Saturday, December 26, 2015


This was possibly the most rewarding Christmas ever.  After three of possibly the most insane work weeks of my life where I was pulling continuous 12-14 hour-days which included cameos at the New Jersey Federal Building first thing in the morning, a 40-page brief, a 276 page submission to a USCIS officer, endless asylum applications and four cases I brought home to work on, I seriously made a promise to myself that on Christmas, I would just sit at home, eat, play with my dogs and read nothing.  I actually forbade myself off of books, even when I wanted to crack one open.  "No Tina!  Don't do that."  Go watch Netflix, your brain needs a break.

I can barely describe how radically my life has changed in the past four months, let alone past four years.  For one thing, I could not pass the NY State Bar for almost two years.  That's two years of being in my mid-30s, still living at home with my parents and trying to pass that damned thing.  Internally, I couldn't bring myself to do it.  I was scared.  The field of Law scared me.  Such high rates of substance abuse and depression, why would I go into that voluntarily?  Hadn't I gone through an almost permanently crippling depression and insomnia in my 20s?  Why on EARTH would I kill myself to pass an exam so I could jump right into that again?  No thank you.  Paralegal life seemed just fine for me, thanks.  Even serving tables seemed more appealing.  What better place for a foodie/socialite than at a restaurant?  But of course, God had other plans.  No matter how I resisted, through a series of interesting life events, I was placed under the conditions where I could face my fears, buckle down and finally pass.

Literally three seconds later it felt like, and through endless prayers to God to ask where I could be used best, I became a practicing Immigration Attorney in New York City.  It almost felt ordained because it happened so fast and I had barely even time to think right after I got sworn in.  After a first round of interviews, I landed a job at a firm that had been following me for a year to see if I had finally passed the Bar.  When I did, everything fell into place almost instantly and I got a job offer.  I left my home, my beloved dogs, moved into a converted garage in Queens and work insane hours all day long to fight for my clients who are mostly poor and undocumented.

My job is very intense, but I know that somewhere in my heart, I enjoy it or else I would not dedicate my spare time to making sure my cases are on the right track.  And on the days when I feel overwhelmed and literally begin to gag from exhaustion, I invoke Kimberly L. Smith and I think about her book, Passport Through Darkness, and how she left everything behind, her husband, her children, all her first-world comforts to live in the Sudan and start an orphanage there.  Because that's what God asked her to do.  And there were days in that book where all she could feel was exhaustion and futility as children literally died left and right in her arms.  But she kept at it.  Because she had asked God, where would he like to use her and through a series of serendipitous life events, she got sent to the Sudan. No matter what.  No matter how difficult it was, how unlivable the conditions were, how often she lost the ones she loved, she stayed and remained passionate and committed to her calling.  And she still remains.

That my friends, is the Lord's work.  And, okay, it sucks to live without my dogs for the time-being and yes, I don't have real windows in my converted garage/apartment but it's NYC, not war-torn Sudan.  And I press forward with the words of Mary Previte burned in my mind: "if you take care of the things that are dear to God. He will take care of the things dear to you."  I have never seen this more evident than in the past four months.  For example, since I'm on a first-year Associate's salary in the lovely world financial capital/money black hole of NYC, money has been a little tight. Yes, I get to go to my favorite dirty eating spots in Flushing which I love once in a while but I'm definitely not living the Manhattanite life of happy hours and swanky brunches.  My saving grace is that I know how to cook and I live close to Aldi's.  However, since I have come to New York, some expenses are non-negotiable.  I need to come home to Buffalo at least once a month to check on my dogs, they are expensive.  They need food, medical attention, toys etc.  I've been putting off Huey's annual vet visit for months now.  And my mother tells me that he has an ear infection.  I've started to save but it's never enough.  But not a problem I tell myself, not a problem, God will provide.  

So this year, because I'm a new associate, I didn't get a bonus.  But my managing boss has been there when I have stayed well into the evening calling my clients, writing letters on their behalf, doing endless hours of research for their cases, fighting hard for them.  So instead of a bonus, I got a Christmas card that my boss swore was not from him but from his pit bull rescue that he always brings to work all the time, Angel.  I love this damned dog.  She brightens my day every time I see her.  Just her presence alleviates the pain of not being able to have Huey or Kumo with me and not being sure when God will find it appropriate for me to bring them.  Anyway, so my boss says it's from Angel, I thank him and open the card to find a nice little bonus on an American Express gift card.  Much needed.  I almost cry, now I can take Huey to the vet and make sure their food and needs are covered for the next few months.  I've been killing myself to make sure that my clients who have gone through their own life tragedies, have at least a fighting shot to get their cases resolved.  And low and behold, Angel swoops in and helps me get my beloved fur-babies sorted.  The irony is not lost on me that this is a gift from an Angel.  Once again, "if you take care of the things that are dear to God.  He will take care of the things dear to you."  

No matter how tired, I begin to tell myself that I can face whatever work I'm dealing with and with the grace of God, I've been able to do it so far.  And the supposed onslaught of depression and insomnia?  Well, when I can, I actually sleep better in NYC.  God can be funny and I guess, all he asks is that I work hard and keep my eyes on him and he'll take care of the rest.  It's not my battle, I'm just supposed to show up and work hard.  And despite everything,the truth of the matter is, I am blessed and so lucky.  So lucky.  No complaints.  Forever grateful.

