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Esse Quam Videri...
To Be Rather Than Appear--The Story of Teej
Sunday, 25 September 2011
Glenwood, Durban
        I guess this is as good a place and time to write as any.  It’s been weird, gathering my ‘sea legs’ as it were, since I’ve arrived.  I’d been relatively non-emotional today, although the first night was a bit difficult.
I currently occupy a generously kitted out granny flat in Glenwood a neighborhood within Durban.  Glenwood, from what I can tell, is part of the Berea, a larger subdivision of Durban city, and home to the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Howard College, which I shall be visiting/studying  with informally. 

        I woke up at 3:45 am this morning and tried, honestly tried, to force my body to submit back to sleep.  I’d gone to bed, exhausted and anxious, at 7:30pm, and I was hoping I could stretch that senior citizen sleep time to at least daylight.  But my body wouldn’t be denied, so I paced, had breakfast, showered, read most of an Agatha Christie novel, and pretended that it was my idea to be awake while I watched the sun come up.

        I shuffled to the kitchen table (which is actually an outdoor picnic table—there is a hole for the umbrella here and everything; I LOVE IT), made a mug of rooibos, and stared out the window at 6:45 am, feeling rather alone and somewhat trapped in this house.  Then I sat and finished Barbara Kingsolver’s Lacuna, which was a damn good novel (I still like Poisonwood Bible better, but this one held my attention).  As I finished the book, I just started sobbing.  The book was good, and definitely there were great moments of pathos, but more importantly, I started sobbing because a) the book I’d started on the plane (and had bought back in California) was done, b) I was out one less way to keep distracted here, and c) it did hit me that I am alone in a new place.  I have never been one to doubt the power of a good cry, and today was no exception.  It just felt right to sob for fear, for anxiety, for a novel, for feeling dislocated, for the weird acknowledgment of my extremely privileged nature to even have an emotional moment as I traipse across the world in pursuit of knowledge.

        By the time I’d gathered myself together, it was half past 7 and my landlord, the kindly Joe, was already gone, opening the Catholic church he loves so much for morning services.  Joe is a sight; he is a spry older man with Afrikaner and English blood, at eighty-five he has buried a wife and seen three sons into adulthood and onto three continents (the U.S., Europe, and still here in SA—although the last is keen on Australia, he tells me).  Joe favors big baseball caps, windbreakers, and very high jean shorts.  He tells me of his love of shopping/cooking in a strict regimen (“I stay fit—although Friday is pizza night!” he tells me with no little glee) that has been reinforced by the years as well as the realities of a pensioner’s income.  With Joe gone, I had only one other local place for worship, the nearby Presbyterian Church, which had services at 9, I’d been told.

        I opened the three sets of bolts and locks and gates that separate my kitchen from the outside world and stepped out, nervously, onto my first solo sojourn past the immediate block since arriving.  I turned left on Albert Dlomo and then left again on Frere Road and came across Frere Rd Presbyterian, finding that services started at 9:30, and I was now 45 minutes early.  No matter, I saw a few people entering, I may as well join.

        Frere Road Presbyterian was like many a Presbyterian Church I’d encountered in the States—filled with many older, moderately friendly white people who value a service that lasts no more than 64 minutes.  The 9:30 am service grew incredibly full, and until about 9:20, I was the only person who was not white or born after 1960.  I couldn’t help but marvel at a church so full of elderly men and women dressed politely in their Sunday best, all of whom looking as if they’d arrived straight from Britain or nearly the American Midwest.  In that way, I found myself marveling at the settler colonialism I study, at the simple fact of fifty elderly men and women who looked like they could have stepped in from anywhere in England, but instead thousands of miles away in semi-tropical Durban, praying in a denomination that began in Scotland.  Then it hit me—Frere Road was named for Sir Bartle Frere, the British High Commissioner during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879—and I was stunned at the ways in which settler colonialism surrounded every moment of my experience in the church.  At that moment the near-monochrome array of the church was broken by eight Zulu men—three in crutches and five in wheel chairs, who came down the center aisle.  The men in crutches took the first row, the men in chairs politely lined up one behind the other, against the left side of the center aisle.  At that moment, the choir appeared, an ancient man with skin the texture of desiccated paper, raised his arms, and began playing the organ.  Church had begun.

        The service was nice enough; the pastor friendly, reminding us of next week’s fete (complete with a boxcar derby and cake sale!), and sharing from Matthew 21:28-32, the parable of the two sons.  It’s a parable I’m not very familiar with, and I wsa surprised to hear it after some time; in it, Jesus tells the story of a father who had two sons.  He called each son to do work in the fields; the first said no, but later had a change of heart while the second said yes immediately but never went to do his pledged work.  Jesus asks his listeners who did the father’s will in that sly way of his; everyone responds the first son, who said no, but did it anyway.  I’ve felt that this parable can place an undue emphasis on Christianity being more interested in results than feelings, but that’s not where the pastor went with this.  He instead talked about God’s forgiving nature, and his openness to us—the idea that the Christian faith allows the potential for U-Turns, and for being forgiven.  I liked hearing that, and thought even further—what would it mean to think of Jesus’ love as constant and embracing even when I feel farthest and least capable (selfish application!)?  The service ended, 65 minutes in total (better luck next time, pastor), and I, knowing no one, left quietly.  An elderly woman squeezed my arm and said somewhat formally, “Thank you for being a visitor to our service.”  As I walked on, I saw the eight men board a bus for a local school for the disabled. 

        I walked home and exchanged pleasantries with Joe, who was leaving to visit his one nearby son (presumably before Australia beckons).  He asked if I needed a ride, and offered to drive me halfway to Checkers, the local grocery store.  I said sure, and grabbed my yellow bag, the one with “Shakespeare gotta get paid, son” emblazoned on the front.  Joe dropped me off, and I went quietly exploring.  I walked semi-anxiously the four blocks to the store and then meandered a bit, finding the edgy local coffee shop I’d heard about (it was closed, unfortunately), skirted two bed and breakfasts, the local high school, and a bougie Mediterranean themed restaurant before I found my way home again.  I kicked (good naturedly) at the sign for Frere before I headed home.

        Here I sit, at my kitchen-cum-picnic table, thinking about the day to come, grateful that God allows U-Turns, feeling like I can breathe more since I walked those uncertain steps away from my house, and grateful for a fine Sunday, the last in September, as I begin my life here.

Current Location: South Africa, Durban
How am I feeling?:: thoughtful thoughtful
What's playing?:: Sufjan Stevens - For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti

Pick up the pen
After a long, only marginally productive day, I went to the gym this afternoon to get in a brief weights session and run.  While the work out was mostly uneventful (except for a new 3 mile run record--25:35, woot!), the post-workout was anything but.

I stepped into the shower and quickly washed off and began to dress in front of my locker, which was beneath a large flatscreen TV playing MSNBC's 'Countdown.'  Tonight's segment featured Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell discussing the aftermath of the Shirley Sherrod controversy and the politics of Andrew Breitbart's viciously manipulative actions.  I paused, wet hair plastered to my face, dripping silently to the tile floor, while I took in every word.  Dr. Harris-Lacewell was brilliant and effortless as usual, and once again reinforced the central problem in Breitbart's argument: his disingenuous, incorrect, and ultimately dangerous position that "all racial actions are equivalent."  By blowing the Sherrod speech out of proportion he hoped to silence the NAACP which had recently critiqued racist elements within the Tea Party movement, and in so doing say "all of us have some form of racial bias, so no one has the right to point fingers.?"  This is ultimately incorrect and incredibly dangerous.  First, the Sherrod case was anything but a case of racism and more a case of harmful manipulation by white conservatives.  But more importantly, the equation of Sherrod's alleged 'racial prejudice' with institutional racism is appalling narrow-minded and deviously self-serving.  By saying "all are equal" it collapses the immense institutional injustice that people of color have experienced into the 'slight' that can be experienced in a momentary incident.  In so doing it also ignores that racism itself is mapped onto power and continuing power relationships (and reveals continued white fears of losing their power or disproportionate control of power in the U.S., something also visible in the current Arizona immigration debates).  If you say that 'reverse racism' itself exists, you are in effect ignoring the realities of how institutional racism and oppression operate and willfully ignoring the continued disproportionate direction of power in an illusion of equality.  Prof. Harris-Lacewell broke it down further when she made a critical comparison to this same idea in the 2004 film Crash, where Matt Dillon as a police officer, sexually harasses/assaults an African American woman (Thandie Newton).  In the next scene, we see an African-American bureaucrat deny Dillon's ailing father assistance.  The juxtaposition implies that these 'racial' actions are equivalent, but truly they aren't.  Structural violence and institutional racism that particularly single out people of color are much more common and, well structural, than a lone bureaucrat's actions.

