Stephanie Karlik

Category: Anthropology

The Beautiful Serendipity Tapestry of L.A.’s Conscious Family Dinner

conscious_fam_dinner

Ben. I met Ben at the Museum of Design and Architecture in downtown L.A. after a Sci-Arc exhibition on Detroit city revitalization. He was standing outside of the museum chatting with a group of guys when I approached to bum a cigarette from his friend. In his late 20s, Ben had piercing brown eyes, loosely styled light brown hair, and a thunderous laugh that went hand-in-hand with his charismatic personality. He wore white linen pants, a white t-shirt, and a gray and black striped scarf. He bounced around from person to person on the patio, easily flowing in and out of conversation with all those surrounding us. After finding out that I’d studied anthropology in Japan, that I had a cat, that I’d recently written a book, and that I was really into throwing dinner parties, he invited me out to a bar with him and his friends.

There at the bar, we drank whiskey and talked poetry appreciation, sexual orientation, and philosophical investigation. I imagined that this was a night straight out of Good Will Hunting. Like I was Minnie Driver as Skylar. And Ben and his friends were Will and the South Boston boys. Except this was L.A. And Ben and his friends were exceptionally educated. And we didn’t get into an intellectual showdown at the bar. And Ben seemed really emotionally balanced. So not really Good Will Hunting at all. How do you like them apples?

Arriving home that night, I did what any sane person in Los Angeles does when they’re excited about someone they’ve just met in the city.

I googled him.

“Monthly ‘Conscious Family Dinners’ Aim to Nourish Body and Soul” an L.A. Times headline read.

“Conscious Family Dinner is a monthly event that is the brainchild of Benjamin Rolnik, 26, a Los Angeles talent manager and tech entrepreneur who says he began meditating at age 10 and is now ‘obsessed with the art and science of personal transformation,’” the article went on.

Conscious Family Dinner, I pieced together from endless online coverage of Ben and the event, was like a big dinner party held at different spots in L.A. combined with personal growth workshops and yoga, kind of like a mini-festival around a dinner.

“You’re having a dinner party soon?” a previous conversation with Ben that night flashed into my mind.

“I am,” I nodded. “Would you like to come?”

“Absolutely. I love dinner parties,” Ben smiled.

It suddenly occurred to me as I stared into my computer screen that I’d just invited the reigning king of dinner parties in Los Angeles to my modest little Long Beach dinner party without him saying a word about his work. That was incredibly rare in L.A., self-promotion capital of the world.

Ben was already an enigma.

 


 

A couple of months later, I find myself ready to attend my first Conscious Family Dinner. I head to La Maida Institute in North Hollywood with an email RSVP and an open mind. I wait in a line of about 20 people outside of a broad-faced mission style two-story manor, unsure of what to expect.

“I heard we might have a personal guide to lead us around tonight,” a 20-something partygoer in front of me speculates.

“I heard this place used to be a psychiatric institute,” another insists.

“I heard there’s a pirate booty yoga class tonight,” another laughs.

Wondering if I was really headed to a mental institute to potentially be led around by a guide into a pirate booty yoga class, I take a deep breath and surrender myself to the night.

A few minutes later, I’m greeted at the door by a man holding a stack of stickers. On each sticker is a phrase related to love or mindfulness.

“Accepting consciousness!” the man exclaims as he tears off a sticker from his stack, directing me into the front lawn of the home.

There, an angelic faced blond woman wearing purple Thai pants and a tie-dyed t-shirt stops to ask me, “Do you want to give love to your light side or your dark side tonight?”

“To my dark side,” I reply.

“Then come with me,” she says, guiding me by the hand to the shorter of the two lines of people making their way into the manor.

Kneeling me down onto the ground, she asks, “Did you set your intention for tonight?”

“I didn’t yet.”

“Try coming up with an intention.”

“To be open and to meet new friends,” I say.

“Wonderful,” she replies, placing a lei of fake purple flowers around my neck.

“Please come in,” she points to the manor’s front entrance.

A California-style home inside, I notice empty rooms with hardwood floors on either side of me, a stairway leading up to a mysterious second floor, and a walkway shooting straight to the backyard, where a crowd of diverse individuals mixed and mingled, eating Indian vegetarian food around a green lawn.

Consciousness ice breaker games are introduced and before I know it, I’m eating palak paneer while telling a group of four complete strangers the things that make me feel loved. “Receiving an actual phone call in life from people,” I say.

The group unanimously nods in agreement.