Monday, August 22, 2011


What lies under,
what lies beneath,
is the love wrapped in fear,
we do bequeath...

            When I was 22 years old, my father said something to me that I will never forget.  “Tina, you can’t change things as an outsider.”  At that moment we were having a heated debate about the newly elected president of Colombia.  I had just come back from my year there, revved, up, ready to take on the world.  I would be home for a month, barely recharging from a year in Colombia before I would soon pack my things again and be off to grad school in Cambridge where I would finally be with the policy makers and have the power to change the world.  (Oh, how little did I know of what was really in store for me there!)    

            “Tina, you can’t change things at an outsider.” 

            This threw me off a bit.  What do you mean dad?  If you can’t change things as an outsider, then how is anything supposed to get done?  Okay, that is totally imperialistic, but these countries need outsiders to come in and point out the problems, donate funds, regulate their elections, their peace commissions, run their NGOs.  What exactly are you talking about, dad? 

            It was difficult for me to accept what he was saying, it didn’t make sense.  Most of this was due to sheer selfishness seeing as I had spent most of my adult life (and I’m realizing more and more now, my whole life) as an outsider.  I had spent most of my 20s living outside of my comfort zone, four times in foreign countries and one time in a city that sometimes seemed more foreign than any of the other countries I had ever lived in; Miami.  Everywhere I went there was some “problem” that needed to be fixed, some suffering that needed to be addressed, and the implications of what he had said were far reaching, (meaning, that they wholly impacted me), and meant that there was nothing I could do about any of it. 

            Okay, so I’ll admit, a lot of this is perspective and my totally arrogant and privileged, first-world, bleeding-heart naïveté.  Something I became attuned to early on in my adult experience.  On the day of my 21st birthday I took myself to a fisherman’s beach in old Cartagena, Colombia to catch some rays.  I was alone and before I knew it, I was approached by two young street children who had spotted a random Asian girl on the sand as swiftly as they would have a beached whale.  It was a boy and a girl and the girl, quite confident, began, somewhat in awe, “Are you from China?”  I laughed as this was not an uncommon ice breaker for me in Latin America.  Through it, I got to spend the afternoon with them on that beach and learn their stories.  I don’t remember the girl’s name.  But I remember that she was 12 years old and very talkative.  I highly doubted that this was the first stranger that she had ever verbally ambushed.  (We probably sensed each other and secretly bonded over that camaraderie.)  She kept telling me stories about herself and the boy she was with, William, who was ten and kept riding his bike in circles around me and would on occasion, look up at me and smile. 

            “Yes Tina, we are not from here.  William is from Antioquia.  It’s about ten hours from here.  He lives here alone.”

            “Really?” I said, “How did he get here?” 

            “He took a truck Tina.  He jumped on the back of a truck and got here.”

            “He has no parents?” 

            “No Tina.  Can you believe that yesterday, William spent the whole day working as a mime and made $14,000 pesos and the older boys stole it from him for drugs?”  I looked at William and he just nodded at me and continued circling me with his bike.  Cartagena is full of street kids like William, kids with painted faces, miming for change from the rich tourists.  From there, my little friend went on and on in her matter-of-fact way and slightly indignant tone about yes Tina, can you believe it, these older street boys, they are so bad, most of them drugged all the time.  They do such bad things. 

            “So where are you from?”  I asked her. 

            “I am from the Valle.  I live with my dad in the streets.”

            The Valle is probably about 15 hours from there by land or truck or however they reached Cartagena.  I did everything possible to hide my privileged shock and be cool.  Just be cool, Tina.  “Oh really?  How do you survive?”  Okay, not so cool, but I was curious. 

            Unperturbed, she answered.  “Oh, we get by.” 

            And of course I persisted, doing my best not to react.  “Well, why are you guys here?

             “Porque los paracos joden mucho.”  Roughly translated, this means:  because the paramilitaries probably committed some heinous atrocity in her village which was enough to drive her father to take his daughter by any means necessary to a city where living in the streets amongst rampant poverty and delinquency would be the safer option.  

            I was paralyzed but still trying and failing miserably to be cool.  “Wait,” I began, without thinking, “Don’t you ever get sad?” 

            Perplexed, she looked at me.  “No Tina, what is there to be sad about?” 

            Instantly, I realized that it was time for me to shut the fuck up.  “You’re right,” I said, "let’s go swimming."  And the rest of the afternoon went swimmingly as I swam in the ocean with my little friends and we helped a fisherman’s boat that pulled up, reel in their net.  Afterwards, when the beach began gleaming with the smaller fish that were left behind and still alive, I made it a game to see who could throw as many of them back into the ocean.  (Just like in the starfish story!)  When it was time for me to go and catch my plane, the little girl gave me a shell from the beach and said, “Here you go, this way you will remember us.”  I had brought nothing to the beach with me that day.  The only thing I had was the sarong I had wrapped around my bikini bottom to walk to the beach from my hostel.  I gave it to her and we said our good-byes.  It was a glorious birthday but of course, that night when I returned home to Bogotá, I called my mother and I cried.  I cried and cried and cried because yes, this world was completely unfair. 