I sat seething, nodding and feeling just overall disappointed with what had just happened.  We have an administration beleaguered on many sides and yet willing to respond rapidly (and very wrongly) to the cries of white victims who use 'victimhood' to mask real structural oppression and further their own disproportionate advantage under the guise of 'equality.'
In fact, such rhetoric reminds me somewhat of white South Africans who feared losing power in 1994 and their place in a world where they had held all the power, or even more accurately to Andrew Johnson in 1866, who opposed Congress' civil rights legislation as the elevation of black citizens to equal rights would deprive the white man of his 'natural superiority.'

White privilege is very real, and it involves a genuine reflection on what it puts in reach of bodies that are so marked, and what those bodies marked as non-white are not allowed access to.  Of course, I am equally committed to the idea that this holds for male, heterosexual, Christian, and other forms of privilege, but I think it's important in this issue to recognize the way that privilege comes into play.  I recognize that I have been steeped in some levels of race and certainly class privilege.  I was raised to 'be anything I wanted,'   to believe that I could study whatever I desired, and that I was destined to success.  I could look at other family members who had completed college (although entirely on my mother's white and Japanese-American side, and none on my father's black and Native-American side).  I have the luxury of pursuing a doctorate in history and to think about these things, and I have the responsibility to call these issues to the fore remembering that I am so privileged.  I am grateful for the people I know that fight with me, that believe in justice and mercy and walking humbly, and trying to leverage our own privilege in the ability to grant access to others.

I'm nervous and angry and hopeful these days, and I need all of you to continue to remind me why these things matter.  Thank you for being my friends and for letting me work through these things with you.
1 penstroke ... Pick up the pen
 The Champaign Public Library Coffee Shop has a box of poems they have next to the coffee.  Sometimes I take them.  Today's made me incredibly happy.

How I Discovered Poetry
By Marilyn Nelson

It was like soul-kissing, the way the words
filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk.
All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15, 
but Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds borne
by a breeze off Mount Parnassus.  She must have seen
the darkest eyes in the room brim: The next day
she gave me a poem she'd chosen especially for me
to read to the all except for me white class.
She smiled when she told me to read it, smiled harder,
said oh yes I could.  She smiled harder and harder
until I stood and opened my mouth to banjo playing
darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats.  When I finished
my classmates stared at the floor.  We walked silent
to the buses, awed by the power of words.
Pick up the pen
Help, I have lost myself again. Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found. Yet, I think that I might break. Lost myself again and I feel unsafe. Be my friend, hold me.
Sia, "Breathe Me"

I have decided that for now, my motto will simply be, 'Ngiyazama.' Ngiyazama means, simply, "I am trying" in Zulu. When I first began to attempt to speak with Zulu speakers in South Africa, many people would look at me in surprise and ask, "Ukhuluma isiZulu?" (You speak Zulu?), to which I would emphatically reply, "Ngiyazama," to general laughter.

For me, Lent has gotten off to a rip-roarin' start of frustration and isolation. This tends to happen when I make solemn promises to understand the Jesus I believe in and in turn attempt to understand the love I have received in hopes of giving that very love to other peoples. But, in short, it's been a bit of a train wreck of late.

This week saw me grappling with continued revelations about my father and the general fucked-uppery of my family situation. It's been a lot of awkwardness to process, and it is incredibly difficult to actually understand that situations that affect my family, my parents, really impact me. I tend to view my family history in a way that I'd view a historic text; something that matters, but also one that I can somewhat analyze through my critical tools. This week has shown me that I'm not nearly as aloof or as removed as I'd led myself to believe.

In addition, I found myself in an incredibly volatile and unfortunate meeting between members of the history faculty and the symposium that I am planning. The tensions between the aims of a conference to increase diversity recruitment, and one that focuses on the intersections of gender and women's history were needlessly cast in oppositional roles, and as the only person serving on both committees, I found myself in the unpleasantly familiar position of having to serve as a "bridge between differing peoples, perspectives and cultures" just by virtue of who I was. And yet no progress initially appeared to be made. I had to swallow my own discomfort and my own angry and my own powerlessness in hopes of finding a solution and while a compromise was reached, I just felt broken by the end of it. Did I mention that in the inflamed rhetoric of the meeting I was accused of supporting white supremacy? No? Well that shows the particular amount of non-reason that was functioning in such a discussion.

I thought I'd made it through the midst of it all, when the ridiculousness of UCSD's 'Compton Cookout' broke out. You see, for many an observer, it's just another incident in a history of racist parties and white privilege masquerading as 'good fun' or 'free speech.' Yet for me, this hurt far, far more. This was where I obtained two degrees, this is where I fought to make my own space and to feel like I belonged. This is a school where, upon my entrance as a freshman in 2001, the black population numbered less than 200 in an undergraduate pool of 20,000. We were less than 1%, we were 'negligible.' Yet we were there. It was where I first really realized I was a 'person of color,' and that there were real things worth fighting for, like education equity, decolonization of educational institutions, and against the silencing, normalizing processes of white, male, heterosexual privileges. Yet soon afterward, a student went on SRTV and called those people who fought such buffoonery, such derision "uppity niggers." And like a similar incident that happened to me last year at the U of I, my sense of safety was taken away. You see, white privilege is fun and insidious that way; it is so normal, it fills the contours of what is acceptable and desirable and regular. For people of color, the lines of orientation, the ones to reproduce whiteness in colonial spaces like the United States, are often painfully apparent when they don't fit contours of whtie expectation. And in the ensuing nonsense of UCSD, I once again remembered the daily, petty ways I felt my own security, my own belonging chipped at by people that sometimes didn't even realize that they were pushing me out of my own spaces.

This has been a brutal week for me, as I've struggled to reconcile the disillusionment with my family, the disappointment with my department, and the despair with my alma mater. I have been tired, I have been angry, I have been disoriented by racism and privilege and pride and pain. And that, unfortunately, has made me less of the person that I'd want to be. I've lashed out in anger at people who needed correction but not excoriation; while it is not always my place to have to be the conduit fo runderstanding for people, I have at times this week just abandoned the pretense altogether. I have been exhausted by my own workload and the simultaneous weights of my history--familial, professional, institutional--and I have not led from the love that I know I am offered by a God that cares for me and for communities that welcome me.

I have been afraid, and I have been exhausted. I have not taken time to self-care for fear of falling behind in my own workload. So to anyone reading this, Ngiyazama. I am tryign to love. I am trying to untangle my heart from the fear that I won't have everything together, and that things will completely fall apart. And I am grateful for those of you that love me, that remind me who I am and where I am going. I am sorry for those I have treated with less than love this week, and I struggle mightily to balance my multiple hats and my multiple orientations as scholar, friend, human, community member.

This morning, after reading about yet more ridiculosity around the world, and right before missing my bus, I thumbed through my Bible, a practice that I genuinely enjoy and regret not doing as often as I'd like. Again, fear of not being on top of my workload is powerful, eh? But I found this passage this morning:

And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.
(1 John 4:16-21)

I am afraid, and I am tired. But if I believe that I am loved by God, and that love is to be returned to others and celebrated, than I need to be sacrificial and I need to be revolutionary. I need to rely on some of you out there, I need to be vulnerable, and I need to be okay with my brokenness and my incompleteness. In short, I need to try.

So, Ngiyazama, my friends. Ngiyazama.