“What’s something you’ve been working on in the last year that you feel you need help with?” another question circulates.

“I really feel I need help navigating through life, figuring out how to keep bad people out of it,” a sheepish 20-something says.

“Maybe there’s a way to see it like there are no bad people or good people in life,” a bleach blond 20-something adds. “Like people are neither good nor bad.”

“Yeah, but sometimes I really want to keep people who are doing harm away,” the girl now insists.

“Right, just like knowing how to draw boundaries,” I agree.

“Yeah! Like that!” she says back.

“Just keep practicing,” a 30-something black woman emphatically chimes in. “It comes with time.”

 


 

Conscious Family Dinner, created in 2016 by Ben, has its roots in Jewish traditions. Being of Jewish heritage, as a young man Ben often took part in shabbat dinner which felt like dead ritual to him. As a result, he started hosting shabbat dinners that were rooted in the idea of transparency and sharing. “We would all sit around a table and play rosebud-and-thorn, a game where you would take turns sharing your greatest triumphs and defeats with the table. They were juicy, yes, but they were also powerful experiences. People would cry or laugh. And I began to sense that that feeling is the essence of spirituality and joy,” Ben explains on a phone call with me three nights after Conscious Family Dinner.

 


 

A man with a didgeridoo walks out of the manor and announces to the backyard guests that the first session of workshops would soon be starting. I walk back into the house and see that indeed, a pirate-themed yoga class is actually happening, as well as a workshop on some form of personal transformation and a kabbalistic palm-reading circle for personal growth. All interesting options. But I’m feeling a pull to go back outside and circulate more among other guests. By the cacao and chai-tasting table, I meet a young man named Marcus. Working for the U.S. Department of Defense and living in Port Hueneme, he had driven into North Hollywood specifically for CFD. “I’m making a job and life transition into yoga instruction and meditation facilitation right now. It’s a bit scary,” he spills to me.

“I can imagine it is,” I tell him. What brought you here tonight?”

“I came with a group of fellow yoga instructors to see what the community is all about.”

“I came for curiosity’s sake too,” I tell him.

We sit down by a flowing feng shui fountain and share almost in full, our origin stories as well as our coming-to-L.A. stories.

“I had been a professional athlete, and a bad injury took me out of the game forever. I got depressed, was feeling sorry for myself, and realized I needed to make a change. That’s when I took a road trip and wound up in California with nothing but my car and a bag. I lived with my brother until his marriage fell apart and his wife kicked me out, realized I was homeless, and started to call homeless shelters. That’s when by sheer luck, I met an older woman who asked me to be her apartment building manager, got recruited to work for the Department of Defense, and started to build my life.”

“It sounds like there were a lot of ups and downs,” I tell him.

“There were.”

“It’s so great you’re in a good place.”

“It is. Yoga gives me life,” he nods.

“Me too, kid. Me too.”

This moment of shared solidarity with a stranger was not super unusual to me, a regular participant in the yogic/meditative/ayurvedic scene in L.A. But it was unusual to me that it was happening right in the middle of Hollywood, a place not exactly known for abundant facilitation of sincere interaction. Perhaps there really was something to all of this New Age activity in the millennial generation. Sure, drinking green juice and unsuccessfully trying to go vegan seem pretty superficial in the grand scheme of life but maybe in the midst of those activities, we actually reached a tipping point and managed to meaningfully shift mainstream culture. Could it be?

 


 

Ben tells me over the phone that around the time he was hosting conscious shabbat dinners, he started facilitating transformation circles and workshops containing elements of peer counseling, peer therapy, mysticism, and improv. These events were so influential and effective that the idea to do “conscious family dinners” eventually spun off of them. Hoping to learn about new tools that would benefit his life, share transformation technologies, and be around like-minded people, Ben came up with the idea. He explains to me, “I was at home one night, but I didn’t want to hang out at home. I didn’t want to go see a movie. I didn’t want to go to a workshop, and I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted to have a conscious family dinner. It would be an intimate dinner. We’d play games and get to connect on a deep soul level.” This theme of self-discovery leading to sharing resonates through much of Ben’s ideas and work. “I’ve always been on a mission to end suffering for myself. I wanna share what I discover. Everywhere I’ve been, I’m like a beaver. I wanna be around people like me, who want to have deep conversations about the meaning of life.”