            Funny because even though I know what the lesson is, I have never really learned it properly.  The lesson that my young little 12 year old friend I made on my 21st birthday already knew at 12.  The: yes Tina, this is life, so just accept it.  The: don’t make us sad over what we cannot change.  The: unless you plan to stay here forever and help us Tina, you can’t change our lives as an outsider. 

And yet, I keep trying because some part of me wants to keep believing that it can get better, that it will get better.  It must get better.  I insist, even when I know I shouldn’t, and that inevitably, it will be me that is hurt in the end. 

And now, before you judge me as silly and unwise, I must say, that sometimes I feel like, I honestly, can’t help it.   Last summer I spent three months in Taiwan, studying Mandarin and one day I came home crying from a day of visiting my aunt and my little cousins.  When I got back to my apartment, I was so sad inside and it was seemingly over nothing.  My German roommate Nadine listened patiently as I told her what was wrong with me.  “It’s just that, Nadine, my aunties, they have no choices.”  My aunt is a housewife with the two most beautiful children.  She takes care of them all day long.  She loves her family so much and is so beautiful, open and happy.  I love her so much.  But after a day with them, I was still sad.  Her and my baby cousins’ lives were completely at the mercy of one man.  “She told me today, ‘Tina, my plan is my husband’s plan.’  And Nadine, this made me so sad.  I don’t know why.  But it made me so sad.  I mean, yes, she’s happy, but her sister [my other aunt] is so miserable and resents me for all that I was able to do.  I don’t know why Nadi, but this all makes me so sad and it’s none of my business and she is happy and I hate that I am this upset about this.”  Tears streamed down my face as the self-loathing began to creep in.  The:  Tina, really?  This is what you’re crying about?  No one else seems to see it this way so stop it you freak.  STOP. 

Nadine nodded, added her quick German two cents about how the whole “housewife” situation was a little crazy but nodded in comprehension.  Even after a short time of knowing me, she understood my hurt and said to me, “that’s just because Tina, you want to change things.”  And she’s right, and there’s so many things I cannot change.  No matter what. 

I used to think that relationships were enough, that love was incentive enough but my parents continue to teach me otherwise.  Even though they raised my sister and I here, they are confined to their traditions and are still bounded by what their community thinks, sometimes even at the cost of their loved ones.  My sister is happily pregnant with a man who she currently cohabitates with, but my parents cannot even stand up to their closest Taiwanese friends to let them know that their unmarried daughter is about to bear their first grandson.

“We don’t want to celebrate a mistake, Tina.”  It took me hours of literally screaming until I was hoarse for them to finally admit to me, “Tina, we’re ashamed.”

“How can you be?  With your own friends?  Your closest friends?  The people you have helped so much in these past few years and have given so much to???  The people with their own fucked up marriages and relationship problems??  You’re afraid of them judging you?  How dare they!  Dad, you are a Sociologist, you know better.  You know what feeding into those types of social stigmas mean for young women and single moms in your country.  Total and unnecessary social ostracism and exclusion.  How can you sacrifice your own daughter for them?!?!?” I lost my voice that evening from all the screaming, pleading and crying.  But even this too, was to of no avail. 

My father couldn’t take it, he screamed at me, he told me to respect their customs or leave.  I began hatching my escape plan.  The next day however, my father recanted and said, “Tina, we must do it my way.  My friends cannot celebrate an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, but how can they deny life?  They will find out when the baby is here and then if they don’t like it, they know where the door is.”  No matter how ridiculous I think this notion is, the spontaneous, “Oh, who’s that random Blasian baby walking around your house?”  “Oh, he’s my grandson.  Didn’t you know?”  I want to believe my dad.  I want to believe that he’s willing to stand up, even if it is just when he has most of his cards lined up to the point where he won’t be slaughtered.  I want to believe that he isn’t just falling into the human strain of tribalism that keeps most of us from standing up when strangers or people that we love are being sacrificed by it.  I want to believe him.  I must.  

So here I am, the perpetual outsider, going through life with an innate need to change.  What does this mean for me?  A lifetime of blogs full of tears?  Because the only obvious answer would be unimaginable.  And that would be to stop caring, and not just to any functional level, but to really conform, to the point where I forget everything I am, everything I know, everything I have learned and just change myself completely in order to accept, accept, accept.  Do as the Romans do, even if this means gender- or genocide.  I may be part of the problem but at least I will have a lot less conflicts and be at peace, no matter how much this leaves my soul unease. 

