Special Guest Post by Sam
Like the editors of this blog, I too am not that kind of Asian doctor. You know, the medical kind – the kind that all good Asian American kids are supposed to become. At least, that’s what my Chinese American friend told me. Instead, I chose to be that other kind of Asian doctor: the academic in the humanities. My college friends – many now themselves that medical kind of Asian doctor – love the idea of having that kind of choice. To be the token Asian American, who spins words with the best of them and looks the part – in the words of postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha, “white, but not quite.” All this talk in academia about unrecognized labor and unsustainable job markets and toxic lifestyles: I knew all about it when I first entered, but, damn it all, I was just going to outsmart the system.
But five years, two schools, and forty pounds of weight fluctuations have passed and I am consistently annoyed and anxious and distressed and just plain tired. I have watched my glasses get thicker and thicker. I cannot imagine myself growing old. But I can imagine myself dead. I have made lists of all the things I want to do before dying. I realize that I cannot do any right now. Cultural critic Lauren Berlant defines slow death as “the physical wearing out of a population and the deterioration of people in that population that is very nearly a defining condition of their experience and historical existence.” Perhaps this life in the academy is a slow death. A life that is not living at all; a dying that comes to define this very life itself; a dying more imaginable than life.
But enough with the whining. Academics and whining. Maybe it’s time to think of an alternative. Finding myself already one semester behind time-to-degree due to institutional bureaucracy and petty politics and power plays, I spent October coming up with a plan. I made a November deadline by which I either advanced to PhD candidacy or silently and gracelessly withdrew from school. No one asked me to – my department would have been horrified at losing their token. But, damn it all, I was just going to work smarter and find my own alternative. I stared at job postings and found myself too petrified to apply. I remember my time in the work force: the “real world” is its own form of slow death. But I thought about a life in academia and could not but stare these postings to try and imagine something else.
Throughout this period, I was fascinated by an image that circulated around Facebook of a person holding a sign. The sign invites your sympathy: its writer has sacrificed prestige for monetary value in education; has sacrificed daily material comfort; has calculated success as “working my @$$ off.” How can one not feel for the loss this entails? The sign ends with a warning: “I am NOT the 99%, and whether or not you are is YOUR decision.”
I hated it. I still do.
I hate it for its blind support of racialized and gendered capitalism. Because within a system of unevenly distributed resources, gain can only come out of loss. Slavery shows us this.
I hate it for perpetuating this neoliberal discourse of “responsibility.” Because within a system of unevenly distributed resources, “working my @$$ off” assumes that everyone else is not similarly working their @$$es off. It assumes that “work” does not immediately hold racialized, classed, gendered, and sexualized biases in a historical caste system – a fluid one, but a caste nonetheless.
I hate it for its uncritical vilification of the Occupy movement. Because even the sign-writer’s self-assessment reveals that she is not part of the 1%. Without the social, cultural, and economic capital that keeps capitalist castes solid, the writer probably will never be part of the 1%. There are so many criticisms one can make; many can be read here. Like the rest of us, the writer is subjected to a slow death. And no amount of smart work can outwit that.
But I hate it most for writing me into it. I got my B.A. from a school that was neither challenging nor prestigious because it paid my tuition. I worked multiple jobs throughout college. I have been estranged from my parents who do not know and do not care to know the life I lead. I stopped speaking to my spoiled older brother, who has disowned me. I watched my boss “promote” me to academia with a graduate application and a date of termination. I struggle to remember the ennui and uselessness that drove me to graduate school and realize that I still feel it now.
Two years ago, I shared in uncertain terms my growing discontent with academic life with my Korean American adviser. She expressed in similarly veiled words that Asian American academics get chosen for critiquing model minority discourse and then are systematically forced to become model minorities to survive the system – the goal being to survive. I recall rolling my eyes. How prescient her words turned out to be.
I suppose that I am relieved that I advanced to candidacy. I guess I couldn’t imagine anything else. But sometimes I imagine a different timeline. I think of the looks I would have gotten when I announced at Christmas dinner that I would not be returning to graduate school. I can stand the sight of my mother’s eyes. I don’t think I can stand my grandfather’s. My grandfather, who survived fighting for a country that did not recognize his place in it, who did not have the opportunities that I take for granted. My grandfather, who counts down to his own death in a convalescent home because neither of his children could imagine an alternative.
His children, like my mother. My mother, so impatient to escape the weight of her military father and immigrant mother that she accepted my father’s engagement without thought. My mother, so petrified of repeating her parents’ parenting that she learned how to mom but never learned to mother and blames her parents for it. My mother, who has three maladjusted farm boys, each bearing a different version of the weight she felt. Our mom was not a Tiger Mom. She never asked us to die this way – at least, not out loud.
Though I am not that medical kind of Asian doctor, my kid brother is trying to be. This past year, he nearly died trying to be that kind of Asian doctor. I dreamed nightmares that he had lost the war of “you and me against the world,” arriving at the only seeming act of agency in slow death: not to stall death – not to survive, just to die – but to speed it up. I shudder just thinking about it. But he persists. I breathe deeply and try not to worry. Medical school, graduate school, or even a steady job, it’s all the same: a life of working for dying in the unsustainable world of capital structured by whiteness. No amount of smart work can outwit that. As the mythical image proclaims, “that’s how it’s supposed to work.” Because we know no other way.