 


 

The second set of workshops at La Maida Institute commence, and I wander into a square room with windows facing the front lawn. It’s past 10 p.m. now, and the night seems to have moved into another dimension, the witching hour, a time when anything seems possible. Spaces could shrink and expand; time could could contract or grow; people and objects could fly through the air, and as it turns out, that would be the exact mission of the workshop I’d just stepped into.

“Tonight… is all about proving that the impossible is possible!” our host calls out, a 40-something gentleman, dressed in gray slacks and a button-up shirt. “Your generation inspires me endlessly… your generation… the millennial generation… a great generation. See my generation, we really messed things up, but your generation is already doing so much to right our wrongs. Tell me, sir…” the host points at an inconspicuous young man sitting in our circle on the floor. “What is it that you want to do?”

“What do I want to do?” the young man looks up at the host with wide eyes.

“Yes, what do you want to do? Is there anything you’re working on? Something you want to achieve?”

“Actually, I’m working on an app that would be an information sharing service for actively resisting the police.”

“That’s beautiful,” the host replies, getting choked up, “So beautiful! I love it. So tonight is about you proving to yourselves that you can accomplish anything you set your mind on if you believe in it with every cell in your body. Are we into that?” he asks the 20 of us in the room.

“Yes,” we mutter back.

“I said are we into that?” he screams.

“Yes!” we respond in unison.

“Now what we’re here to do tonight is to create an energetic container. Essentially we’ll build such a strong energy in this room that we’ll be able to accomplish a seemingly impossible feat. Now I need five volunteers.”

The young man who aims to create the police app is called to sit on a wooden chair. Four young women of small stature are called to stand by each chair leg.

“You ladies are going to lift this man out of this chair, each of you only using your index and middle fingers on either hand,” the leader tells the girls.

The girls look around the room with stunned expressions. Then we spend the next 30 minutes rooting them on as they train to synchronize their movements, work on their positioning, enhance their strength, improve their communication flow, and boost morale. When one of the girls shows visible signs of apathy, the leader stops her for a pep talk. “What’s wrong?” he asks.

“Nothing. It’s just that normally I’d be in bed at this time. I’m tired,” she moans.

“I need you to do something for me and everybody else here. Will you put your all into the practice? You’re gonna remember this moment for the rest of your life. The rest of your life.”

She lifts her eyes up from the floor and locks them on his, nodding.

“Ok,” he announces. “We’re back in business. Group: Let’s cheer them on!”

“1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10!” our spectator group screams in unison as the girls go through the motions to perform the lift.

First attempt. Fail. No lift-off. Not even a butt cheek off the chair.

Second attempt. Fail. Same story.

Third attempt. Fail.

Stopping to correct the girls’ technique on a few occasions, we continue screaming, hyping up the energetic container, and giving as much support as we can to the effort.

But still nothing.

Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail.

The leader stops us, “My friends, the road to success can be long and hard, but that’s why we must never give up. Never. Give. Up.”

“Never give up!” we rally as we amp up for another round of trials.

But then fail. Fail. Fail. Fail. Fail.

Hearing music coming from the house’s living room now, we realize that the night is almost over and our energetic container experiment nearly is, too.

“Three more attempts!” the leader screams.

“Yes!” we scream back.

And then finally, a fail. Another fail. And the final fail.

The container is now at a loss for words, filled with confusion and disappointment.

“Friends,” the leader asserts. “I want to tell you that I’ve done this exercise previously only at day-long conferences where we had many more hours to succeed at the task. This was my first time doing this exercise condensed into such a short amount of time. I don’t view tonight’s events as a failure, rather as another notch of experience on the ol’ belt. I thank you for your participation.”

And with that, the energetic container scatters. Just like that. Exercise over.

I leave with the feeling that indeed, life is like this. There’s no guaranteed success. Only experiment. Trial and error. Tweaking. Regrouping. But always always giving it all you got.

 


 

Ben says over the phone to me that the first conscious family dinner was a complete and utter failure.

“How did you gauge that?” I ask him.

“For the people who came, they didn’t like it,” he adds. “I realized the essence of our event was developed and produced by my parents’ generation: Landmark Forum, Tony Robbins, that kind of stuff. We were trying to make our events all about content, but people weren’t interested in our content.”

“What were they wanting then?”

“Well, instead of the people coming for the content, the content ended up becoming the people.”

“So it’s like an organic experience?”

“Yeah, the less I do for the event, the more people enjoy it. As soon as I shifted my mentality around that, the event just happened to fucking work.”