How am I feeling?:: exhausted exhausted
What's playing?:: Sia - Breathe Me

3 penstrokes ... Pick up the pen
 "The way the Zulus saw her was as alien as the mentality of the Incas.  They were entirely otherwise.  At the same time they were as familiar to her as her own hands, familiar as Rose, Estella, Millicent Dhlomo.  Nine million Zulus shared a universe.  That there were yet greater universes--a Swahili universe, a Chinese universe--made her head hurt.  It perplexed Nafisa to live amongst nine million beings, to treat them, to pay and be paid by them, to be buried in ground they claimed for their own, yet never to see how they should be so c ertain of their own place, and of hers.  Yet they were certain and she was not." --Imraan Coovadia, High Low In-Between
"'You're confusing the issue,' he says. 'At its root, history remains a quest for truth.  The rest is window dressing.' He stops looking int he binder but avoids finding my eyes as well.  If he weren't so stubborn, I could pity him; sitting there in his socks and sandals as life's certainties flee his grip on them.  But I can't let go."  --James Kilgore, We Are All Zimbabweans Now
"Language, any language has a dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture.  Take English.  It is spoken in Britain and in Sweden and Denm ark.  But for Swedish and Danish people English is only a means of communication with non-Scandinavians.  It is not a carrier of their culture.  For the British, particularly the English, it is additionally and inseparably from its use as a tool of communication, a carrier of their culture and history...Language carries culture, adn culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world." Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Decolonising the Mind
Friday, July 31st.  It is my fifteenth day living in the rural village of Manqogqo.  I discovered a large spider in my underpants as I was puting them on this morning.  I'm mildly amsed by my response--silently, I removed the offending clothing, and in one motion removed the spider, obliterated it with a book, and replaced the boxers.  I cleaned up the body and dresesd quickly in the early chill.
Somehow I don't think I'd have done that as calmlyh two weeks ago.
How do I even begin to describe what it means to be here for me as an academic, as a mixed person, as an American?  Every day baffles, humbles, excites and surprises me.
We were rather unceremoniously divided among our prechosen families and I walked with no shortage of trepidation as I stumbled down unfamiliar, dustry roads and thought nervously about the seventeen days that lay ahead.
Within a few hours, I had been rechristened.  I was no longer T.J. Tallie, but S'dudla Mkhize, a member fo the prodigious Mkhize clan whose homseteads were host to seven of the fourteen students here.  My new mother, Lu Mkhize, a commanding woman of fifty-nine with bright shining eyes, a worn green headscaf, and a ready smile, greeted me warmly and welcomed me to her home.  She is a widow adn has buried four of her six children, all of whom lived to adulthood.  Joining her now are my twenty-seven year old host sister, who works in nearby Pietermaritzburg's monstrously large Liberty Midlands Mall, and a younger son, Madoda, who is 22.  3 Cousins (aged 16, 11, and 8, and an infant nephew round out our family).
Madoda is my closest male relative and somewhat 'in charge' of me in my first uncertain days in Manqongqo.  He is tall and lanky with a tightly trimmed goattee, a killer grin, and a penchant for floppy hats that cover his shaved head.  It is his room I have temoprarily stolen, and I feely bizarre and guilty having forced him onto the couch.  Yet Madoda takes me everywhere, speaks to me almost entirely in Zulu and patiently repeats things I miss, sometimes three or fourtimes.  It is particularly arduous learnign a foreign language when the two groups of people that chat with me most are drunk elderly folk and small children.
I'm becoming proficient in slurring my words or talking about Superman.
The first week saw us attending Manqogqo Primary School, where for three hours every afternoon, after legions of laughing, cheering students in their maroon uniforms ahve departed, we practice grammar, read stories, adn write haltingly in isiZulu.
The rest of our time is spent in Manqogqo where we have no real structured time other than to learn how to speak another language.  It's simultaneously awesome and horrifying.  I am used to feelign witty, confident, or at least capable in English--now I'm six again and useless much of the time, grasping with numb feelers for words.
Case in point: I had been renamed from S'dudla (thick!) to Jabulani (happy one) by my previous host family in Imbali.  I tried to tell my family that I now had "three names" ("amagama amathathu") in Zulu--however, teh Zulu word for name (igama), can also mean word or letter.  In Zulu slang, to "have three letters" ("amagama amathathu") means "I am HIV +".
I quickly explained that my three names were T.J., S'dudla, and Jabulani, not that I needed ARVs.
Speaking of issues with language, sometimes I forget my words.  THe Zulu word for potato is 'Zambane' (plural: amazambane).  I LOVE to eat potatoes and I told my family last week: Ngitanda ukudla amantombazane.
See the problem?
Critical difference: Amantombazane is the plural form of intombazane, which means woman.
So, I eat people.  Eek.
Each day on thsi program demonstrates that I am in a South Africa I didn't experience five years ago--in the same place.  I am ashamed that I managed to live in KZN for nearly six months in 2004 and picked up only trace elements of Zulu.  It's awesome to stumble my wah through it--and be actually understood, cannibalism and all.  Craziness.  For our one free weekend (July 9-11), I spent part of it with my super amazing friend, Erin, a hilarious fellow theatre geek with a fantastic sense of the absurd and a terriying talent with the guitar.  She and I relived old times by wandering the hippy, kitschy Midlands Meander, a series fo winding roads home to organic farms, curio shops, wineries/beer gardens, and overall randomness.  However, it became readily apparent to me what a different world I had lived in when I first entered Manqogqo six days after my trip with Erin.  In the Midlands, I spoke my nasal American English, shopped or putted about, adn was the darkest person I saw, except for a few service workers, whom I spoke to in Zulu (which freaked on elady out who said 'no one speaks Zulu to us!" weird.)  In Manqogqo, savef or the other Americans, I'/m the lightest one here, and I am frequently greeted with 'Umlungu!' (white person).  Yet my ethnicity has been very ambiguous here.  People have pointed to my afro (now braided again) and said--'are you coloured'? Others have siad that if Barack Obama is African, I MUST be too. (I don't even know how to respond to that...)
To find sanity, I've had to carve out my own safe spaces here as well.  I bought two novels in the super-shiny Liberty Mall (it is a temple to bourgeois purchases and has 'liberty' in teh title--it makes me miss America!)--High Low In Between by Imraan Coovadia and We Are All Zimbabweans Now by James Kilgore.  I read them in thirty six hours, devouring novesls about transcultural precarious identities and the brutal lessons along the way.  Between these books and necessary reminders of purpose from conversation with Unkulunkulu (God), it's been nourishing. 
Academically, I've been challenging myself with Troy Boone's Youth of Darkest England, which examines how the upper/middle classes attempted tmold the minds and actions of the working classes through 'reform' that would make them members fo the British nation and willing agents of imperialism.  Unsurprisingly Boone finds spirited resitance ont eh aprt of the working classes who often see through the designs fo groups such as the Boy Scouts or Salvation Army, reacting with indifference if not outright hostilty.
Lastly, the Kenyan intellectual Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o has been bachanding me across teh face with hsi Decolonising the Mind, a provocative set of essays that challegne why Africans are still enshrining English, French, and Portuguese as THE real languages of rule or intellect.  He systematically destroys each argument supporting these langauges as the unassailable centre of learning, and has awakened my discomfort with South African schooling--in Manqogqo, students are taught ALL their subjects (math, hist, etc) in English, only Zulu is taught in isiZulu.  So you have studentsx learnign in English but functioning only in Zulu outside of class--why is this?  Why is this the norm?  Why can't English bet aught as ONE subject and the otehrs in Zulu? Why?
My postcolonial anger and intellectual pasions really began here five years ago, anbd I have had angry conversations and great challenges here overall.
That said, it's time for this overly wordy missive to end.  I can't believe that my trip is almost over.  We leave Manqogqo for a tour of the province on 3 August and I leave SA on 10 August.  I'll be in California August 11-16, and in Illinois starting on August 17.
Miss you all.
7 penstrokes ... Pick up the pen

