clear writing. Unlike other heavily theoretical books, this is one of the books from Brubaker that I would recommend to my undergraduate students who want to engage in thinking categorically.

The second book that makes me feel equipped with teaching, and using sociological theory in the classroom is Rojas’s Theory for the Working Sociologist (2017). I officially became a fan of Rojas after having read his guide through graduate school for a sociology student, Grad Skool Rulz. I like how Rojas writes his books: he’s really honest! He doesn’t try to frame everything beautifully. Instead he frames everything logically and pragmatically. Maybe I’m biased in assessing the book Theory for the Working Sociologist because I like the other book. Maybe it’s the halo effect whereby I mistakenly judge Rojas’s academic writing based on some un-academic publication written a long time ago. In terms of the target audience, it is very suitable for early graduate students.  Because of its theoretical pluralism, sociology tends to attract students coming from different academic backgrounds, who might not take any sociology class until graduate school. I myself am an example of this type. I came to sociology from economics. And oh god! I was confused, lost, and couldn’t understand a single word that my Marxist classmates were arguing back and forth in my entire first year.  Classical and contemporary sociological theory texts barely make sense on the first read, and they don’t seem to be in conversation with one another. Rojas point out that the problem of graduate school teaching pertaining to theory is that students often read original texts, apply a theory to maybe their lived experience, or a social phenomenon without learning how the same theory is related the general contemporary research agenda of the entire field. That is to say, there is a disconnect between theory and contemporary research in graduate training. His book does precisely just that: connecting theory with contemporary research. This is the missing link that I had during my first year graduate study. I wished the book was published two years ago before my theory exam. It would help me make sense of jargons, so I could apply them correctly. Furthermore the book provides an nice list of references on contemporary research in education, racial and gender inequalities. My particular take away is that one could group classical and contemporary theories into five main groups: Theories of power and domination (Marxism); Strategic action (Weber); Values and social structures (Durkheim); Social constructionism (Goffman). Rojas shows how contemporary research could elaborate, challenge or expand those theories. At the end of the book, I became more appreciative of my field: an accepting field that has different foundations. In a lot of ways it helps consolidate my professional identity as a working sociologist albeit still in training. I’d highly recommend this book to early graduate students in sociology, who are struggling with making sense of theories that they are reading, and asking how the field has used them. In many ways, becoming a sociologist means one is forming one’s habitus in a professional field.

Unlike the first accessible book from Brubaker, I read a challenging book co-authored by him and his colleagues. It is Nationalist politics and everyday ethnicity in a Transylvanian town (2006). Again I’m such a big fan of Rogers when it comes to discussions on social categories. This book is not about sex and race categories, but about national and ethnic categories. I was motivated to read this book not for the subject matter: nationalism, and ethnicity. I was looking for an answer to the question: how can one combine two different methodologies: ethnography and comparative historical analysis? These two methodologies are very different in terms of how they are being done, and what objects of analysis should be. When one reads comparative historical analysis, one feels like reading documents written by great men to show how great they are. It oftentimes talks about institutions such as the state, religion, or school. Most of the texts don’t show individual agency because individual agency is often lost in historical archival materials. Sometimes I wonder how historians can attribute agency to individuals when they uncover some documents in an obscure archive somewhere. They must use their “historical imagination” to fill in the juicy details of social life based on some dispassionate administrative documents. Historians are known for their story-telling; sociologists are not. I bet we’re not trained in the tradition of making people believe in our stories. We make people believe in “our concepts.” The other methodology, ethnography, gets at social interactions. Among five categories that Rojas in Theory for the Working Sociologist (2017) came up with to group sociological theoretical traditions, ethnography is very good at conducting project that uses theories coming from the “social constructionism” tradition.  This method captures agency real well because the researcher meticulously documents what is being done in the field by the subjects. They could therefore show how the subjects defy or conform with the police enforcement officers or not. In other words, this book shows how one can combine the two very different methodologies together: ethnography, and comparative historical sociology. However, one word of warning is that it reads like an encyclopedia of Cluj, the Transylvanian town that the book studies. I got lost very often in the discussion of Hungarian/Romanian history, and various techniques whereby a Hungarian could recognize who’s Hungarian or not. It takes a lot of effort to get through.

Last and not least, I read the book The Professor is in: The Essential Guide to Turning your Ph. D. into a Job (2015) by Karen Kelsky. It’s a must-have book for all graduate students from day one because it outlines what one has to do in order to get a job in a job-scarce society for professors. The book is full of actionable items that every graduate student like myself can start working on such as applying for fellowships, grants, have a professionally looking CV, and start thinking about having a website, attending conferences, etc. It makes me hyper aware of the fact that in the prestige economy of academia, “branding” oneself has become increasingly important. Her advice has become so popular now, Kelsky now has her own advice column on The Chronicle of Higher Ed:

Those are the books that I have finished this month. From now one, I’ll try to summarize the books that I’ll read each month.