 


 

Coming out of the container, I step into La Maida Institute’s living room, where over 100 people are gathered around a man with a guitar singing “Rainbow Connection.” We’re encouraged to hug each other and to go around and say one word that summarizes the evening. Someone calls out “fun,” “union,” “love,” “joy,” “enlightenment,” “sharing,” and I throw out a “Los Angeles.” As closing statements and thank yous are said, I walk over to Ben, surrounded by a swarm of lovers, huggers, and singers, and I tell him thank you, a genuinely felt thank you. “I’ve gotta write about this experience. It’s just too rich.”

“I know. It’s weird, isn’t it?” he looks at me.

“A good weird,” I affirm.

 


 

“So where is this all going, you think?” I ask Ben on our phone call.

“I’m climbing my personal Mount Everest right now,” Ben tells me. He’s in pre-medical school at UCLA after years of studying philosophy and I get the sense that the world is his oyster. “The more I let go of the future, the more free I feel to create everything right now.”

Without knowing it, he’s reminding me of the Buddhist call to detach, to let go, and the Taoist call to just be.

“Disappointment requires adequate planning,” he says.

I respect that there’s a deliberate effort to not over-strategize, to not be over-corporatized or over-commercialized in his movement. But at the same time, I know Ben’s got vision.

“An idea is to create a conscious dinner network,” he tells me.

“Oh! Like AirBNB or WeWork or something like that?”

“Exactly. We’ve had 11 CFDs in L.A. We’ve had six In New York. And maybe it could spread.”

“Maybe it could spread indeed.”

See, for all of my hesitation to ice break among strangers, to have my palm read, and to sing “Rainbow Connection” with a bunch of strangers in the middle of Los Angeles, there was something magical about the event.

Something that made me feel just a little bit closer to the fabric of the city and how she breathes.

Something that made me feel just a little less isolated in the city as a freelance artist, a transplant from afar, and a single woman.

For every time I’ve struggled to connect the dots on my career in L.A., I heard a story of someone else’s struggle to connect the dots.

For every time I had moved myself across the city, whether to Ktown, downtown, or anywhere else, I heard a stranger’s story of packing and moving themselves across the urban landscape.

And for every unsuccessful relationship I’d experienced, another person at CFD was right there talking about a break-up or a divorce.

I wasn’t broken. I was human.

I wasn’t alone. I was infinitely connected to the whole of humanity.

I wasn’t going anywhere. I was in Los Angeles. And I would soldier on with the help of myself and the 100 + strangers I’d just randomly (or not so randomly) come in contact with at Conscious Family Dinner.

Ben wasn’t so much of an enigma to me anymore. Nor was the event. It’d all been humanized. We were all just part of the beautiful serendipity tapestry that the universe was weaving us into.

Advertisements

Two Weeks in Europe: A Trumpian Nightmare Escape Story

trump(Image courtesy of Business Insider)

Helicopters circled overhead, the sound of their blades penetrating into my kitchen, sending me and my Siamese cat into a tailspin of terror. Protesters outside chanted in unison an indistinguishable cacophony of anti-Trump slogans, my heart rate skyrocketing as I considered whether to join them in the park, run in the other direction to the nearest bakery and stuff my face with a red velvet cupcake, or bury my head in my hands and sob. It was the day after the presidential election and I was still trying to process what the hell had just happened to me, my fellow Angelenos, Californians, and Americans. Could this really be true? Could reality TV star Donald Trump really be my new president? Could the xenophobic-racist-sexist-nasty-as-a-nacho-cheese-burp rhetoric that slipped out of his mouth really have just been given the stamp of approval by the nation?

The night before, as election results started rolling in, I found myself at my local Long Beach Farmers’ Market, buying organic greens and talking to my neighbors about potentially horrific outcomes. “Trump might win,” my bohemian-sings-in-a-folk-band-artist friend Monica said as we lounged under her Gypsies of Bohemia henna art tent.

“I think it could be ok,” I reassured her. “We’re only seeing the returns from the Bible Belt and the Midwest right now.” She went back to drawing henna designs, and I went home with my radical ayurvedic yogi girl friend Rosa to eat salmon and kale while we watched the rest of the returns roll in. With Pennsylvania hanging and set to determine the final outcome, we knew what was in store for us. “We’re doomed,” Rosa said.

