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viewpoint

First share my joy, then my pain

| Friday, February 24, 2017

That winter, Fr. John Jenkins refused to declare Notre Dame a sanctuary campus; this winter, the cheers of the hockey game were echoing in my bones; that winter, Trump attempted the travel ban and millions of immigrants’ dreams were shattered inside their own already weak stomach; this winter, he and I spent hours during dinner debating whether God existed or not; that winter, international students were told that Congress was voting on a new law and in the future, they might not be able to stay in the U.S., even if they had already received a job offer; this winter, we discovered a new joy called Friday rice bowl day; that winter, global warming has put its yoke around South Bend’s neck; this winter, we sat on the grass on a February afternoon, feeling the heat caressing our back. The collective pain was in that winter; the imminent joy was in this winter.

With simple power, the concerns of our everyday life keep pushing us on to the next level of forgetfulness, the forgetfulness of the collective pains. Many argue that this forgetfulness is the cult of all social injustice. However, while I certainly dare not forget the pain many people are suffering, I dare not think that I can easily deny, or more daringly put, give up my privilege — the privilege that is built on others’ suffering.

Privilege? What privilege?

When my friends visited me in China this past summer, they did not know why Chinese bathrooms had signs saying that “PLEASE DO NOT STEP ON THE TOILET.”

“Is it another Chinglish translation?” she asked, with a slightly embarrassed smile on her innocent face. I ran out of words. “No, it is not a wrong translation,” I managed to say. “Some people do step on the toilet. You see, the majority of toilets in China are squat toilets. My parents’ and my generation grew up using squat toilet, and that’s why parents would have their children step on the sitting toilet as if it were a squat one.”

Think about it — what does this difference in body positions really mean? Can the pale word “poverty” ever summarize this crucial difference? When a billion people use a different body position to do the thing that makes them fully show their vulnerability, a fundamental component of a culture is shaped and gender differences are reconfirmed. Thus, getting rid of my privilege is never as simple as squatting down. It takes a kind, open heart, and most importantly, time. That’s why I often fail to buy into the prevailing rhetoric of pushing for immediate changes in the minds of the privileged.

You see, poverty — or at least, poverty according to the American standard, which for the record, is ridiculously high — leaves marks on the ones who have experienced it. Many think it is a shared pain, a scar that sets one apart as pitiful, needing help. However, this train of thought is, as I see it, simplifying poverty as “the other.” It is the same way we simplify terrorists as “the other,” the other sex as “the other,” the immigrants as “the other,” and eventually, even poverty as “the other.” This simplification conveniently lifts the burden or hope of truly understanding “the other.” We emphasize on the differences, not the similarities; the personal pain, not shared joy. That’s why there is something that frustrates me when my friends say that they share the minorities’ pain. “You don’t need to,” I often think. Instead of sympathizing my pain, I’d rather you share my joy, for pain is personal and creates revenge, while joy is universal and spreads unity.

As I grow up and learn more about the world, I become more and more convinced that I can’t know it all. There are emotions, sentiments, resentments and love that I will never be able to understand. That acceptance of my insignificance and limits, however, became my first step to start to actually see, hear and understand these unchangeable differences. How do American students spend an afternoon, love their country, swear allegiance to their community, greet their loved ones, educate kids, pay respect to their parents and worship God? Knowledge defers judgments, and we have made enough judgments and taken enough shortcuts to sharing pain.

That winter, despite all the dramatic changes in the society that we could not control, we tasted the chalice of youth and happily succumbed to an undying desire for joy, for love and for living well through life’s every moment, which we could control. Deep inside, we know — we always know — that we are not that weak to allow the changes define us, don’t we?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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