"How much do we remember of what hurts us most?  I've been thinking about pain, how each of us constructs our past to justify what we feel now.  How each successive pain distorts the preceding.  Let's say I remember sunlight as a measurement of this story, how it changed the shape of the family portrait.  My father shields his eyes and makes his face a shadow.  He could be anyone then, but my eyes are closed in teh photo.  I cannot remember what I was thinking."
--Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven
People have asked me what it's been like to be back in the same country, same province, same university I studied at five years ago.  Has much changed?  Do you have a better understanding of how you've changed, if you have?
I think the best way to describe it would be to have you imagine with me a letter from a loved one.  It's written on simple lined paper, black ink scratching thoughts in impeccably straight lines across the page.  You've read and re-read the short paragraphs, refolded them again and again so that the creases in the page, like laugh lines on your mother's face, are just as integral to the letter as the words themselves.  You know, or rather you have held, interpreted, felt this letter repeatedly, so many times you know it by heart, by smell, by memory.  Now, years later, the author of the letter calls you.  You hear the same voice, changed over time, yet still familiar.  It cuts through your built-up memories yet also reinforces them--offering you another vision of something you'v'e come to know so well.
And that, pretentiously, is what it's like to be back--So much has changed in me, in South Africa, in Pietermaritzburg, yet so much remains disconcertingly familiar and eerily reassuring. 
This past week, the Zulu lessons marched on remorselessly, albeit in a change of location.  We were each placed in families in Imbali, a Zulu township on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg (PMB, it gets long to write!).  Yet it was clear from the start that we were hardly dropped off at random--some of the largest, nicest homes in the township housed our new families (and us for the week).
Imbali is a township, a holdover euphemistic apartheid-era term for the gathering of blacks in a relatively controlable area.  Yet the location is hardly monolithic by class; our neighborhood, Imbali 3 & J, was situated in a far more posh end of the location.  The streets may have initially seemed haphazardly placed, but they were paved, connected to full sewers and the occasional streetlight where Pietermaritaburg's Georges and Weezy's enacted their middle class aspirations through second home-additions and following the seductive advertisements promising bourgeois security, glamour, or both that blared constantly from prominently placed televisions in every home.
Speaking of televisions, I watched more in Imbali than I have in the past year--the compicated, luxurious lives of the elites in South Africa's myriad primetime soap operas were a source of constant conversation for my family (one of the more painful discussions was mentioned in my last message) but soap operas also privided fertile ground for debates over urban versus rural Zulu identity--did the Zulu woman who moved to Johannesburg still have to follow convention morality dictated to her by ugogo wakhe (her grandmother) in KwaZulu-Natal now that she was a big-city graphic designer mingling with all ethnic groups and social classes?  These conversations took place over constant food--from semp and beans to curry and rice, to mealie-pap (a cornmeal porridge vaguely like grits) or ujeqe (steam-bread) and even the dreaded inyama yephakathi (tripe, liver, and other internal organs of the cow--which i tried to eat.  TRIED)--as we sat and discussed the crazy world around us and the relatively sedate neighborhood in which we resided.
Not that Imbali was totally ideal or bourgeoistastic.  Alcohol abuse is a daily reality for many of the families we met in Imbali, and there is a level of desperation in the drinking that is, well, sobering.  In my free time, I picked through my copy of Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight In Heaven, and found disconcerting parallels in hopelessness, cycles of drunkenness, and tenacious bonds of love in Imbali.  There were several community celebrations the week we lived in Imbali, and the sight of families drinking into stupors, and several older men grabbing me affectionately and alternately crying over long-lost mistakes or previous issues was incredibly disconcerting and brought back awkward flashbacks to my own personal memories that I'd rather forget.  A worsening economy and increasing unemployment does not help the heavy drinking problem that exists in Imbali (and elsewhere), and it's a heavy reality indeed to understand.
Not all wine was for physical escape however; once a week, my teetotalling family took a trip for a sip of wine at the local Catholic church, in which they were dedicated and active worshippers.  So much was eerily familiar about Catholic services entirely in Zulu, and I knew the kneeling and standing times well from my years at Bishop Montgomery High School in California, but my continued learning of Zulu was readily apparent in my stumbling through the Lord's Prayer, Hail Mary, and utter inability to understand the priest's homily either Sunday I attended.  To make the experience perhaps more frustrating, the entire church service was 3 and a half hours long, although it was filled with a holy reverence, and a joyful dancing and communal celebration that is hard to really describe here.  Church was the highlight of our family's weekend social plans; but each school day we traveled from Imbali to Scottsville, the cozy academic suburb south of town that plays host to the University of KwaZulu-Natal (and by extension, us).  To do so involved travel on two different amakhumbi or minibus taxis, the most popular form of public transport in South Africa.  Riding a khumbi is definite an exercise in endurance and not for the faint of heart--you're crosed into a van that must ft about fifteen people, and forced to fill it rapidly, as the driver yells and shouts.  Then while beginning the drive, people begin passing coins forward, saying how many passengers and what distance.  God help you if you're sitting near the front, as your'e suddenly cramped between otehr people, counting bills and deciphering destinations, potentially dispersing change and keeping track of the hells of simple math--while house music rains down at the loudest human decibel.  Oh, and it's 7 am and you're on your way to school.  And you're tired.  Did I mention it's 7 am?
Alrighty, people, I realize I've written the longest update ever here, so I'll try and wrap it up quckly here with three final things.  First, one of my friends from back home that I've know for a very long time, Todd Sato, passed away last week.  My Zulu family prayed for him on Wednesday night with me, and it was really difficult to even imagine that one of the kindest, most sincere and loving men I have ever met was gone, so suddenly.  It's still a bit hard, as I'm sure it is for many of the people that wer touched by Todd's life.  The same day I heard the news about Todd I met with Dr. Jon Draper, a fantastic professor in theology and history who has written extensively on Christian missionaries in nineteenth century colonial Natal and Zululand.  We had a wonderful conversation and he both encouraged my work and urged me to get in touch with other professors, offering me archival materials and directions and guidance in the Pietermaritzburg central archives downtown (I'm checking them out tomorrow).  Finally, tomorrow I have a bizarrely fantastic opportunity--having met a high school history teacher, I will be giving a 90 minute lecture on Civil Rights Movements (black, Latino, Asian, women's, LGBT) in America to 70 twelfth graders.  I'm so excited and horribly nervous.  OMG, It'll be awesome.  And so begins a three day break from Zulu, which will be lovely....
...except we have midterms on Monday adn Tuesday when we return.  Damn.  And in about ten days we leave for the rural Zulu village where we'll stay for two weeks.  Holy crap!
Thanks friends for your awesome supprot and encouragement and emails.  I'll have more pictures next time, and I'm also posting some on both facebook and http://www.flickr.com/elefuntboy .  I love to hear how you're doing, dont' hesistate to write back.
Miss you guys and learning lots,
7 penstrokes ... Pick up the pen
"Ukugwaza.  As long as someone's getting stabbed, it's -gwaza."
--Dr. Audrey Mbeje, our Zulu instructor, on the finer points of using the verb ukugwaza.
It's currently 8:35 am in Pietermaritzburg, I've been up for nearly three hours, I'm overcaffeinated, and true to form, my newly released afro is all over the place, including in front of my eyes as I'm trying to process and type this email.
It seems all manner of things have transpired in a few short days.  We've joked on a rather constant basis that being on the Zulu GPA is rather akin to being a contestant on a reality TV program; it feels a little too easy to say, "This is the story of fifteen strangers, picked to live in a university, to find out what happens when people stop being polite...and start learning Zulu."
That is to say, the fifteen of us rapidly bounce off each other in our tightened little artificial social circle, and frequently grate, wear, or otherwise impact each other as we move through the compacted social ether.  In a way, it's a lot like kindergarten, where forced proximity creates a heightened sense of angry conflict but then compels you seconds later to make up and reshuffle group dynamics.  In a word, it can be pretty damn exhausting, and I have to very frequently step back and remind myself that my identity is in no way wrapped up in the esteem of my fellow travelers and that we are all in a very strange surreal world.  It occasionally helps me to have grace in my interpresonal relationships, although I'm the first to admit that I still need work on that!
It is in this vein that the Southern African idea "umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu" comes to mind.  The term literally translates as "A person is a person [only] through other people," and the idea of existing as a human only in community with others is simultaneously very basic and profoundly challenging to my individualistic existence.  These things have been bouncing around in my head this week as I've begun to adjust to living with a new family and with taking in new cultural frontiers.
The first frontier was the celebration of Nomkhubulwane, an ancient Zulu fertility/virginity goddess, whose ritual had been revived in the mid 1990s particularly to check virginity with the rise of HIV/AIDS and as an effort to combat teen pregnancy.  I had no idea at all what to expect, and was nervous and confused as to what would occurr when we arrived.  We showed up to a vast empty field, filled with grass and the occasional goat.  The cleared space boasted three massive tents, and a large clearing.  And the arrival of hundreds upon hundreds of teenaged girls, all topless, wearing a small beaded skirt and many a beaded necklace.  It was definitely not in my usual cultural milieu, to be sure.  The amatombazane (girls), spent hours dancing in the hot sun before members of the Zulu royal family and local dignitaries following a traditional 'virginity inspection' by Zulu elder women (and a secondary observation from Department of Health officials).  The girls cleared as virgins were allowed to take part in teh dance, which was epic, long, and punctuated by men and women dressed as Zulu soldiers performing what coudl best be described as war dances.  (The idea of cross-dressing warrior women was absolutely fascinating, and I really want to know more).
It seemed we'd barely had time to process when we were driven out of the immediate limits of Pietermaritzburg to the township of Imbali, a Zulu township established during apartheid.  Each of us was to be housed with a Zulu family for the week, and adopted, sharing dinner and breakfast, before takgin two minitaxis into town every morning (a forty minute adventure every day).
My family is a female only household, not an entirely rare sight in either South Africa or the United States.  I have three sisters, aged 17, 16, and 8, N, Z, and L, the hardworking, sturdy and funny mother, E.N., and wise cracking ugogo (granny), the seventy-five, bed-ridden, spicy-tongued, G.S..  They are all devoutly Catholic, and I was treated to the experience fo a three hour Zulu-language Mass on Sunday, where I was one of three "white" people.
Speaking of, in Zulu parlance, I am a umlungu, or white person, just as much as the blond haired, blue eyed members of our group.  This is difficult to process when you've spent your life explaining to Americans that you're not *just* black, and that your white parentage should be understood; now in South Africa, my black father (and my phenotypical traits from afro to light brown skin) are ignored, or said "not real" markers of blackness.
I coudl go on and on in my tragic mulatto whining, but I will only share an incredibly frustrating story from Imbali to summarize my feelings of intense dislocation on occasion.  Last night, we watched a TV soap opera, "Scandal!"  That featured a mixed marriage between a Zulu man and an Indian woman.  N, my oldest sister, looked at me and asked "Do you think different races should marry?"
I responded, "well my parents did, and I'm thankful for it.  Remember that I'm half black, half white?"
"Yeah, but do you think they should mix?"
"Um, of course."
"Well I don't," Z said, twisting a strand of hair loosely in her fingers.  "I could never marry a white man.  Our children would be coloured and they'd simply be unable to function in society." 
"That's right," seconded Nomkhosi.
I stared in open-mouthed shock, forgetting that culture, race, and identity are differing terms in other countries, adn English in this case has meanings that are unexpected and hide behind different histories here in SA.  And my cultural filters wen tout the window.  I'm feeling like bangigwaze right now.  They have stabbed me with loaded words that I'm not sure how to understand.
"I'm deeply offended, adn really hurt you said that, Z.  What does that make me in your eyes?  I exist, I function.  I can't deal with you both right now."
I shut down, and retreated to my room sitting there reading a bok, angrily, while I tried to choke back anger and confusion.  N knocked on the door, hesitantly, later.
"Ngiyaxolisa," she said. "I'm sorry.  I don't get why you're mad, but I know we shouldn't have said that."
And there's the rub, eh?  Yes, there are teachable moments, and if these were 15 and 17 year olds in San Diego, I'd be on sure footing and I'd be confident.  But I'm not.  I'm 25 and lost in a language I dont' entirely understand, translating words that mean different things in teh Rainbow Nation, and deciphering clues to my own identity and other peoples in the midst of a township where we spend our days playing soccer in the street and watching America's Next Top Model Reruns on SABC1 playing from 2006.  It seems I've been appointed America's Next Top Coloured.
That's not to say that I'm despondent or unreachable.  It means that in navigating my own vast positionality and personal issues, I'm struggling to make sense of where I fit into all of this, and even the colonial politics of a umlungu studying settlers learnign Zulu and carryign with him his own racial past, his own issues, and the reality of American might and imperial history in his own knapsack.
So I've much to process of late, and I'm sorry thsi may nto be the best of emails in terms of witty escapades, but I'm keeping this one real.  I've a lot to work through and a lot to think of, and I'm grateful to do it with you all listening.
Ngiyabonga kakhulu (thank you much),
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"Yebo, amabutho kaJoji waseNgilandi aqotho impela.  Okwempela uJoji nami singabanawe; usebanqobile bonke abamhlophe njengoba nami ngibanqobile abamnyama.  Akenisho, uJoji lona muhle njenganmi na?"
Inkosi uShaka kaSenzangakhona (1787-1828)
"Yes, the armies of George IV of England are strong indeed.  In fact, George and I are brothers.  He has defeated all of the white people whereas I have defeated all of the blacks.  But tell me, is King George good looking like me?"
King Shaka (1787-1828)
Yes, that was what I had to translate today.  The Napoleon of Southern Africa, one of the greatest military strategists of all time, and one of his first questions was whether or not he was hotter than King George.