“Yup,” I agreed. As Pennsylvania turned red on my MacBook screen in the next few moments, we tried to accept our fate, not without visceral lashings-out in sheer panic, however. “Oh no!” I cried. “I’m everything radical Trump supporters hate: I’m a woman. I’m Asian. I’m an artist. I’m… I’m… I’m yoga pants!” Referencing the intolerant posters of radical Trump ralliers in the lead-up to the election that literally denounced yoga pants, tears started rolling down my cheeks.

Rosa left my house that night on her bicycle, texting me when she got home. “You should go outside and get some fresh air,” she urged. “It helped clear my head a lot.” I would go outside for a walk to try to do just that, but it wouldn’t help much. The next several months passed by largely in a blur of shock, horror, denial, and fatigue at Trump and all the chaos he had stirred up in our nation and beyond.

Six months later, I found myself on an SAS flight to Stockholm, mostly to see my sexy Swedish boyfriend but also to attend a design conference in Amsterdam called “What Design Can Do,” a two-day event that aimed to bring together professionals in various design fields under the banner of global climate change action. On day one of the conference, designers, intellectuals, and experts of fields from law to finance to media came together to discuss this increasingly important issue.

In a workshop with IKEA’s head of design, we created ideas for democratic homes, where energy was regenerative and the pushing and pulling of drawers could fuel an LED plant grower-filled kitchen that produced fresh herbs and veggies. In a session on local food movements, Brazilian chef and restaurateur Rodrigo Oliveira discussed his restaurant’s inclination toward local Brazilian-sourced food highlighting the country’s unique topography, how that won him a Michelin star, and how other restaurants might look to recreate his model. In a session on corporations and finance, we discussed pension and investment funds, how they’re responsible for a significant portion of climate change, and how we as investors can make empowered financial decisions that are also attentive to the environment.

All in all, I was absolutely blown away at the level of discourse my European counterparts were bringing to the table throughout the conference. They seamlessly integrated intellectual dialogue on design and social matters in a way that was incredibly rare in America, where the design world tends to be more closely linked with commerce. My European colleagues were easily able to engage in cross-disciplinary interaction as academics, artists, activists, or all of the above. And perhaps most importantly, my European friends had what I believe to be the right perspective on President Trump, mocking him throughout the two-day event for his explicit denial that climate change is a real thing.

This was the freshest breath of air I’d inhaled in about a year, from the venomous presidential campaign trail to the panic attack-inducing election night, on to the anxiety-filled inauguration period. Dutch, German, English, or Swedish, my pan-European colleagues were informed, cosmopolitan, awake, and aware, perhaps best evidenced in the seemingly simplest of interactions.

At the close of the conference, I attended a vegetarian dinner held at a Dutch modern restaurant by the beautiful Amsterdam canals. As I chomped on fresh asparagus, a sophisticated and striking young Dutch graphic designer, Loes, began chatting with me, our conversation quickly flowing into China territory. “I find it interesting that China wasn’t really mentioned at all at this conference,” Loes noted, pouring herself some more tempranillo, “especially since Europe is essentially becoming a museum piece.”

“I guess it is, isn’t it?” I agreed.

“We should really be engaging with them on the subject,” she added. As our conversation continued, Loes amused me, a long-time China watcher and anthropologist of the region, with her more-than-adequate knowledge on China and the country’s place in the grander geopolitical picture. This young woman, no official China expert of any sort but a graphic designer by profession, possessed just as much information on the subject of China as actual China specialists I’ve met in the field of international relations. Furthermore, that we could so smoothly slide into dialogue with one another in the interest of knowledge-sharing and truth-finding was refreshing. All too often in America, healthy debate fell off a cliff into a space of defensiveness, fiery opinion enforcement, and stonewalling. Elegant, attuned, refined, artistic, and intelligent, Loes was symbolic of the larger European scenario I encountered on my trip. While this points to class, education, and socioeconomic stratification differences between Europe and America, I couldn’t help but feel we Americans appeared selfish, bloated, ignorant, uninformed, and just flat out stupid from where I was standing. There with Loes, I felt we Americans were absolutely living up to our negative stereotypes.

As conversation with Loes wrapped up with the close of dinner, she and I made our way over to the restaurant’s dance floor. Chef Oliveira handed us a glass of Brazilian cachaca and with that, we drank, we laughed, and we danced the night away. I walked home along the Amsterdam canals in the early morning with a belly full of alcohol, a mind full of ideas, and a heart full of inspiration.