 

Embrace or Capture: Hardening of State Boundaries via Visa Management

Last summer around this time, I had a visa crisis, from which I have never recovered. It was a tourist visa to visit South Korea for a conference. Prior to the trip to the Korean embassy in Berlin, I had communicated, and orchestrated with one of my best friends a trip to discover Soul together. The plan was never materialized because the visa was never granted. The embassy denied to consider at my application based on the grounds that I was on a Schengen visa in Germany. That is, as a tourist in Germany, I had no residential claim to apply for a tourist visa at the South Korean embassy there. The representative said that in my case, I should apply from New York.

In generally, I am pretty good at keeping paperwork together. I often enjoy the process of going to the embassy, and talked to low-level foreign officers,  i.e. visa processing bureaucrats. Since 2009, I have learned that as long as I have necessary paperwork, stay civil to them, and answer their questions appropriately, then I shouldn’t be too worried. Almost always these performances of civility between citizens of two different countries are just bureaucratic procedures. Thus, the time, and money I have to spend to obtain a piece of entry permit to another country should not be wasted by frustration. Instead, I just consider each visit to be an ethnographic study, a study of visa granting culture at each embassy. Until that day!

The scar that the Korean embassy in Berlin gave me has not yet been healed. It was a moment of symbolic violence being done to my pride, with me accepting their reasoning, and walking away wounded. According to Bourdieu and Waquant (2002), it’s the kind of violence that could only be done to me with my complicity. I actually knew that I gave in. The authorities could thus harm me psychologically at the very moment when I heard that my application would not be considered. I was just a temporary tourist in Germany without any residence permit, practically without any  legal protection from any other authorities. Regardless of how many times of entry I has been permitted to get in and out of Germany, I’m no lawful resident of the country. Using that as a justification, they gave me back the entire stack of paper that had taken me weeks to prepare, and also costed me a tremendous amount of anxiety.

Leaving the embassy, headed toward the bus station, waiting to take a bus back to East Berlin, where I temporarily resided. I was hurt, and resented the fact that the embassy was located in the middle of a residential area. It was not near any commercial district, and was so far away from where I lived. The visit to the embassy felt literally like eine Weltreise, or a world trip, in my host German parents’ term. It means I see different social and physical worlds in such a short amount of time by traveling through a particular space. Traversing from one side of Berlin to another is always a Weltreise to me because one sees so many different ways of life, different spatial arrangements, different modes of public transportation, different Berliner accents, and also different mannerisms. At the corner, where the Korean Embassy was located, there was no commercial life but a couple of Spätti, or Berlin bodegas. One could only get there using buses, and the bus also came very intermittently. “Why dont they just replace those buses with the trams?” I thought to myself. Trams were a superior modes of public transportation. I hated West Berlin particularly this area from the very moment I walked out of the embassy.

While waiting for the bus, I called my mom, and told her what just happened. I told her my solution to the problem that I would appeal to the embassy again by asking for assistance from Korean University in Seoul, which hosted the conference, and the conference organizers in the United States. Instead of saying that my plan would work, she only blamed it on the fact that I possessed a Vietnamese passport, which would act like a liability rather than an asset. In my position, trying to be  cosmopolitan, an academic, who’d like see and discover the world, it hinders me more than helps me. I was reminded of my non-desirable citizenship in an unequal world. Being still upset, but needed some console rather than agitation, I called my then boyfriend, who could only say that I didn’t deserve being treated that way. What does it mean by deservingness anyway? How could I make the argument that I deserved to attend the conference that funded me to go? Why was my deservingness not applied here? What he really meant was that I had all the good attributes, and that the officer should have given me the opportunity to explain the situation, and that a visa matter should be decided elastically for my case. In reality all those positive attributes were negated by only one thing: my citizenship.

Having talked to two people, whose positions on my situation could not have been any more different. My Vietnamese mother immediately attributed my feeling of being hurt to the fact that my passport was Vietnamese. In contrast, my then American boyfriend could not understand why one should be treated that way: having one’s application not even being considered, and violently being told to go home. I was torn apart. I understood my mom’s soreness of my citizenship, while I also appreciated the comfort that the other person’s words provided me. Regardless of the wording, their interpretations of the incidence highlighted my sense of dislocation, of being treated like a second class citizen.