[By the way, you be the judge.  Shaka:  http://www.whsliberalarts.org/zulu-king-shaka-zulu.jpg
George: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d7/George_IV_van_het_Verenigd_Koninkrijk.jpg
 I know, I know.]
But this is a typical day in Pietermaritzburg now: I get up at 6 am , go for a run, shower, grab a cup of coffee at a local cafe while reading Zulu, then head to class at 830, where I either do grammar, read Zulu literature or stories, and learn tons of new vocabulary and tenses (remote past progressive, anyone?) before a tea break and then a lunch break at 12:45.  From then it's either Zulu writing or Zulu history from 2-4, then tutoring in speaking Zulu from 5-7, then homework from about 7-9.  That is, when we're not watchign the surprising successes of both the U.S. and the South African (bafanabafana) soccer teams!
This past weekend was a definite break from routine, however.  Saturday we all tramped out for a visit to Ecabazini, which is a traditional Zulu farm run by a white man (*i know*) who speaks fluent Zulu and has been accepted by the local community and even is in training to become a sangoma, or a traditional herbal healer.  The farm has two components, a real, self-sustaining farm populated by rural Zulus that make a living off their products and that is green and self-sustaining to the point that they make their own electricity and produce their own propane (from cow dung--which was pretty dang amazing), and the other part is a 'show' kraal or umuzi (homestead), that demonstrates rural Zulu lives, traditions, and cultural values.  It's a pretty amazing place.
We fumbled in our Zulu for words like cattle raising, government plans, and the verb to milk, but then we got hands on experience doing everythign from milking Zulu cattle to cleaning a traaditional Zulu homestead.  Zulu traditional homes (izindlu) are made with packed dirt floors often taken from termite nests for added strength.  And in order to clean these floors, after they've been muddied by rain or excessive tracking, you have to resurface them.
With cow dung.
Guess whose job that was?
Yep.  For those of you who have seen the film "Amelie,"  remember the early scene where she thinks records are made like pancakes?  As in they're spread on in a thick shiny coating that is then thinned and made even?  You don't?  Well, that's what T.J. did on Satufday, except using wet cow shit in his hands over a dirt floor.
And yes, it was awesome.  DOnt' be jealous.
We also had a fantastic day trying Zulu steamed bread (ujeqe), and roasted beef (inyama yenkomo yosilwe).  We then were tricked into attempting Zulu dancing with everyone.  Mercifully, I do not believe there are pictures of this.  I will be including pictures of me spreading poop on a floor to clean it in the next email, however.  So be excited!
Finally, Sunday dawned bright and clear, our first free day of the trip.  Even more coincidentally, my advisor at Illinois was in Durban (40 miles or so away), and we made plans to hang out, because, quite frnkly, nothing is more awesome than meeting your academic hero/life coach/friend/life-urger whilst sitting on the Indian Ocean.  I took a khumbi, a tightly packed taxi (that in the past five years since I was last here are now officially regulated vehicles, interestingly enough), that took an hour to drive to eThewkini, the coastal city of Durban, at the amazing price of 40 rand (approx. $5).
Professor Burton had her entire family in tow, and we frolicked along the boardwalk and aquarium of uShaka Marine World, the very South African complex of tourist spot/odd historical statement, named after both the Zulu king and the loan word for 'Shark.'  We then dipped our toes in the Indian Ocean after a day filled with manata rays, sharks, and lengthy complex conversations on postcolonialism and positionality.   It restored my energy for anotehr week of learning.
I think that wraps this update up, but next week I'm leaving for a weeklong stay in Imbali, the Zulu township outside of Pietermaritzburg, where I'm staying with a local Zulu family.  I won't lie.  I'm nervous.
And excited.
Your poop smearing comrade in arms,