A week later, after a whirlwind tour through Berlin and its wicked street art scene, I boarded a flight back to L.A. My trip was over, but two weeks in Europe had changed me. Whether as a designer, an academic, or just as a human being, I’d been deeply moved by my European colleagues. They were having the conversations I wanted to have. They were thinking progressively, discussing rationally, and acting accordingly. I didn’t want to overgeneralize an entire continent of people. I didn’t want to make a select group of urban professionals I interacted with representative of a vast group of highly diverse people. But these were the conclusions I had to walk away with based on my individual experience of the region. As I sat on that airplane flying over the Atlantic, I determined that I wanted to bring this European spirit back with me to America, most especially all that I’d absorbed related to climate change. And it was feasible as a Californian. Putting on my headphones, I fell fast asleep on that comforting thought.

Ten hours later, as my plane landed at LAX, the bright California sun beaming through our oval windows, I turned my iPhone off airplane mode and scanned through Google for the news. “President Trump Leaves Paris Climate Agreement” the headlines screamed at me. Seriously?! I thought to myself. Like a bucket of ice cold water to the face, the message was clear: Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in enlightened Europe anymore.

Defeated, I rolled my suitcase out to my Uber, arrived home shortly after, and fell into a deep jet-lagged hibernation. Waking up a few days later, I did what any good red-blooded American should do after a meaningful experience: I went to Disneyland.

With yogi Rosa and dominatrix Diana at my side, we teacupped, we Splash Mountained, and we Peter Panned. In-between, we talked about Black Lives Matter, about California’s role as the renegade state in the Trump era, and about China’s effect on Los Angeles real estate prices. Conversation, while at once discouraging, was also encouraging. Why? Because it was happening. Just like it was happening in Europe, it was happening here among three California women. And so in that moment, I felt there was hope for the future. Trump’s negative influence would roll forward, but we women would continue to assert ourselves and our opinions. California would forge ahead in its defiance. Governor Jerry Brown would meet directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss climate change controls. And global designer-anthropologists like myself would do what we could to stay engaged with important social-political-environmental subjects while practicing our crafts.

Designer and thinker Bruce Mau said at the close of the “What Design Can Do” conference that “We cannot afford the luxury of cynicism.” No truer words were spoken in regards to the critical importance of dialogue and action in our times. Stonewalling gets us nowhere; healthy communication gets us everywhere. Sorry, America, but there’s no red velvet cupcake in the the world to ease our pain. Our only hope is to openly discuss, pull ourselves up by our cowboy bootstraps, and go to work.

Yellow Rain

Though a rather regular Radiolab listener, I missed this one back in 2012. And it was a big one to miss.

In a nutshell, Radiolab was trying to get to the bottom of the old yellow rain mystery. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, was the yellow stuff that fell on the Hmong people of Laos chemical bombs that had been supplied to the Pathet Lao by the Soviets or was it simply a cloud of bee poop? Accordingly, were the mass deaths among the Hmong people a direct result of these chemicals or was yellow rain merely a natural event occurring alongside a genocide being waged in other, perhaps less chemical ways?

This is an excerpt of the program that I’ve transcribed that involves the following players:

Radiolab Producer Pat Walters

Documentarian Eng Yang

Writer and Activist Kao Kalia Yang

Geneticist and Molecular Biologist Matt Meselson

Radiolab Host Robert Krulwich

I start the transcription from around 19:20 in the video and end around 24:20.

I’ve marked the post-interview narration that the program dubbed over the interview with using Radiolab’s yellow rain illustration:

Pat Walters (post-interview narration): At a certain point in our conversation with Eng, the Hmong guy Robert and I talked to earlier with his niece Kahlia translating for him, we explained that the evidence they’d been attacked by chemical weapons seems a little shaky. Eng’s response was “if this was just bee feces”…

(excerpt from interview):

Kao Kalia Yang: How do you explain the kids dying, the people and the animals dying? That where there is this yellow thing, where there are no bees, whole villages die?

Walters (post-interview narration): We asked Kalia to tell Eng what the scientists had told us, that the Hmong were definitely dying.

Matt Meselson (soundbyte): The Hmong were under real attack. They were being fired at from airplanes and by soldiers and…

Walters (post-interview narration): But more importantly, even if they weren’t killed by those direct attacks, they were on the run through the jungle. They were malnourished and drinking from contaminated streams. Diseases like dysentery and cholera were rampant. And the way a lot of people see it is that they may have misattributed some of those mysterious deaths to this cloud of bee poop that looked like it could have been a chemical weapon, but Eng says no, not a chance.

