- The Car Bomb Story
A big detriment to my mental health is the disparity between my concern for what people think about me and my actions, which seem to indicate that I don’t care what people think about me. Part of this results in my making friends with people who like my “qwerky” demeanor, or with my having a full-blown panic attack that might weird people out. This happens a lot, as I do often make awkward jokes or talk about what some might call the “traumatic” events in my life. Some people appreciate my openness, some think it’s weird, and that’s how I live my life.
A part of my humor that has developed recently is scaring rich people: an exercise that, while fun to me, is something I’ve realized is problematic. I’ve never threatened rich people or anything like that, but I do occasionally like to throw in a line about my background in rural-southern Appalachia (as the great Tyler Childers once said, “if you say apple-aychia, I’ll throw an apple-atcha”). I grew up in East Tennessee, as you’ll remember if you were one of the fifteen people who read my Canada Goose article (part one in the “Dylan Fox Examines His Relationship With Wealth Trilogy”). I didn’t know that many rich people, as there weren’t that many Princeton-level rich where I’m from. By “Princeton-level rich,” I mean really wealthy, owns-a-townhouse-in-New-York or owns-a-Tesla rich. Being suddenly surrounded by so much wealth often makes me uncomfortable. So, I like to target the assumptions I assume rich people make about me: that I’m some pseudo-intellectual hick who only got into Princeton because he emphasized the fact that his parents didn’t have college degrees (even if that’s true, at least I didn’t have to pretend to be a rower to get in). I sometimes lampoon these assumptions for my own personal enjoyment.
To that end, I love to tell the Car Bomb Story. One Christmas Eve, when I was around fifteen or something, we were having our traditional family Christmas dinner with my grandma and my aunt. Before I go on, you should know that my cousin lives next door. He’s a very interesting man, who happens to have a long and complex relationship with the criminal justice system and spends about half his time in jail because c´est la vie. His girlfriend was once on the front page of the local paper for being involved with a pill racket.
Anyways, we were all sitting around having a pleasant dinner (mashed potatoes, gravy, artichokes, small caribou, the usual). General family at Christmas dinner conversation, as you can probably imagine. I was debating the merits of the harlequin romance novel when we heard a large explosion coming from the direction of the cousin’s house. We all hurried outside to see what was going on over the hill (this was likely to be some prime-time shit).
Now, my house and my cousin’s trailer are on opposite sides of a dip between two hills. Still, from our position on the porch, we were able to see the large ball of flames mushrooming from the other property. We thought the trailer was on fire, but it was actually my cousin’s Jeep Grand Cherokee. It had been blown up by a man my cousin had had a disagreement with. Someone had pulled the classic No Country for Old Men and ignited the gas tank.
I like telling this story because I find it funny (Christmas Eve party ruined by a car bomb which we shrugged off) and because rich people who I assume have never encountered rural Appalachia have especially horrified reactions to this story, which I also find funny. While their reactions are not totally unreasonable, (the story does, after all, involve a car bomb), I often assume that those from more prosperous, jewelry-rattling backgrounds than I are having their preconceptions of Appalachia confirmed—that the region is defined by alcoholism, drug addiction, and self-imposed poverty. I imagine them thinking: “Hillbilly Elegy was right all along! This poor squalid demon child! How has he made it this far?” I imagine that reaction because it reflects my own isolation on campus.
At Princeton, despite a large variety of economic diversity, there is very little regional diversity, or at least the admission of it. Most Tennesseans going to Princeton say they’re from Nashville. Nashville is two hundred and twenty miles from my house in Talbott, Tennessee. Either this means that all the people from Tennessee say they’re from Nashville so they don’t seem like they’re from the middle of nowhere like me, or they are all actually from Nashville, the city that has the highest concentration of wealth and education opportunities in the state. In contrast, my county doesn’t even have a private school yet, and the one they’re building is of the “the earth is 5,000 years old” variety.
Still, I acknowledge that my use of crazy details about my life in Huckleberry Finn-land is problematic in a way that doesn’t involve rich people. The Car Bomb Story, among others, projects stereotypes about rural Appalachia to anyone who could hold them. In my heart of hearts, I want people to actually understand a complex view of Appalachia, the region that is home to both Dolly Parton and strip mining. Just as I view myself as an incredibly complicated person (probable title of my memoir), so is Appalachia endlessly complex. And the culture of Southern Appalachia and its multifaceted nature is often what makes me so interested in examining the region. Just as simply introducing myself with The Car Bomb Story would not represent a full and accurate picture of myself, neither would a story of linear advancement. I did not grow up in poverty, but my family did. That is part of my heritage. The man whose Jeep was blown up is my family.