But luckily, there is a middle ground, there is an answer, there is hope.  And hope literally has a name and that name is:  Chelsea Wagner.  You have to be more like Chelsea Wagner.  Be like Chelsea Wagner.  Yes Tina, Chelsea Wagner.  Chelsea Wagner is a medical caseworker that I met while I was interning at a non-profit organization for refugee resettlement in Buffalo, NY.  Gorgeous white girl with endless tattoos and a nose ring, whose “About Me” on Facebook is: “I came here to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and I’m all out of bubble gum” and another amazing introduction that begins with “I refuse to apologize for who I am…”  (sorry to stalk, Chelsea ;)  Chelsea speaks fluent Spanish because she had lived abroad in Panama for some time and one day I asked her, “Chelsea, how did you deal with living in such a conservative society where women don’t have as many rights as we do?”  I asked because in my experience working with a womens’ NGO in Colombia, a lot of time I was surrounded by staunch feminists who didn’t have any problem just confronting the system and their culture head on.  I wondered if Chelsea had had the same experience? 
Without flinching she gave my question some thought, as if it were kind of dumb actually, and then just began to nod.  “Hmmmm Tina.  Well, one thing I noticed all the time where I was in Panama was that the women were always pregnant.  They were always pregnant because they didn’t have full autonomy over their bodies because it was a social taboo to openly buy birth control.  So, I just went to the pharmacy and cleared out all the condoms they had at the store and told them that if they ever wanted any, they could come to me and I would give it to them secretly.” 

Chelsea Wagner!

Do you see why this woman is my hero?  One day I can only imagine to be as cool as Chelsea Wagner, the great U.S.-Panamanean condom dealer.  Chelsea had finessed the balance, between rebel and respectful visitor, who never criticized or lost hope with the people that she worked with, and the only way she could do this was because she had so much love, so much compassion, so much security and confidence in herself, that she knew innately how to achieve what she wanted without getting hurt, alienated or hurting anyone in the process.  In my lifetime, I can only dream of achieving even a fraction of this wisdom and contentment in my soul.  Incredible!  No tears, just sheer effectiveness. 

            So in the end, it really is about us and starts with us.  We first work on ourselves before we even begin worrying about helping others.  Actually, most people, such as myself, should not even be in the helping people department, seeing as there are so many things that I need to help myself with.  So therefore, self, I would like to be more compassionate and have a better, functional relationship with my ego.  Self, I strive to be like Chelsea Wagner where I act and do not judge.  But self, that does not mean that I can never ever speak up or be sarcastic, it just means that if I’m going to rail on everyone, I must begin with railing on myself first and make jokes with a good heart and know who will know what my intentions are.  And self, we will try to always have better intentions full of love and fun spirit and not just meanness and insecurity.  Also self, this is very important:  let’s try to accept people and ourselves for what we are and try to work with what we have, instead of what I wish we had all been given.  Got it self?

So dad says we can’t change things as an outsider? Well self, perhaps it is time to really step inside.   

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Me with Amartya Sen
            For almost one year now, my friend Paula has mentioned a book to me that she says she’s going to send me. “It’s by Amartya Sen, Tina.  Basically he finally rebels and comes out and says that this (meaning the whole academic establishment) is bullshit.  You’ll LOVE it!”  This past year, Paula has been living in Boston as a Fulbright-Humphrey scholar at Harvard so we’ve been able to talk quite regularly over the phone.  The four years previous between this time and our time in the U.K., she served as the youngest and first black Minister in the Colombian government.  For four years she traveled the world as the Minister of Culture, met heads of states, dignitaries and served countless communities in her country and abroad.  When she was appointed, she hadn’t even told me.  I just found out when I was working in Miami in 2007 and was reading the news and happened to stumble upon this article about drug trafficking in Buenaventura:

                I wrote her that day and asked, “Paula, are you the Minister of Culture of Colombia?”  And within a few days, she responded, “Oh my dear Tina, you have no idea how life has changed…”
            Amartya Sen.  He was the first Indian economist to win the Nobel Prize in Economics.  Paula and I met him at Cambridge when he gave a talk there.   I had no idea what he was talking about through most of it but it was cool to watch and meet an Indian Nobel Prize winner.  The talk was more oriented to his peers, fellow colleagues, white male English economists, who had also joined him on the panel.  Most of the talk seemed to be geared towards trying to convince them of what he was trying to say, not us students.  I remember clearly the hand gestures he used to represent the lines on the imaginary economic graphs which seemed so perfectly clear to him.  That’s what stuck out most in my mind about that talk, the imaginary hand gestures he would make right below his face.  No matter, by the time we had left, I had gotten what I came for, a picture with a Nobel Prize Winner. 
It wasn’t until I was in my Development classes that I got a better handle on what he was famous for.  “Welfare Economics.”  Dr. Sen had managed to convince the world’s most elite economic establishment that social inequalities were real and that during famines, people not only starved because there wasn’t enough food or because of market failures, but also because of factors which could not neatly fit into a market analysis.  Factors such as discrimination or other social and cultural inequalities which would not be remedied through simple market solutions and still leave the poor worse off.   Factors which, if you thought about it long enough, began to seem pretty basic.   After a while, a lot of economic theory did.  It wasn’t long into my studies of the global markets before I realized, “Hey!  What all of this basically means is that most of the world is pretty much expendable, as long as we are getting the goods we want at the prices we want.”  I made this declaration once at dinner to a Brazilian who was also studying at Cambridge.  He immediately looked uncomfortable and said something along the lines of how that wasn’t exactly how most people saw it.  I was puzzled and still fascinated by how some of the most basic shit needed to be spelled out with imaginary graphs and hand gestures at a public talk with a Nobel Prize Winner in order for supposedly the most intelligent people in the world to get it. 
So essentially, to me, Amartya Sen had become, what my friend Claudia so kindly refers to, as the “house nigga.”  What’s the house nigga?  Claudia, one of the most brilliant women I am honored to know, whose partner is the director of the Brecht Forum in New York City, describes the house nigga as the slave during U.S. chattel slavery that lived in the house.  The slave that loved his master because he was the only one who was treated like family and trusted by the master enough to live in the house.  The slave that sold out the other slaves to maintain this status during slavery.  But I use the term here loosely because essentially what Amartya had done was become the token brown academic who could tap into the pretentious and esoteric language of the academic elite to explain to them what most of the world’s brown and exploited people already knew.   In the master’s eyes, he was educated, calm and exceedingly deferential, playing the game until they would finally at least listen to him, if not believe.   And even so, at the end of the day, they didn’t even really have to believe him, they just had to give him the highest honor almost previously unheard of by a brown man, a Nobel Prize in Economics.   So essentially, he was the house nigga.  Until recently anyway.
After a year of being promised Amartya’s latest book in which he supposedly rebels and tells everyone to “go fuck themselves” (Paula’s words, not mine), I began to notice that this book never arrived and that in fact, I never had actually gotten the title of it.  One day, I inquired about why I hadn’t gotten the book yet.  Had Paula just casually forgotten to send it or even mention its title?  Did it not exist?  One day, I pressed her about it.  “Paula, what was the book you were telling me about by Amartya Sen, the one where he tells everyone to fuck off?” 
“Yes my dear Tina!  I still have to send it to you.” 
“Don’t worry about sending it Paula, what’s the name of the book?  The title?  I’ll just look it up myself.” 
There was a brief pause on the other line before Paula said.  “No.  No, Tina, this is not the time.” 
Huh?  “Huh?  What are you talking about?!!?”  I asked, a little confused.
“No, Tina, this is not the moment for you to read that book yet.” 
Now, a barrage of emotions went through me.  Well, actually, only two really.  The first was, “What the fuck is she talking about?”  And the second was sheer insecurity.  The, “Oh, this is because I was never minister or any high position after Cambridge isn’t it!?!?”  “This is because I go to a state school isn’t it and nothing I’ve done seems impressive enough for you to send me this goddamned book!”  Stupid, stupid, little insecure, me.
But all I could say was, “What the hell are you talking about Paula!?!?”
Pressed and a little at a loss for words, the only thing that came out of her mouth was, “well, Tina, I think you still need to, well, umm, transcend still.” 
I was very impressed by her word selection, seeing as English is her fourth or fifth language.  And immediately not only did I get it, but I was touched.  “Holy shit” I thought, this is a real friend, a true friend.  I was almost surprised.  In your life, there will be many people who pass and love but few will understand the depths of you.  Paula got it.  She understood me and she was watching out for me.  Still. 
In Cambridge, I used to have panic attacks so bad that on occasion, I would stop breathing.  I could spend a whole day out of commission, just holed up in my room, trying to breathe normally again.   I felt so dislocated from my environment sometimes, so far removed that nothing seemed real to me.  It couldn’t be possible that I was hearing what I was hearing, seeing what I was seeing amongst the idyllic backdrop of a surreal, dreamlike world of castles and cafes.  I had come, almost straight from Colombia, from a situation where I would see entire families of five to ten people and varied generations, camped outside the nicest malls in the country, begging for food, overjoyed  that I had just given them, a family complete with grandma and newborn baby, the equivalent of maybe, 50 cents. 