(excerpt from interview):

Yang: I speak to what I’ve seen, and there is no inkling in my mind that those deaths were not caused by starvation, dysentery. It was chemicals that were killing my people.

Walters (post-interview narration): So we wanted to know, and this was an honest question, did he see something that would contradict the science’s story?

(excerpt from interview):

Radiolab Host Robert Krulwich: Did the source of the rain, was there always a plane and then rain, a plane and then rain? Or did sometimes the rain happen without a plane?

Yang: We never saw, what they said, is that it was always just being dropped on them. And it was always being dropped where there were heavy concentrations of Hmong people. That’s what we knew.

Krulwich: But we don’t know whether there was a plane causing it. You just see the dust.

Yang: You know, you have to understand that the planes are shooting bullets and bombs every day all the time. And so whether it was a bombing plane or a yellow plane, it was incredibly hard to distinguish. Everybody runs when you hear the plane. So Hmong people don’t watch bombs coming down. You came out, you sneak your head out, and you watched what happened in the aftermath. You saw broken trees. You saw yellow in the aftermath of what had been bombed. I saw with my own eyes the bee pollen on the leaves eating through holes. With my own eyes, I saw pollen that could kill grass, could kill leaves, could kill trees.

Krulwich: But he himself is not clear whether it’s the bee stuff or whether it’s other stuff because there was so much stuff coming down from the sky.

Yang: You know that there were chemicals being used against the Hmong in the mountains of Laos. Whether this is the chemicals from the bomb or yellow rain, chemicals were being used. It feels to him like this is a semantic debate. And it feels like there is a sad lack of justice that the word of a man who survived this thing must be pitted against a professor from Harvard who’s read these accounts.

Krulwich: But as far as I can tell, your uncle didn’t see the bee pollen fall. Your uncle didn’t see a plane. All of this is hearsay.

Yang: My uncle says for the last twenty years, he didn’t know that anybody was interested in the deaths of the Hmong people. He agreed to do this interview because you were interested. You know, what happened to the Hmong happened, and the world has been uninterested for the last twenty years. He agreed because you were interested. That the story would be heard and that the Hmong deaths would be documented and recognized. That’s why he agreed to the interview, that the Hmong heart is broken, that our leaders have been silenced, and what we know has been questioned again and again is not a surprise to him or to me. I agreed to the interview for the same reason, that Radiolab was interested in the Hmong story, that they were interested in documenting the deaths that happened. There was so much that was not told. Everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used. How do you create bombs if not with chemicals? We can play the semantics game. We can, but I am not interested and my uncle is not interested. We have lost too much heart and too many people in the process. I think that, I think the interview is done.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

After the show was aired, Radiolab was vehemently criticized by listeners for focusing so much on getting the truth about yellow rain, that they undermined Yang’s account of what he and his fellow Hmong community members witnessed and experienced. Though Radiolab could not be faulted for wanting to better understand where the yellow rain was coming from, they could be held at fault for not sensitively handling the interview, for not adequately listening, and for being so single-mindedly driven by “the truth” on this yellow stuff that they weren’t paying proper respect to what was so obviously the bigger issue for the interlocutor: a genocide that has been largely overlooked by outsiders.

Krulwich and the Radiolab team duly apologized and added more post-production edits to the initial Yellow Rain broadcast. Yang, the Hmong interpreter in the piece, has written her own account of what happened before, during, and after the interview. Basically she’s unhappy with the way in which she, her uncle, and the Hmong community were portrayed by the show.

This, like a lot of things, was a really complex situation, and every actor was doing what he or she thought was best for the causes he or she was pursuing. Nonetheless, there are some lessons to be learned from this, I believe:

1. The pursuit of “truth” can and should be done in a balanced way, a way that doesn’t minimize life and the weight of people’s experiences. Interlocutors are not to be manipulated or used, nor should their time be wasted, in order to satisfy the researcher’s aims. As we well know, blind, compassionless science is not only offensive, it’s dangerous. Even if researchers or scientists aim to better serve humanity by arriving at the truth they’re digging for, they risk making innocent people a means to an end. This is intricately intertwined with power positions, related to the next item:

2. It should never be underestimated just how much the scientific community is dominated by male, white, western, English-speaking society and how much that “colors” our experiences:

That Mr. Eng Yang’s story could not be told by him directly to the interviewers and the larger public because he speaks Hmong is not insignificant. That he was just referred to as “Eng,” his first name, by the show’s producer is not insignificant. That Yang was not referred to by a title or affiliation at all in this piece, while all of the other western players were, is not insignificant. That he was referred to as “the Hmong guy” by Walters is not insignificant. All of this serves to belittle Yang and his narrative.