The history of drug abuse, alcoholism, and squalor are there, but so is a deeper and richer history of strong family ties, music, art, bootleg liquor, folktales, and theology. My own relationship with all of that is not the kind of reductive, aspirational narrative that could fit on a #TellUsTigers post. One reason that I tell The Car Bomb Story is simply to scare people that I assume already think offensive things about me. The other reason that I tell it is to assert my own complexity. Yes, this part of Appalachia—the drugs, the destruction, the insane elements—exist. I refuse to hide that part of my history, but I refuse to view my heritage as solely a sort of trauma.
But it is often assumed that as a member of an underrepresented community I am expected to represent the group in a prescribed way. If you are a person who is not a cisgender, straight, white, upper-middle-class-to-actually-rich male, I don’t really need to tell you this, but I’m honestly just telling this to myself anyways.
“Maria,” the controversial article about domestic workers in Hong Kong, underscored questions that are always in my mind: How should we represent ourselves? How do we represent the place we’re from? And what are people actually thinking about us?
I can’t really imagine being one of the domestic workers mentioned in the article, but I know I don’t like when people assume I’m either less or more because of my background. People who assume I only got into Princeton because I grew up lower-middle class in a rural Southern area are just as annoying as people who deem me a success story for rising out of the squalor of the South. I’m just a guy, who doesn’t like water and talks too much in class. I see myself as a bit eccentric, but not above or below anyone else. When you hear someone else tell your story, it usually feels wrong, like when someone edits your part of a group project without telling you. It’s you, but it’s not.
“Maria” is an exercise in telling someone else’s story from mostly your perspective and that’s what prompted me to reflect on the original piece.
Important disclosure: I am a member of the masthead of the Nass, but not a part of the editorial process. I really didn’t know about this article until it was published. There is a shared drive where everyone can see the different editing assignments and projects, but as I’m not on the editorial staff, I don’t usually wander into that. But I do have some notes now that I’ve read it.
Before we talk about ethics, we need to talk about the article’s form and inconsistency.
First of all, the article constantly switches between two tones: one personal, and one journalistic. Sometimes that works. There’s plenty of journalism out there where an author informs and reflects personally on a subject. However “Maria,” does not provide enough context or allow the reader to understand the author.
Let’s look at the journalistic aspect of the article. We do get a quote from Grace Shiella A Estrada, a leader of the Progressive Labor Union of Domestic Workers in Hong Kong, but no context into what that organization does or how it may even be a counterpoint to the author’s idea that the domestic worker industry “is a normalized reality in the place I call home.” In addition, the author notes that “time after time, stories break in the news detailing the abuse and exploitation of domestic helpers around the city.” If the abuse of domestic workers is normalized, why are there numerous news stories? It seems to imply a conversation in the culture of Hong Kong that is never explored by the author more deeply. What is more, the article mentions the plight of domestic workers from the Philippines without actually engaging in substantive research.
I think it is necessary to be aware of your audience. Even if the writer did not intend to misinform readers, considering that this was published in a college newspaper in the United States, a substantial portion of his readership was likely being introduced to this subject for the first time. Therefore, the writer has a responsibility to his readers to portray the domestic worker industry in Hong Kong with balance and clarity. The only interview the author has perhaps conducted is with his family’s domestic worker, Maria. However, there’s a significant and complex power imbalance in his family’s relationship to her. Maria might have detailed her own life story to the author and some details of others, but there is no way to know that her testimony isn’t affected by the fact that the author’s family employs her. How would the author even begin to go about conducting an unbiased and accurate interview with Maria?
Moving on to the way the author reflects in the piece, he says, “I like to think that we treat Maria well.” This line, if uttered by one fictional character to another, could be a complex admission of guilt. It could show that the character understands his own part in this problem but is choosing not to engage with that. But since this is not fiction, and since it is coming straight from the author’s pen, it strikes me as jarring and distant. The last line in the piece continues, “I suppose I feel comforted by that reassurance.” If this is meaningful self-reflection, meaningful engagement, the piece could not end with this kind of haunting ambiguity. Part of the work’s failure is its timidness, its cowardice. It fails because the author should then reflect fully on his place in this problem, not hint at his role as if it’s some less important sidebar. The author’s own position in this social relationship should be the center of the piece.
The article describes and hints at deeper problems without actually exploring them.Why is there a “deep-seated racial “master-labor’ power dynamic between the Chinese employers and Filipino maids in Hong Kong”? No “master-labor” dynamic exists in an ahistorical background.