          And here I was at the height of the ivory tower, because I could be here, trying to understand what I had seen and come up with a good explanation for it, and the best reason that most people could give me was market failure.  “Oh, it’s market failure.”  Market failure.  Why was it always “market failure?”  Because “market failure” implies “market solutions.”  Market solutions are always much more tangible than having to question your own humanity.  As long as everyone said it over and over enough, it was okay.  A civilized market solution will take care of it.  No urgency necessary.  Just hang in there indigent, war-torn and displaced people eating out of the garbage…a market solution is on its way!  In other words what I was hearing was that as long as we searched for better market solutions imposed by the “civilized” world, most people would be expendable and all of those faces I had seen, doomed. 
I’d have panic attacks, and I would cry.  But nothing prepared me for the insomnia.  There would be times that I would not sleep for days.  I was exhausted and could barely function but I could not go to sleep.  I’d lie awake at night, terrified and I would cry.  The only person who could really understand what I was going through was my friend Anna who was going through something similar.  But Paula understood why.  She was the truest friend, my one angel, who would drop everything to be with me.  If I couldn’t take it anymore and I said, “Paula, I need to get out of my room today,” she would meet up and she would listen and she understood. 
She would say things to comfort me.  “Tina, you weren’t used to it.  Us Colombians, we grow up there, we get used to it.  It hurt you differently.” Or “Tina, don’t think it’s any better in the developed countries.  I was in Belgium for a bit and I knew someone who wanted to put a bag over his head and commit suicide.  Can you imagine?  A Belgian wanting to commit suicide?  What real reason do they have?”  She was wise.  It would take me years however, to finally understand what she was trying to tell me.  I wasn’t there yet.  All I knew was my own rational and pain.  I just didn’t have the capacity yet to get what she was really saying.
In the end, I ended up leaving Cambridge early.  I couldn’t take it anymore.  I notified my supervisor by e-mail and told her she would get my dissertation by mail before the due date, I would complete it at home.  By this point, I hadn’t slept for days and days even on pills.  I could not study, I could not read or write, I barely functioned.  Worse yet, I had become afraid of what I might do if the anguish continued.  I needed to go home so I left. 
Few can comprehend what happened to me there because in a sense, nothing had happened. So I had been given the opportunity to study at one of the best universities in the world.  Wow!  Kill yourself Tina.  But during that experience, something profound shifted within me.  I lost my belief.  I lost my faith.  When you are at the bottom looking up, you believe that there must be something better, that someone must be working on making it better.  That something can be done.  But when you are at the top, all you see is ego and people making their careers and becoming famous off of exploiting other peoples’ suffering.  They might start off with good intentions but end up just promoting their ideas without making any serious sacrifices or efforts to change it except add on to the pile of academic excrement that already exists about the subject matter and fight over it.  
Moreover, as I learned more about our economic system, I started to realize that the system that these brilliant people continue to push and reinforce in our future world leaders and policy makers is nothing less than a perfect insatiable human cannibal where human satisfaction will always be at a cost of other humans.  Humanity’s basic life needs (potable water, health insurance, not living in a country of rampant crime, fresh air) have been conveniently pitted against the material things they have convinced us we cannot live without at cheap prices.  And the genius of all of this is that we actually cannot live without our things.  If we started to buy less, we would put ourselves out of jobs and inflict our own demise.  Therefore, our survival is dependent on our rampant consumption that is killing most of the world’s environment and people.  Survival of the blingy-est.  Nice one, Neo-classical economics! 
After a while, knowing this begins to wear at your soul.  Especially when you can remember the faces of the countless people you’ve seen who will continue to suffer and die every day over something as seemingly innocuous as consumption.  Something I participate in everyday. 
And furthermore, hardly anybody smiles at Cambridge.  How do you seriously contend to promote any type of well-being when you yourself are so devoid of the most fundamental tenets of human joy? 
Two days ago, a package arrived to my home from Paula.  I knew it was a book from the way it was wrapped.  I couldn’t believe it.  This was it.  Almost a year later of being in the same country again and I assume, under continual evaluation through phone conversations and e-mail exchanges, I had finally been deemed, if not worthy, at least sane enough to know!  FINALLY!!!  All my thoughts and suffering during my time at Cambridge would be vindicated by the world’s most famous academic house nigga on “Welfare Economics” who, as it turns out, had not really been the house nigga after all but just an undercover operative lying in wait, studying and waiting for the day he was established enough to be able to tell everyone to fuck off!  
I ripped off the brown paper packaging as fast as I could, the taste of vindication already forming in my mouth.  I pulled out the book and low and behold, Mountains Beyond Mountains:  The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder.  WHAT!?!?  TRACY KIDDER!?!?  What the FUCK!?!?!
Inside the inscription read in Spanish:
For my dear Tina:
Whose love and friendship has been a precious gift in my life and a beautiful sample of what unconditional means.  I know that God has made you for many beautiful and marvelous processes in which I can’t wait to see how your internal light will shine on others as much as it has shined on me this year. 
I love you very much. 
                                    Paula, 2011
Paula, by the time you read this, you will be sitting in an airport, ready to board the plane back to Colombia to embark on your new life after the Ministry.  I can’t tell you how much I needed you this year.  I know God sent you because she knew that I would need you to hold my hand again as I slowly reinserted myself into something I so deliberately gave up on so long ago.  And I know she knew that only you could do it, in the way that you do.  Thank you for listening to all of my ranting after my law classes.  There were some things of course that only you could get and this year, just like in England, you never let me feel alone.  No matter how far the distance or how much time goes by, you have always been with me to help guide me and transcend.  Through you and your works and your proposals, I rediscover hope in this world and understand that here and there, we can make our changes.  You have shown me and given that back to me, breathing life into my soul again, helping me believe. 
Paula, there really is no greater gift than a true friend and no matter all that you have accomplished and the endless people you have served, quite selfishly for me in this world, our friendship will always be your greatest contribution.   

                Te amo mi Paulis.      

Paula and I, Kings College, Cambridge

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Brazilian Bikini Waxes and Social Cleansing

Shubhi with feathers in hair on my right, Ayesha below, Aaiza on my left
(This was the photo that incriminated our foreheads)
            Yesterday, I found myself being straddled by my gorgeous and petite Indian friend Shubhi while I sat on a chair in her bathroom and she methodically and proficiently threaded my mustache.  She stared at me intensely with her dark, heavily-lined eyes as I could feel each and every individual hair on my upper and lower lip ripped out by the thread rolling across my skin.  When she finished, she told me to get up and wash off the baby powder she had applied to see if she had gotten even the most persistent hairs along my lips’ crevices.  Satisfied, she said, “So Tina, you want me to do your eyebrows too?” 

