When I was in elementary school, I had a wall of clippings from magazines. Actually just from the Times Magazine Kids edition.
The Era of Awe: 1995-2000
Everyone says childhood is a time of fairy dust and magic, to me, it was an age of the wonder and discovery. My wall was a mosaic of tributes to the construction of the International Space Station, discovery of fossilized eggs and feathered dinosaurs in Asia, Mars Pathfinder’s first images of our neighboring planet, Jane Goodall’s life and discoveries among the prides of Africa, the cloning of Dolly, Nelson Mandela’s release, Gandhi’s quote “be the change you wish to see in the world”. I got to go to the national lab at Berkeley during their yearly open house and a poster of their Cyclotron joined my collection. Little did I know, it’s description of how to smash atoms together to reveal the mysteries of the nucleus would hold significance in the next decade of my life.
When I started writing this, I had thought the change occurred at the epoch most think of: 9/11. But really the birth of a nation wrapped in fear, the death of awe and wonder started a few years prior. I remember vaguely the death of Princess Diana and the condemnation of those who did nothing, more vividly the anxiety of India and Pakistan’s nuclear weapon tests, becoming afraid of cow meat, confused on what could lead someone to commit the Columbine shooting, and the yearlong insecurity of whether or not Y2K would crash our economy and the world as we knew it.
I remember my early childhood, playing in the streets, garage doors left open as neighbors gazed on, front doors left unlocked and open. I remember not being afraid of running down the street two blocks over to see if my best friend was around. I remember garage doors coming down, windows blinds now always drawn. I remember being told I had to call to make sure they were home before I headed out and to call again when I had arrived two streets away. I remember streets emptying of children and friendly neighbors. And then there was the tragedy.
Loss of Innocence: 2000-2003
I was told the morning of September 11, 2001 that I would never forget where I was when I found out. I remember going to middle school band, my first class that day and our teacher, a normally very strict, punctual man, telling us not to take our instruments on as he fiddled with the television in the room. I remember being confused as other students asked if they could use the phone and he told us that if any of us had to leave we could as long as a parent came to pick them up. And then as several of my classmates broke down crying, he looked at the rest of us sitting in confusion, eyes red and bleary, face still wide in shock, and told us we would never forget this morning.
I remember the frustration of the eighth graders that year being told they could not go on the annual DC or the language exchange to Spain and France as too few parents were still willing to allow the trip to happen. I remember, though the trips were re-instated the following year, frustrated that I was still not allowed to go. I remember front doors locked, no more playing in the street. I remember asking why it was so different now, why was everyone now so afraid and told not that the world had changed, but that I had to grow up.
The mosaic of discoveries, faded a bit from sun, the yellowing tape in between peeling, came down as I left middle school and entered high school. I took this transition to fear and paranoia, to doubts and caution, as a natural part of growing up.
Period of Growing Up: 2003-2007
My high school years were marked by the Columbia disaster, the War on Terror, the invasion of Afghanistan, North Korea’s nuclear aspirations, the Patriot Act, violence about the Gaza strip, the budget cuts to education that led to 23 teachers in one year, including a few of my favorites, leaving my school district for others or retirement. I remember the pink slips, given to teachers at the end of the school year to let them know they could not be certain of their continued employment the following school year. The death of GATE in California, the Gifted and Talented Program that was the primary reason I did not give up on school in my elementary years. I remember learning about genocide. About Rwanda, Darfur, Armenia, what became South Sudan.
I remember the school giving teachers guidelines saying they were not allowed to tell us anything or give any opinions on things unrelated to their class. I remember the teachers being frustrated when students pointed out the result in jest or purpose, that under these guidelines, they were not allowed to stop bullying since that was not what they taught. I remember students asking teachers for career advice or about their experiences with the world and faces reddening in frustrated anger, torn between wanting to help and not wanting to be fired. I remember asking my parents if the world had always been this way and I simply sheltered in innocence before and told that this too was a part of growing up.
The poster of the Cyclotron came down as I now question if science and discovery is indeed good for the world.
Transition to Giving Up: 2007-2013
I begin attending UC Berkeley fall of 2007 intending to major in Political Economics and Biology. The latter to keep my future-doctor obsessed parents happy, the first because I still felt strongly that I wanted to spend my life making the world a better place. I became frustrated that in my coursework we argued over the linguistical definition of genocide and which of the previous decade’s disasters qualified. I learned to question whether or not society itself had an obligation to help one another, instead of answering how it could while respecting the individualism and culture of its participants. I was told that in order to get the grades I wanted, it would be easier to figure out what each professor wanted to hear and spit it back out then take the time to do the readings or write something controversial.
During this period, Pluto lost its rights to planethood, Palestine and Israel start lobbing missiles at one another, Osama bin laden is dead and the Iraq War ends officially, China successfully launches their space program while the last NASA shuttle is scheduled, avian flu strikes the world, Iran pretends not to be developing nuclear weapons, global warming is ridiculed and climate change attempts to pick up the pieces, Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, Fukushima, the Tea Party, Arab Spring, Georgia unrest, revolution then coup in Egypt, South Sudan militants and refugees, Libya civil war, Syrian civil war, worldwide Occupy movement, the classification of Occupy as a terrorist group, Wikileaks tells on Big Brother, Julian Assange wanted as a terrorist, conspiracy theorists move from 9/11 to Obama’s birth certificate, terror fighting drones take to the air.