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Sanibonani abangane bami, umndeni wami, futhi umuntu omuthandwa,
(Hello there, my friends, family, and people I love):
For those of you who might not know, I am currently in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, for the next two months, on an intensive Zulu language program, sponosred by Fulbright-Hays, the University of Pennsyvlania, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg (where I studied abroad for six months in 2004).
I left the U.S. on the morning of  Thursday, June 11, and began a ridiculously long cavalcade of flying, missed connections, getting lost, and racing to places.  I spent a week and a half or so in Los Angeles before leaving, saying goodbye and hello to friends and family, and then began this crazy ride.  I nearly missed my connecting flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, and then endured the fascinating reality of fifteen hours spent traveling in one single plane flight with no stops.  Gah.
I emerged, disoriented, on Friday night with nine other students whereupon we discovered we'd missed our flight connection to Durban, and would have to spend the night; the plane company put us up for free at a local hostel, and we landed on Saturday afternoon in eThekwini (Durban in isiZulu).  Meeting us at teh airport was Doctor Audrey Mbeje, a professor at UPenn and our instructor here, a bright bubbly woman with a halo of curls and a piercing, warm laugh.  We spent the weekend tryign to make sense of our extreme jet-lag and our new location in South Africa by exploring the city, practicing our tentative Zulu, and rejoicing in the plethora of mistakes we made with a new language adn a new country.
The minute we arrived at the motel we were staying at for the weekend, the staff (informed that we were isiZulu students), greeted us entirely in isiZulu and stressed that they would be helping us practice.  Nothing helps you learn words like key, door, flight, wake-up, juice, help, and pillow like a full immersion hotel stay ;).
Also, one of the waitresses at the hotel restaurant asked us all eagerly what our Zulu names were.  I hadn't received one in class, so I said tentatively, "Anginagama lwesiZulu" (I don't have a Zulu name), to which she responded, "Ngifuna ukuqamba wena." (I want to name you.)
So she did.  Zulu naming is often based on immediatley visible physical traits, which can be a bit distressing, so I was a little nervous.  However, Phumuzile looked at me, sized me up, and pronounced: "uS'dudla."  Which literally means....  The Thick One.
I am a winner.
So, my Zulu name is basically "The Thick Guy."  I prefer to think of myself as a brick house, mighty mighty. 
Sunday saw us taken around on a tour by a woman named--I kid you not--Shiny Bright, a sixty-odd British woman who doubled as a tour guide and had lived in South Africa for over three decades.  Her white skin was wrinkled and threaded with laugh lines like a crinkled piece of paper, and her frizzy red hair stood all around her looking ever so much like the mane of a rogue lion.  Shiny's eyes darted back and forth like goldfish in a bowl as she energetically explained and itemized and discussed every facet of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, apartheid, and race relations---not without her own awkward commentary, such as "The Zulus are such a happy people, it's so good to see them working!" (what the hell?)  Still, her royal Shiny Brightness won points for effort and heart, and it was hard to not be won over at least partially by her (somewhat misplaced) good cheer.
Monday we left Durban and headed for Pietermaritzburg, which made me feel entirely confused and delightec to see the city and university I called home for six months in 2004.  I realize now that I was very much changed by that experience, adn the research goals and life path I have now is in part due to what I saw and experienced in ungnumndlovu--The City of the Elephant, the Zulu name for Pietermaritzburg.
Life here has been utterly surreal so far.  We have class from 8:30-4:00 every day, with a break for tea, and a break for lunch.  Then we have Zulu language tutoring from 5-7 with language tutors Monday-Thursday.  Fridays are rest days, although we do have writing practice in the afternoons.  Saturdays are generally marked for cultural trips, and Sundays may or may not be for resting (or more travel).
My brain feels stretched to bursting each day, like I've had a heavy heavy meal, and then I must process, file, consume, and extract all the information as necessary in order to continue to the next day.  We're breezing through tenses, learning Zulu songs, and rehearsing and repeating Zulu folktales.  It's a lot, but damn is it worth it.  I'm glad to be doing this, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how this changes my research.  I'm also fortunate enough to be in a place specifically hosting much fo the nineteenth century archival research I want to get my hands on, so you know I'm goign to spend a day or two poking through archives with a nerdy cackle of glee unknown by sane peoples.
It's been an utterly surreal year so far.  I find myself at a strangely circular point after having finished a year of graduate school and launched into another adventure that takes me back to a life-changing location in my personal history.  Yet more than ever I find myself grateful to be able to study the topics I care so much about, and I feel encouraged as a student, scholar and friend by those of you I'm writing to.  Thank you for your love, and your support, and yoru friendship, and the ridiculous times you've helped me through or listened to me relate.  I'll be sure to keep you in the loop with all my madness as time goes on.
Hamba kahle, (Go well)
Pick up the pen

Urbana-Champaign’s most recent snow, dulled after several days’ exposure, crunched listlessly under my feet as I strode briskly to the bus station, weaving through the cluttered sidewalks of a glorified downtown. I dodged a malicious patch of ice, marveled at the fact that I felt it was “warm” because it was about 25 degrees, and kept up my brisk pace to the station, my brows crinkling in concentration underneath a green knit cap.

As I stopped at the crosswalk, I brushed a lock of hair out of my eye and thought of the intense amount of reading I’d done in the past two days. My advisor assigned five books and two articles for today’s class, and it was a minor miracle I’d gotten most of it read. The course is focused on the British Empire, but Dr. Burton threw in a bit of theory by assigning Sarah Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, a fascinating synthesis of queer theory, Saidian Orientalist criticism, feminist critique, and race studies. As the daughter of a white English mother and a Pakistani father, born in the UK but raised in Australia, Ahmed weaves narratives of space and time and fitting in and understanding self in a way that is instantly familiar, coolly detached, and intellectually seductive. I’d eagerly filled my notebook with quotations and thoughts that afternoon at Café Aroma, my favourite local coffeehouse, and her words echoed in my ears at that moment.

Ahmed speaks of occupying space, of claiming space, of being in three dimensions. She writes, “Each time I move, I stretch myself out, trying this door, looking here, looking there. In stretching myself out, moving homes for me is coming to inhabit spaces, coming to embody them, where my body and the rooms in which it gathers—sitting, sleeping, writing, acting as it does in this room and that room—cease to be distinct. It times take, but this work of inhabitance does take place. It is a process of becoming intimate with where one is: an intimacy that feels like inhabiting a secret room that is concealed from the view of others. Loving one’s home is not about being fixed into a place, but rather it is about becoming part of a space where one has expanded one’s body, saturating the space with bodily matter: home as overflowing and flowing over…The work of inhabitance involves orientation devices; ways of extending bodies into spaces that create new folds, or new contours of what we could call livable or inhabitable space. If orientation is about making the strange familiar through the extension of bodies into space, then disorientation occurs when that extension fails…”

The light turned green, and with no small irony, the white man electronically appeared, bidding me to walk. Mindful of missing my bus, I walked faster, pushing my way through the surrounding space like a purposeful ship cleaving the waves. And in the icy walkway of the Illinois Terminal, I waited for my bus.

The #70 is rather different than the many, many other buses of Champaign-Urbana, and I’m frequently aware of that every time I ride it. Unlike most of the buses, which are filled with a large number of eager-faced undergrads, tired-looking graduate students, or Wal-Mart or Meijer-shopping bag carrying Midwest (white) locals, the #70 is almost entirely black, as it travels through the entirety of the neighborhood of Urbana north of University, and more significantly, north of Bradley—C-U’s primarily black neighborhood. I’ve had friends from C-U tell me that was the “urban” part of our metropolitan area—a laughable statement as the whole area’s population is approx. 120,000 and there’s no higher ‘urbanity’ there than anywhere else. Oh, they must mean ‘urban’ as in ‘brown and poor.’ Of course.

Often I smile condescendingly and good naturedly at my fellow Chambanans, who are afraid of the ethnic population, the poverty, the ‘difference.’ Not I, I think. I’m different. I’m a grad student of color. I’m down with the struggle. I get it. I even congratulate myself for living on the ‘urban’ bus route. True, my neighborhood is not constantly visited by police—but I live six blocks from that area, so I must be noble.

Let me tell you, those illusions vanish into thin air every time I stand and wait for the #70 bus. You see, I stood there today, in beat up tennis shoes, jeans, pea coat, and beanie—and felt entirely out of place. Like I always do.

I was surrounded by poorer black people, and I had nothing to say. I was surrounded by mi gente, if you will, and had nothing to say, no dialog to join in the midst of the local gossip, nothing to say to the group of guys and girls about my age, the women in skintight jeans and boots, puffy jackets, and slick hair; the guys in impossibly sagging jeans, long coats, work boots, cornrows. When the older black woman talks about her son in prison, I don’t have a personal story other than that of my cousin in prison for robbery, or for the countless statistics I know about ‘my people’ and the struggle.