The article seems undercooked, as if the author has never asked himself why he is writing it. In trying to understand why he wrote “Maria,” in the first place, I read his follow up. I have not mentioned the follow-up article until now because I want to emphasize my analysis of what the author wrote in the original article. I am not responding to what he wrote in the midst of the controversy. However, I found an enlightening quote when I did reluctantly read the author’s follow up. I think this quote from the follow up explains the author’s perspective:
“Having been removed from the system in which I was born and raised, I am coming to terms with many of the problematic aspects of the domestic helper industry…. I was attempting to explain my perception of it as crafted by the society I grew up in and how that perception has changed since moving away and now looking back over my shoulder.”
Joan Didion begins “The White Album,” by writing “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I agree. That’s what writing is for. We see the chaotic mess of life around us and make constellations from it. If the author is trying to understand his perspective and experience by writing about it, I have no problem with that. Writing is more about questions than it is about answers. And really, if someone gives you a definitive answer to a problem, they’re probably a salesman. But the writer has a responsibility to tell us what he is feeling in the first place. That’s the bravest part of being a writer—trying to reveal raw feelings, even those that hurt to bring to the page because they expose what is actually wrong with us or faulty in our lives.
“Maria” fails to do this. I never get a sense of how the author truly feels. The tone of the article struck me as more analytical than empathetic. There is one description of domestic workers on their day off: “The juxtaposition of their makeshift cardboard rooms against the gleaming metal towers is almost poetic—this is representative of just how out of place and disadvantaged the Filipino diaspora is in the bustling metropolis that is Hong Kong.” I had to ask myself why the author chose this image, and if it had anything more purposeful than a one-dimensional image of oppression and dislocation.
One of the most controversial aspects of the piece is how it recalled American systems of racial oppression. To me, it read like something a rich-liberal Southerner would write about having an African-American maid in the To Kill a Mockingbird era. It seems like the words of someone who is apologetic and knows that a socioeconomic situation is wrong on some level, but has yet to fully comprehend their place in the issue. It seems that the author of “Maria” is just now becoming aware of the problems with the domestic worker industry in Hong Kong.
- The Stories We Tell
This article originally ended with a long indignant rant that made absolutely no goddamn sense. I cut it, mainly because I don’t feel like it’s ever good to end a piece with anger, no matter how good it felt to write. I so much want to have other people understand my complexity, and complexity in general, in media, in people, in the lives we live or attempt to live. Nuance is my mantra. That’s why this piece is more than twice the length of “Maria” itself. I do not give clear answers, or at least try to avoid them, because I suspect categorial answers to be lies. One problem of “Maria,” is its simplistic view of Maria. She is seen as a character, not a full person. She is seen through her suffering. Other than her lonely glimpse at the sun rising, we do not know her secrets, her inner-life. I cannot say I really understand her relationship to the author, which is a problem, because that relationship is the center of the piece.
The author describes in his response letter that he and Maria have a close relationship. But the original article reduces Maria. Much of the criticism in comment sections, Tiger Confessions, and in conversation with people throughout campus seems to assume many things about the author’s relationship with her. I can understand the pain the author may have felt about those criticisms. Those analyses tend to reduce their relationship to a cursory narrative. At the end of the day, we cannot comprehend or know their relationship. To hear someone else’s summation of yourself is a hurtful thing. It’s a shitty experience to feel yourself reduced for easy consumption. And even though I think the article is a failure, I can understand the pain of saying something that is ultimately rejected, in one way or another.
An important aspect of The Car Bomb Story that I haven’t outlined yet is the fact that my persistent retelling of the story is one of the reasons I’ve returned to regular CPS counseling. People around me were concerned by what I said, not out of annoyance, but out of empathy. They understood the isolation that stems from being at Princeton when I feel that I don’t fit into any of the boxes that seem to be made for me. Besides the root glee I feel at being provocative, that urge is also what has made my first year at Princeton the loneliest year of my life. One thing I learned in therapy is that I tell that story not just out of a want to shock but also out of an urge to protect myself against intimacy and my own fear of rejection. This was illuminating for me. (Therapists can see through you like everyone else can, they just have the gumption to tell you).
I tell these types of stories to try to understand my own life, to put it in a context. However, putting yourself in a context can also just diminish you. How do you stop doing this? I don’t know. I don’t think I will ever know.
Other than writing this sort of stuff, I’m a filmmaker. Taking the stories around me and making them into a history, an art, something that is comprehensive and at the same time doesn’t reduce characters into archetypes is the main challenge in my life. We are never 100% successful. Ask filmmakers what it’s like to watch their films with an audience. It’s awful. Godard wrote a great line about movies in Masculin Féminin. “It wasn’t the movie of our dreams. It wasn’t the total film we carried inside ourselves.” And so, when my next film premieres at the class show after Dean’s Date, no matter the actual quality of the film, I’ll sit in the back wondering what went wrong.
Telling stories may be how we live, but how do we live with the stories we tell?