Closer to home, in Berkeley, the supposed home of hippies and protestors, I see most of us, the students, myself included, doing nothing. In Davis, non-violent students sitting on the ground in protest are pepper sprayed. In Berkeley, organized sit-ins are removed by police force, because often, their participants are not the students but visitors or community members. The school tells us to avoid these protests for fear of our safety. I am curious about the Occupy movement, but I have been warned by some that participation could mean being considered a terrorist by potential future employers.
I leave the coffee shops and meeting halls at the south end of campus for the labs and basements on the north side. I decide to focus on the sciences, because at least there I can be sure I am probably not harming the world. At least in science, there can be correct and incorrect answers. My parents are more than happy with the shift, they just want to see me safe. Their previous fixation on medicine the result of growing up in the aftermath of World War II in Taiwan and seeing medicine as the only safe profession. Their logic that regimes can change and deaths, violence will happen, but medical professionals will always be needed to patch the ones still alive back up. I justify to myself that a career in labs and basements is fine, but in my heart, I feel it shrivel up in hopelessness, in guilt that I had given up.
Miasma of Uncertainty and Anxieties: 2013-2014
I graduate Berkeley in the winter of 2012 with a triple major in Physics, Computer Science, and Biology. I never ended up completing Political Economics. The joblessness after the Great Recession of 2007. Seeing my cousin graduating in 2008 and the generations that followed, despite having done everything right, returning to live at home without prospects and many still in debt, left me with the pragmatism my parents had tried so many years to instill in me: don’t try to change the world, be selfish, protect yourself.
I watch my classmates leaving college, those who get the next job, get into the next school, posting of their successful life. I hear about the suicides among almost graduates or graduates a few years out from college and wonder if this is nothing new. The school closes off sections of buildings previously accessible, for construction purposes, but everyone knows it is to prevent people from jumping off of them. I witness people whose current locations match their hometowns drop off the map of communication, unwilling to admit that they are among the 45% of college graduates living at home post-graduation. I read articles telling us the millennials that we are a burden to the baby boomers’ retirements, that we are entitled and unwilling to work hard, that we find it, unlike previous generations, acceptable to live at home. I watch others around me take unpaid work, be underemployed, take jobs that take advantage of them which they are too afraid to leave. I watch as so many people around me, including myself, fall into a miasma of hopelessness and depression.
We, the children, born at the end of the Cold War, grew up being told that we were the future. That we should be the change we wish to see in the world. That to not do so, we would be part of the problem. We were told that success was to get to go to college and from there we would be given the tools and opportunities to make the world into a better place. Instead we went to college as our world collapsed into recession, we were the ones afflicted with increasing costs of education and increasing interest rates of loans. We graduated with our choices being to continue taking loans to stay in academia, take jobs if we were lucky to barely scrape by, or go home and hope debt deferment is a possibility. Sure, there are those who look successful, the ones posting on social media making the rest of us feel like failures, but even among those, we are all terrified that we are shams. Jobs are no longer guaranteed long term employment. Companies go out of business with regularity. Getting a higher degree can often mean nothing but a higher degree of debt. We are all caught in the quandaries of what does success even look like anymore?
So much for being the future.
Our parents, the survivors of the chaos following World War II, have such high hopes for us. We, they tell us, have opportunities they never had. We should strive for a life better than theirs. Yet we, following through on the opportunities they never had, struggle to achieve even a fraction of the life we grew up having. Is this still too just a part of growing up?
I cannot tell you what the world was like during this period of my life. I was too wrapped up in my own self-afflicted thoughts of failure. I stopped paying attention. I stopped listening.
Hypothetical Paths: 2014-?
One year, four months ago, I graduated from UC Berkeley. In that time, I have worked at two start-ups. One as an embedded systems specialist or code and design specialist in their words, the other as a entry level software engineer. The first small, only the two co-founders in addition to myself, the last mid-sized, growing from 40-60 within the four months I was there. There will be later posts about my analysis of what I learned and experience at each, however I ended up leaving both, because of the same reason I left Political Economics: I believe their approach is flawed and I was no longer learning.
For the past two months, I have first, been repairing the physical and psychological damage of working in toxic environments, and second, trying to see what the world not presented within the academic or corporate bubbles might actually be.
Last night, I went to something called PechaKucha, meaning chit chat in Japanese. What I had thought was a primarily artistic showcase turned out to be eight ~6 minute presentation by members of the community on something they found important or worth sharing. I was asked to smile up, to experience not intuit love, a personal account of how to survive being extracted from a militant coup situation in Africa, the difficulties in turning an idea into a manufactured product, among others. I spoke to one of the speakers afterwards, wanting to see if she might want to stay in touch so I could get her advice later on if my current project will bring help or harm.
Because what I believe now, the answer to my qualms regarding societies’ role in change: is that we the society do have an obligation to help one another, to protect and improve the world. And more importantly, that the answer lies not in corporate skyscrapers or vaulted halls of academia, but out there in the world, among our neighbors, among the random people we pass in the street, and among the life stories we are too embarrassed to tell.
Author’s Note: The sequence of large events of history in each period are not necessarily the most important or in correct chronological order. They are meant to be an image of what I remember as pervading background of that period in my life.