Struggle? I’m a middle class mixed kid from Los Angeles with a penchant for indie rock, well-observed quips, and Vh1 television. I feel incredibly foreign and alien on the #70, where people ride the bus because that is their only means of transport, as opposed to grad students who don’t drive during the week to save money and worry about their fellowship money and if they can afford more beer. I feel my ‘blackness,’ my ‘cred,’ consists of mere talismans that do little. My hair, with its wild tendrils pointing in corkscrew misdirection to my diasporic roots, is safely under my hat. My name, Tyrone Jr, has been abbreviated, domesticated to a T.J., only unearthed for the occasional oohs and ahs of my fellow bourgeois ironyphiles. I sink down in my seat, feeling exposed, as I remember another quote from biracial, queer Sarah Ahmed:

Racism ‘stops’ black bodies inhabiting space by extending through objects and others; the familiarity of ‘the white world,’ as a world we know implicitly, ‘disorients’ black bodies such that they cease to know where to find things—reduced as they are to things among things…Colonialism makes the world ‘white,’ which is of course a world ‘ready’ for certain kinds of bodies, as a world that puts certain objects within their reach…In a way, then race does become a social as well as a bodily given, or what we receive from others as an inheritance of this history.”

Insert edgy race photo here.

Insert edgy race photo here.

Today in class, we talked about the utmost importance of a scholar’s positionality; how we need to know who we are and why we’re saying it. I know that I’m a bourgeois middle class mixed kid with pretensions occasionally to being the voice of the POC. I am at times a cardboard revolutionary, playing at social change yet giving nothing up myself. I hide behind my melanin yet hold to class privilege and self-satisfied by the double-standard, I don’t’ question it. Til I get on the #70 bus, and am forced to realize that I’m not nearly as together as I think I am, in this as well as in all areas of my life. And I’m ruefully amused that in a creepy way, I depend on my ‘poor black brothers’ to teach me important life lessons.

Simply put: I want to become an academic because I want to make a difference in this world with the skills that God has given me. But I find it deliriously tempting to become a self-righteous, self-satisfied pontificator, throwing Saidian theory or speaking of development, while offering little of my own for change. If I really believe in change, or hope, how do I live it? If my faith matters, how do I live that, as well as live out social justice? How do I become a real, authentic thinker, aware of my privilege and committed to helping realize freedom for others as well as myself? How do I do that correctly, rightly, justly?

These are questions I ask myself as I am oriented and reoriented in my sliding spaces on the #70 bus.

How am I feeling?:: curious curious

3 penstrokes ... Pick up the pen
Copying Yumi, I'm going to show the top 25 artists I listened to in 2008, according to my last.fm (http://www.last.fm/user/elefuntboy). It's addicting, get one.

Here we go:

25. James Blunt (117 listens) - A constant standby, particularly when I'm feeling down.
24. Beth Orton (121) - Central Reservation is, in my opinion, one of the best albums ever.
23. Kimya Dawson (122) - Leah Smith and the Juno movie made this one happen.
22. Jars of Clay (140) - Constant standby choice when I'm down.
21. The Envy Corps (152) - a new band for '08, and one I've been in love with here in IL. Check out "Keys to Good Living"

20. Natalie Merchant (159) - Pretty consistent again
19. Lily Allen (170) - I finally listened to Alright, Still and realized it's pretty damn good.
18. Enya (175) - Don't judge me.
17. Yann Tiersen (178) - Like you don't love Amelie.
16. Alanis Morissette (180) - She had a new album out, and it was good.
15. Dido (182) - Entirely listened to in the past month, thanks to her new album.
14. Farewell Flight (189) Again, new music for the year, and entirely IL for '08.
13. Eileen Ivers (203) - Acoustic Irish fiddler. Great for paper writing.
12. Coldplay (209) - I did like the new album, but I still love Rush of Blood to the Head
11. Jennifer Knapp (219) - A chick with a guitar who sings about Jesus. Score.


10. Tracy Chapman (245) - Always, always love Tracy.
9. Madonna (249) - Hard Candy may have been a let-down, but i gave it an honest effort.
8. Death Cab for Cutie (256) - Loved them so much more after I saw them live.
7. Skye (318). Two years in a row for this amazing British songstress.
6. A Fine Frenzy (346) - recommended by a dear friend, this singer rocked my 2008.
5. Alana Davis (561) - I've loved her now for ten years. 'Nuff said.
4. Regina Spektor (638) - loved her even more in 2007 than 2008, particularly Soviet Kitsch stuff.
3. Shawn Colvin (730) - folk singer i've loved for 15 years now.
2. Sufjan Stevens (741) - What can I say? I moved to Illinois and the album makes sense now!
1. Sarah McLachlan (770) -Hey, she released a best of--And i like it! :)
Pick up the pen
1. What did you do in 2008 that you'd never done before?
Drove by myself cross-country, stopped teaching at a fantastic high school, began a PhD program, dated a girl with mental illness.

2. Did you keep your New Years Resolutions and will you make more for next year?
No, because I don’t make them.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Yes, three friends, all of whom I know from church. Odd.

4. Did anyone close to you die?
My cat died on New Year’s Eve. He was about 20. I’m a bit heartbroken.

5. What countries did you visit?

6. What would you like to have in 2009 that you lacked in 2008?
A greater sense of security/confidence in Illinois and in California.

7. What dates from 2008 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
February 8: I got into PhD programs.
February 15: I went to look at the University of Illinois
April 15: I had to choose a program.
August 1: I moved out of San Diego
August 8: I moved from California and drove across country.
August 12: arrived in Urbana
August 25: 1st classes!
November 30: First snow in Urbana

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
I think getting into 5 PhD programs and picking one that I am very happy with.

9. What was your biggest failure?
This is a hard one to answer in a public journal entry. I think the hardest one was the way things went with a certain someone, and the fact that I still feel guilty for her behavior, even though that’s ludicrious.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
Well, I did have the most severe asthma attack since junior high where I passed out in a gym bathroom in November. Awkward. I also got food poisoning on my birthday. Ick.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
Hrm, I dunno, a plethora of clever T-shirts?

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?
My mother for being frighteningly supportive. My great-aunt for driving me from Michigan to Illinois because she wanted me not to be afraid of snow. She’s 85!
Antoinette Burton, for being the best advisor in the history of ever. Tholani Hlongwa for making me love Zulu.
Friends in San Diego (Ryan, Ginny, Anna, Greg, Yucan, Diane, CTK), Los Angeles (Kevin, Lori, Chris, Jon), NorCal (Kirk, Gillian), and Illinois (Pradeep, Gloria, Danielle, Esther, Joey, Archana, Nicolle, Liz, Rachel)

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
Evonne. Friends who voted for Prop 8 and tried to cover it up or didn’t want to deal with bigotry. Someone who called me the N-word here in Illinois.
My father, 24 years running.

14. Where did most of your money go?
Rent and food. Ridiculous t-shirts.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
Starting my PhD. Driving across America!

16. What song(s) will always remind you of 2008?
I’m so glad you asked, here are my top 10 songs that make me think of 2008:
10. Justin Nozuka “After Tonight”
9 Charlotte Sometimes “I Could Just Kill A Man”
8 Jordin Sparks “One Step At A Time”
7 Farewell Flight “Widower”
6 Kate Nash “Nicest Thing”
5 Tracy Chapman “Taken”
4 The Dandy Warhols “You Were the Last High”
3 Say Hi To Your Mom “Let’s Talk About Spaceships”
2 Adele “Chasing Pavements”
1 Dido “Don’t Believe in Love”

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
a. more happy or more sad?
both. I’m happier with where I am, but there’s a much deeper struggle there.
b. thinner or fatter?
Definitely heftier
c. Richer or poorer?
Considerably poorer

18. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Enjoying my proximity to the ocean.

19. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Stressing, or avoiding issues by doing extra work.

20. How will you be spending New Years Eve?
I spent it with friends in Oakland, drinking wine and celebrating.

21. What was the most embarrassing thing that happened to you in 2008?
I can’t narrow it down to one.

22. Did you fall in love in 2008?
One big crush.

23. How many one - night stands?
I’m gonna have to say none.

24. What was your favorite TV program?
Heroes was replaced by Dexter, Weeds, and 30 Rock

25. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year?
I don’t know if I hate anyone currently. Although there are one or two I don’t’ think I’ll ever speak to again.