Similarly, that Kao Kalia Yang was merely referred to as “his niece” is not insignificant. That she, while also possessing impressive institutional affiliations and accolades, was not accorded the same respect as the other scholars is not insignificant. All of this serves to belittle Kao Kalia Yang.

Her frustration and tears at the end of the interview came about not just because of the recollection of the genocide but because she knew that she and her uncle’s iteration of it was going to be white-washed and hegemonized, and there was perhaps little she could do to set the record straight considering the power of Radiolab and the size of its audience.

3. It should never be underestimated how much people will try to explain this cultural and ethnic marginalization away. This is evident in the comment thread that follows the broadcast where some listeners claimed that the hosts were just doing their jobs, accusing others of reading into things too much or seeing racism where there was no racism at play.

That’s like Obama declaring the U.S. a “post-racial society.” Nonsense.

Though I don’t believe it’s fair to call anyone involved in this debacle racist, it cannot be denied that their individual positions feed into the social hierarchy of the American status quo. Merely because it’s the status quo doesn’t mean there are no real consequences for each individual to have to feel and embody.

I’m going to frame this in a different context than race for the purposes of getting my point across: sex.

When I was in grad school, I took a course on social inequality. Our class was discussing Leslie Salzinger’s article “Manufacturing sexual subjects; ‘Harassment’, desire and discipline on a Maquiladora shopfloor.” The article was written by Salzinger after 18 months of participant observation at a maquila on Mexico’s border. Salzinger explains that every person involved in the factory, from the female factory workers to their male bosses, are participants in the blatantly sexualized atmosphere of the place. “Flirtation and sexual competition become the currency through which shopfloor power relations are struggled over and fixed,” she claims, as “Even the most cursory tour of the shopfloor reveals an intensely sexualized atmosphere, and conversations with workers only add to this impression.” She continues, “women workers are at the center of attention” in the factory “fish bowl” and the men, who are the “managers and supervisors are situated as voyeurs.” In the conclusion, Salzinger argues that “sexual harassment,” while present at this factory, is not the only way to describe the overwhelmingly sexual vibe of the place, rather, it is sexual objectification. And that sexual objectification is both imposed upon people and willingly entered into by participants. This leaves outsiders with questions like, “How much agency do these women have?” or “While the women think they’re free to act on their sexual proclivities, how much has the scene been shaped by men?”

Interestingly, while debating this issue in class, some of the men (and women) thought the article was bollocks and said so. Like some of the commenters on the Yellow Rain Radiolab program, they thought that the scholar was reading into things too much, that in the context of this article, Salinger was over-analyzing individual relations between factory workers, seeing sexual objectification where it didn’t necessarily exist. Some people probably didn’t even want to talk about it. I took issue with this then and still do now.

Firstly, over-analyzing something shouldn’t be frowned upon by anyone, even if just dabbling in the social sciences. We analyze because a lot of other people don’t feel like it, but the key is to analyze with curiosity and an open mind to different types of knowledge.

Secondly, simply because society’s status quo justifies ethnic marginalization and sexual objectification does not mean that that those things don’t exist and that the status quo is ok. In fact, sometimes status quo really sucks. And it’s up to us to point to interactions that seem to be natural and ask if they’re actually good for people. Sometimes that “Hey. This is kind of weird,” or that “This is actually pretty unfair” comment is meaningful and needed.

Yellow Rain is an interesting piece for consideration from multiple angles. In order to not commit the same error twice, let’s acknowledge that the most important part of the whole broadcast is preventing terrible stuff like this genocide from happening again. Sometimes, when science tells us to surge ahead in the name of progress, we need to pause and listen. There may be a voice, even if it’s in a minority community’s language, even if it’s soft, Asian, and female telling us that grievances haven’t been sufficiently acknowledged, and victims haven’t been properly mourned. We must listen patiently, support, and advocate even if it’s inconvenient.

And that’s why anthropology is a recursive process. Because we’re open to the gray areas, not just dead-set on defining the yellow.

I hope all of us, from the Radiolab peeps, to the Yang family, to the listeners like me, are better, more open-minded, and ultimately more sensitive and balanced people after the program. We can’t afford to harden ourselves.

Kao Kalia Yang’s commentary on Yellow Rain can be found here.