            “No thanks Shubhs, I don’t have that much time.  I’ll just pluck them later.”   I stood up and laughed at the red mustache that seemed to be glowing from the irritated skin above my lip.  “Ha!  See why I didn’t want to do this in school?” 
            “Don’t worry,”  she declared in her thick Indian drawl, “that will go away in a bit.”  As we walked into her living room to get my things, she sized me up briefly.  “You know Tina, you have such an amazing body but you really must do something about those boobs.  Wear a push-up bra.” 
            “I KNOW Shubhs!  But I can’t get implants because I don’t have enough skin up there.  See when I do this?”  I said, lifting them a little and pressing them together, “even then, you can see there’s a gap here.  I mean, thankfully, my boobs are big enough where I feel I have something and I’m overall pretty tiny but I don’t think implants would be a good idea.” 
            Shubhi  furrowed her brow, taking what I had said into serious consideration.  “Show me Tina.”  On command, I lifted up my shirt and unsnapped my bra, flashing her and her roommate Ayesha, who, like Shubhi was another PhD candidate in the English Department.  They both laughed before Shubhi  conceded, “No honey, don’t get implants but you should definitely wear a push-up bra, you will look so much better!  They will just lift you and give you some cleavage.”
            “Oh I do sometimes.  But don’t worry Shubs, one day, I will wear one especially for you.” 
            Satisfied, she nodded and gave me a big hug and before I left said, “Oh don’t forget, let me know whenever you want me to Brazilian wax your pussy!”
            Shubhi is my amazing Indian friend who I met last semester.  She’s been here for less than a year and we met through a mutual friend at a birthday party where we talked about the tattoo on my wrist, Amartya Sen, global development issues and sharing a brief background in entertainment. ( I used to cast and she used to be on television in India.)  Shubhi is hyper- ahem, I mean hetero-sexual and recently married to the very fortunate, gorgeous and humorous Rajiv.  I call her my hot Indian friend and we both share the unique camaraderie of being over-educated women who are interested in the world and love to read but are,  unforgivably, superficial.  If I really need to know how I look on a certain day, I just ask Shubhi.  
            “Tina” she says in her perfunctory, yet flirtatious voice, “we really MUST get bangs together.   Look at how high our foreheads are in these pictures?  (see above) Something must be done.” 
             In my defense though, I wasn’t ALWAYS this superficial.  I mean, yes, I have been, always, somewhat vain, but flagrantly superficial didn’t get the green light until I had lived in Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil.  Those three countries comprise the overly done, sexed-up, surgery and made-up women trifecta.  Overgenerally, Latin women want to look good, almost from birth seemingly.  I remember the make-up kits that used to be in the classrooms in Brazil for the two-year old girls to play with in order to develop their fine motor skills.  Having graduated from U.B. during the waning era of self-assured, self-declared, Western feminism, I used to go on my culturally-infused diatribes in those countries to anyone who would listen about how terrible it was that they were all complicit in inculcating their women with the most base forms of objectification and misogyny at such a young age. 

               But of course, that was before I found myself becoming victim to it.  When I lived in Colombia, I  
Me and my Brazilian waxist and confidant, Nalva
during 2007 visit
started getting my bikini waxes.  Yes, conceptually, having your pubic hair ripped out with hot wax sounds like a very low-level form of physical torture but after a while you start to sense its appeal.  It feels clean.  It’s nice to be able to wear the tiny underwear and not see a dark mess down there.   In Brazil, I discovered that I could have everything taken off not only on top but under as well and began to understand why even though waxing is available throughout all of South America, it was the Brazilians that had their imprimatur on this lucrative and highly coveted service that they manage to export to and extort in the first world.   (Finally!  Some trade balance.) 
            I have not gotten to the point where I think a woman’s total self-worth should reside solely upon her physical appearance and still believe that breast implants in some instances can be philosophically on par with female genital mutilation.  But I do find it fascinating how things that were once crazy or unheard of can become so normal.  Especially when you've travelled a lot or lived in different places.   Sometimes, because I lived in five countries, I lose my sense of categories and forget that something that might have been socially acceptable in one place is totally unheard of in another.   My reality is all encompassing, and includes not just Shubhi in her apartment offering to “wax my pussy” or the typical American law student fighting his/her way to be the next depressed alcoholic at some major law firm but also includes my ex-co-workers in Brazil; the elementary school teachers all gunning for their breast implants and the cleaning ladies’ sons and daughters who live in the Brazilian favelas.     
Me with the Brazilian Elementary School Teachers
             I forget that not everyone might get what I'm saying at times.  Sometimes I am lucky though, and there are intersections.  For example, Americans have heard of Brazilian waxes, (and ironically, I think I have the reality T.V. hookers to thank for that) so I can talk about it with girlfriends and there is some understanding and even empathy at times.  (The first rip is always the most painful!)   But sometimes, even when I try to be mindful of where I am, I slip, and evidence of my more divergent realities reveal themselves.  Those moments always put me in a brief state of schizophrenia and sometimes it’s difficult to return.   
            For example, in a brief that I wrote for my Research and Writing class recently, I used the word “social cleansing” in reference to what had happened to the Jews in the Holocaust.  I was told that this term was too “emotive” and that I might receive a negative reaction from a judge.  This surprised me greatly for two reasons.  One, the anti-septic approach to language was shocking because well, we were talking about the Holocaust.  It’s not like the Jews had conveniently vaporized or just disappeared.  And two, what in the world is wrong with social cleansing?  Haven’t we just accepted it as a fact in our daily reality?   
                In Colombia, in a barrio about one hour South of my home, the paramilitaries would kill any social undesirable and leave their body in a river that eventually floated up against the banks of the local elementary school.   Paramilitaries are also primarily responsible for some of the worst atrocities in the Colombian countryside.  One of their more infamous activities is cutting people up into little pieces or cutting off villagers heads and playing soccer with them so that villagers flee their homes.  This way the paramilitaries can appropriate lands so legitimate and illegitimate commodities can be sold and consumed by us in the first world.  The U.S. and a consistent Colombian popular majority openly supported Alvaro Uribe Velez, the Colombian president between 2002-2010 who had more nexuses to paramilitaries than any other president in recent history.  So wouldn’t this imply that this is all contextual?  That there isn’t anything wrong with it?  Like my Brazilian waxes, it’s painful, serves a legitimate function and people support it.  It may not be “okay,” but it’s normal. 
            In Brazil, (the land of the waxed pussies), social cleansing is even “worse” because there is no globally recognized civil war.  Just huge discrepancies in rich and poor set against a backdrop of some of the most depraved street crimes.  Grenades are thrown on public busses, people are set on fire and torched for their handbags, and in Rio, whole highways can be shut down by bandits meaning that every single car that is caught in that moment is robbed.   Rio is also known for the “bala perdida” or lost bullets where little children die sitting in schools holding pencils in their hands when caught in the crossfire of shootouts between military police and drug dealers in the favelas (Brazilian slums).  Poor people are murdered all the time because their penal system is overwhelmed and logistically, there is little room for an efficient due process.  Better kill the petty thieves who will never have access to rehabilitation than let them clog up the penal system where people are underpaid and under-resourced or worse yet, let that person loose and risk another Louis Vuitton bag be stolen.  And of course, no one comes out and says “yes, I am for murder” but what they are not against is safety and the casual disappearance of potential thieves. 