26. What was the best book you read?
Too Late The Phalarope by Alan Paton, Lying Days by Nadine Gordimer, The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, and The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing.

27. What was your greatest musical discovery?
Oh maaaaan. Hrm. Farewell Flight. Mason Jennings. Envy Corps. Charlotte Sometimes. Adele. Kate Nash. Little Jackie. Be Good Tanyas. Rosie Thomas. Jonathan Coulton. Lykke Li. 2008 was a fantastic year for me to learn more music.

28. What did you want and get [in general]?
into a PhD program. :)

29. What did you want and not get?
Proposition 8 to not pass.

30. What was your favorite film of this year?
I don’t think I had a particular stand-out this year, honestly.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
I turned 24, and went to teach high school as usual. My students made me cakes and gave me hugs. I ended up getting rather inebriated and food poisoned that night, however.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
More time to sit and appreciate what I was leaving behind. And no snow.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2008?
Edgy t-shirts, excessive bracelets, and a hankerin’ for flip-flops and uncombed hair.

34. What kept you sane?
Jesus, amazing friends, and Vh1’s trashy reality shows, which I watch constantly.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
Kate Winslet replaces 2007’s Helena Bonham Carter.

36. What political issue stirred you the most?
Presidential Election/Prop 8.

37. Who do you miss?
Here goes: Kevin, Lori, Mo & Jason, Anna, Greg, Yucan, mom, grandma, Griggs, Ginny, Gillian, Kirk.

38. Who was the best new person you met?
Pradeep, Gloria, Archana, Joey, Danielle, Josh, Janine, Natalie. Thank you, Illinois.

39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2008.
Sometimes you need to take that leap into the unknown and embrace what happens next. And pray.

Current Location: Sacramento, CA
How am I feeling?:: curious curious

1 penstroke ... Pick up the pen
I am so lucky. So lucky.

I stepped off the plane Friday night, cold, tired, exhausted, confused. And took one look at my mother, who just smiled at me simply and said, 'welcome home.' And I teared up wearily, thankfully.

I slept fitfully and woke up to a beautiful crystal clear Saturday. Josh Callow came up for breakfast, and we sat at Gaffey Street Diner.

"How are ya hon? We've missed you, and we're proud of you," the waitress said, refilling my coffee. "I'm glad you came back!"

Josh and I stood at the Korean Friendship Bell and looked at the ocean, placid and blue and vast, while we talked about life and hopes over the rolling green hills. Pradeep sent me a text message. I felt odd that friends in Illinois miss me. I felt happy.

Mom and I had dinner and watched movies together. Kev called, and we went to the pier and walked, got coffee and talked, went and saw Milk. Pontificated on silly life stories. Reflected on fifteen years of friendship.

Drove Mom's car on Sunday. Driving an SUV with the license plate "TAZ MOM" is a bit irregular. Prayers at starbucks followed by church at gvbc. Hugs for people I consider near-family. Left quietly after church, went to coffee cartel, favourite spot since high school. Drank espresso, thought about life. Sat and looked at the beach and teared up while listening to Kate Nash on the iPod.

All I know is that you're so nice. You're the nicest thing I've seen... she whispered as I watched waves echo back and forth, dancing over sand, ebbing and flowing. It's 0 degrees in Urbana today. And sixty-three here.

I am home, and I'm crying on a beach in Redondo remembering mistakes in the past and the man I want to become somewhere in the future. Vaguely I realize there's sand in my afro.

I wish that you needed me. I wish that you knew that when I said 'two sugars' actually I meant three

Sandwiches with mom. Funny stories. Laughter. Worry about the cat. Why is he nearly 20 and so thin? He eats ravenously, yet is skeletal and feeble. He is losing control over his bodily functions, to the detriment of the couch and rugs. We mention putting him down. I pretend not to notice the tears in my mom's eyes and she doesn't point out my hands are shaking.

Monday morning comes. Rain nonstop. Laugh at the fact that I feel cold. I get dressed and realize the cat has peed on the pair of jeans I left on my bedroom floor. I swear silently and change. Adrian picks me up. Go to Rex's Diner. Jose the waiter hugs me and asks about my mom, totalmente en espanol and refuses to hear me in English. I comply and decir que voy a estar aqui por un mes. Estoy feliz aqui. No quiero regresar. Adrian stirs his coffee and talks about hope while the rain continues to fall. Mom calls and I tell her about the cat. We pretend we're not worried. Pradeep texts again.

Come home. Adrian's given me a pie. I sneak a taste. My dad sends me a text message. He knows I wont' call. He asks tentatively via text if I'm home. I say yes, he writes "I miss u" I wonder if he realized that choosing mistresses and beatings over quality timewould come back to him some day. i text back noncommittally. Edwin calls. He's late. He comes, looking irritable. We go to the Loft for lunch. Sweet Jesus, I've missed spam musubi and hawaiian lunch plates. no one knows what saimin is in Illinois. Philistines. Edwin pours his heart out. I listen detached. We go for a walk. He probes on my fears and dreams. He looks at me intently. Are you happy? I grow silent. We share deeply over poorly made lattes in the del amo starbucks. Christmas rushes make everyone impatient.

i wish you couldn't figure me out, but you'd always want to know what i was about

Edwin hugs me before he leaves, thanks me for hanging out. I can only say the same, and mean it. Daniel calls and picks me up. I'm beginning to feel a bit like a d-level celebrity, one meriting pick ups. We get Mexican food. We laugh, exchange ridiculous inside jokes. I realize I've seen nothing but awesome people today. We plan on seeing Slumdog millionaire, but we're waaaay early for the show. So we get coffee. Then go to del amo. Then I run into random people. andrew butt; stephanie, my dental hygenist. other friends. Buy christmas gifts. feel broke/excited--brokecited?--anyway, get ready to see movie. Get emotional, excited, angry. Love every minute. Run into high school friends, matt, megan, myriam. Realize they're old like me. Feel so lucky.

Daniel and I talk about deep stuff on the ride home. I thank him and tell him he's a wonderful friend. He murmurs a response. Walk in front door. Start to cry. Mom sleepily asks what I'm doing at 1 am. I tell her I'm loved. She smiles and says, "did you ever doubt it?" I smile and shrug away the doubts. I tell her I'm lucky to be loved by a family and have friends that pick me up and talk to me about life. She concurs. We avoid the cat topic, save for a lighthearted joke. I tell her I love her. She tells me igualmente and sleeps.

I sit down at the computer and listen to kate nash and ani difranco and regina spektor and stare at the christmas tree. the lights twinkle and i feel loved. I wonder if this is all a dream. if im going to wake up and feel cold and lonely in illinois in the morning. i decide to pray. my mom yells from the bedroom if i'm on facebook again. perhaps it's time to go to bed.

sufjan stevens comes on and i sit in the quiet glow of the living room, surrounded by twinkling lights. i've made a lot of mistakes in my mind. i gingerly pick up the cat and pet him. if i was crying in the van with my friends, it was for freedom--for myself and for the land.

How am I feeling?:: curious curious
What's playing?:: Kate Nash - Nicest Thing

5 penstrokes ... Pick up the pen
i am home. it is emotional. weird.

Current Location: los angeles

Pick up the pen
Just so Mo knows that I read LJ about every two weeks now :)

List the ten most random favourite things of yours you can think of (in the order they come to mind). Then tag up to five people.

1. The feelign of a fresh new book, as it is opened for the first time.
2. The British spelling of words, like above.
3.The moment you leave the shower after working out.
4. Drinking hot cocoa while wearing flannel pajamas while it rains/snows outside.
5. Freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.
6. Lighting candles.
7.Pea coats.
8. The moment before we sing "Silent Night" in the Christmas Eve service, when it's all dark and quiet.
9. My grandmother.
10. An omelet with mushrooms, bacon, cheddar cheese, avocado, and more bacon, served with hashed browns and flour tortillas.

Least favorite thing - Racism. Hopelessness. Wind chill.

I shan't force anyone to participate, but you are highly encouraged to do so.

Btw, this Joanna Newsom song is fucking amazing. Like serious.

How am I feeling?:: contemplative contemplative
What's playing?:: Joanna Newsom - Cosima

3 penstrokes ... Pick up the pen