The issue never resolved despite many parties from both the conference organizer, and the university to help me to get a tourist visa to attend a conference in South Korea. Money wasn’t an issue, but the strict immigration visa system for a third-world country citizen from the South Korean Government’s point of view was a problem. In other word, my Vietnamese citizenship was a problem. I let go of the conference, yet never recovered from the wound. I left the paper that I was trying to present aside, never touched it again for more than a year. Anytime I opened up the document file, I was reminded of the painful experience. My soul was completely crushed. Now every single time, when I have to prepare for a visa just to visit another country for about a month, I feel intensely paralyzed. The fact that I live in New York City among mostly American citizens highlight this sense of hurtfulness even more because when it comes to traveling, I need to apply for a visa to almost every country on earth, while my American friends barely have that problem.

In The Invention of The Passport (2000), Sociologist John Torpey argues that states nowadays have monopolized the legitimate “means of movement.” That “means of movement” is the passport. Without the passport, one cannot really legitimately crossing an international border. I used to agree with Torpey that every state “embraces” their citizens. He argues that “states must develop the capacity to embrace their own citizens in order to extract from them the resources they need to reproduce themselves over time” (p.2). In a sense, the state has to court its citizens for its own selfish interest, and it exercises the act of embracing through issuing passports. Yet time and time again, I am reminded at various consulates, and embassies, including those from my own country of origin, Vietnam that I am not at all embraced by having my particular passport. I was reminded time and time again that it’s a piece of worthless documentat that costs me a huge amount of money and time whenever I have to visit a consulate. The fact that I often sit among people who are not like me both phenotypically, and linguistically doesn’t make me feel any unique. I just think I am grouped into a second-class human being that needs to go through some bureaucratic hell in order to depart on an airplane. And as demonstrated by the story above, even when I go to a consulate where many people look a lot like me, ie. Asian, who also eat rice with chopsticks, the authority wouldn’t wait for a second to say that they wouldn’t process my application because I’m a Vietnamese citizen. This rejection shakes me to the core of my existence. It bites me inside out, and saddens me whenever the memory re-surfaces. This experience shows me that in those situations, my state is not actively embracing me, but my affiliation with my homeland state creates significant bureaucratic hurdles, and entails tremendous financial, and emotional costs.

Time and time again, whenever I have to use my passport for traveling purpose, I am reminded that there’s no embrace from my nation state. I wish that it had dis-embraced me for a long time, so I could replace it with something else more economically and emotionally useful. Then I recognized that my problem with the term “embrace” was really a linguistic problem rather than a conceptual problem. Torpey(2000) wanted to use the German concept “erfassen,” which has no equivalent in English. “Embrace” has a positive connotation. It feels as if the state is a motherly figure which nurtures its citizens, and also takes care of its citizens because of this kinship bonding. However, in my experience, my state barely acts like a nurturing female figure on my behalf. It often acts as a burdensome relative, whose absolute intention to maintain a relationship with you is to ask for a favor when necessary. The German word “erfassen” means “to grasp”, or “to lay a hold of” (Torpey 2000, p. 11). Those words denote a relatively neutral connotation. “Erfassen” could also mean “capture.” I am indeed a captive within the international systems of passports and identification papers. My nation state doesn’t have to beef its muscles up to teach me a lesson on how to be a well-behaved citizen. The word “embrace” makes one think of the motherland, while the word “capture” reminds one of the disciplinarian fatherland. The mother might let her children go when they grow up, and would ask them to come back to visit her when they see fit. In contrast, the father still insists on lecturing his children even when the kids themselves are now parents. The innate desire to exercise power over its citizens through the means of documentation by the state reminds me of the desire to keep things in order, and to maintain an established order by almost all fathers on earth. This persistently controlling endeavor by either the father or the state not only upsets but fails me when I want to exercise one of the fundamental rights that I have as a human being: the liberty of movement. In my example above, the Vietnamese state didn’t really hinder my right to move in the world. Yet the Vietnamese state’s relation to the South Korean state, which assumes that Vietnamese citizens should be kept out of its territory hinders and constrains the exercise of my right. It is like when your richer neighbor’s daughter would not be able to bring you over to her house because her father said that he wouldn’t want her to hang out with “ not-similar” friends. It hurts. And I am still hurt.

Borders might become more porous. Yet this porousness might apply to refugees, and asylum seekers, but not to me. Those who lack documentation, or give up their documents could move across borders albeit with tremendous difficulties. I dare not to throw my passport away even when I feel like destroying it. Each time waiting for a visa interview at an embassy, I am reminded of my active engagement in reinforcing the boundaries between nations. And my movement across borders actually contributes to the process of hardening these borders instead of challenging them. The nation-state is alive, and well in this globalized world.