Me at my Brazilian co-worker Martha's house.  With her kids.
            So, because I had lived in Colombia and Brazil, I had forgotten about the impact that the words “social cleansing” might have in Buffalo, NY.  I explained this to my professor in a meeting and he let me keep the phrase in the brief.  And then I forgot about it.  But two days ago, after Contracts, I went to the Lockwood library to “study” which always turns into reading the news and virtually anything non-law related.   Randomly, I was going through my news sources when I came upon Jornal Nacional, or the Brazilian national online news.   On the front page of the news, the headline was of a woman who recently witnessed a social cleansing and had called it in and denounced it.   The woman had been visiting her father’s grave in a cemetery when a police car pulled into the cemetary.  She saw the police come out of the car and shoot, point-blank, a man suspected of a robbery.  She called the Brazilian 911 and denounced it.  In the article was a video that captured the whole conversation that went something like this:
Woman:  “I can see the squad car but I can’t see the number on it.  Is this really the time of day to be doing this?  They say this is normal to do this here but it isn’t normal for me to see that…”
(This is followed by the policemen actually approaching the lady.)
Woman:  “I hope they don’t kill me too!  Look!  The squad car’s number is [number]”
The policemen then get out of the car and get close to the lady, she is not intimidated but in a hysterical voice, you hear her saying:  “Excuse me sir, weren’t you the one in that squad car there?  The gentleman that made the shot?  That shot that guy inside there where we were? …”
Policeman:  “No, no, I was helping him.”
The woman went on, “HELPING?  SIR, LOOK STRAIGHT AT ME.”  
Policeman:  “Calm down lady, you don’t know what that guy did.” 
Woman:  “I know.  I know very well.  You’re saying I don’t know what that guy did and that’s a lie.  It’s a lie sir.  It’s a lie, I don’t want to talk to you.  You will pay for what you did.  You have your conscience.”
            The article then goes on to explain how the policeman later defended himself by saying that the guy he had shot had been a suspected robber in an organized crime syndicate.  As resolution, these policemen, one who had been a policeman for 18 years, were now apprehended and the lady who made the call was in the witness protection program.  A total feel-good article praising the bravery of this woman but ignoring the basic fact that the class in which the military police are created for and protects is the class that reads the Brazilian News online.  Furthermore, this lady is now in a witness protection program in fears of police retaliation, being protected by, who else but the police.  And if you listen to the call, you don’t have to understand Portuguese to hear the desperation in her voice, the indignation, not over the fact that this goes on, but that she had actually seen it. 

                  It’s been hard not to feel like this woman since I read that article on Tuesday.  I hate it when my worlds collide and it feels like a train wreck. 
But here I am.  Yesterday at Shubhi’s was an attempt to get back to beautiful things.  Make-up, hairless faces, how to make my boobs look strategically bigger with cleavage.   Beautiful international friends who can talk about worldly things, literature and sex all in one conversation.   Laughter.   Forget law school Tina, forget the seriousness of everything.  Love your life, love yourself, love everyone around you.  Figure out ways everyday you can be of service and let others know love.  Be the beauty you want to see in the world, even if it means getting your mustache threaded by your hot Indian friends on occasion.  You are alive and there is beauty all around you.  Love freely and forget everything else you have seen and been through and let this love be the most normal thing in your world. 
Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro