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Learning English goodly

in Columns/Opinions by

Learning English is hard. I really started trying to learn the language when I was in 8th grade. When I was growing up in China, I did not go to an international school, and, at the time, my English class was teaching basics of the language that native speakers probably learned in kindergarten. I wanted to learn more English to prepare for the admissions test of one of the top high schools in Shanghai, so that I could have a better chance of getting accepted. I knew it was going to be a challenge, but it was even harder than I thought. You see, I was not just bad at English; I was terrible at it. In retrospect, I can’t believe I even tried. I could barely follow what the teacher was saying in class, and he already gave up on me after I consistently ranked near the bottom of my class in every English exam. It also didn’t help that I didn’t like the teacher, since he wouldn’t allow me to join his soccer team.

If it weren’t for a TV show called “Friends,” I probably would’ve failed in my attempt. Thanks to China’s loose copyrights regulations, I watched the show every day. (I eventually watched all ten seasons 7 times by the time I graduated from middle school – that’s 616 hours, or 25 days, of “Friends.”) For those who are not familiar with the show, it is the story of six New Yorkers and their crazy adventures. (At one point, one of the characters was pregnant with her brother’s triplets.) Because of this show, I became enamored with what I thought was the American life – six close friends, sitting in a coffeehouse all day, telling sometimes risqué jokes, and living in the greatest city on Earth, with the company of each other. I thought to myself that one day, I’ll also live in America, have six American friends, and tell jokes and drink coffee everyday.

I didn’t realize at the time that there was one problem with this plan: it’s hard to tell jokes in English. If you don’t believe me, try telling jokes in Spanish or Arabic or whatever language you are currently learning. It’s also hard to understand jokes in English. I still have no idea why knock knock jokes are funny. These may seem like minor issues, but during my first year at Swarthmore, I had a very difficult time finding friends – after all, would you like a friend who can only nod awkwardly at something hilarious you say? In the end, of course, I learned to fake laugh.

But there is a more serious problem: no matter how perfect my accent is or how hard I try, learning the language does not mean fitting into the culture. People always assure me that I will eventually find my niche here, but I still don’t feel like I have. Fitting in a new community is not just an individual act. It requires acceptance on the part of the community members as well. Ask any recent Chinese immigrant, and he or she will tell you how hard it is to get accepted by “White people.” It is this dimension of “fitting in” where language plays a more insidious role.

One of the most enduring stereotypes of Chinese living in America is that we either don’t know how to speak English, or we talk with a funny accent. Hollywood reinforces such stereotypes by asking actors to exaggerate or fake a “Chinese” accent. Last year, one particularly racist news segment on Fox news made fun of several Chinese-American seniors who did not know how to speak English on national television, after asking their opinion on Trump and not getting any response. Just last week, when I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a security guard stopped me but refused to explain to me in English what was wrong, or that I forgot to check my bags, because she thought I was just another clueless Chinese tourist. Such stereotypes about immigrants and outsiders are often used to justify xenophobia or racism. According to Adam Cohen, the author of the book “Imbeciles,” supporters of eugenics and immigration restrictions in the early 20th century relied on intelligence tests that favored English speakers to show that immigrants from other countries were genetically and racially inferior to immigrants from England or Scotland. The testimony of one eugenicist in particular, Harry Laughlin, caused one Senator to warn that “[w]e are coming to a pitiful pass in this great country when it is unpopular to speak the English language, the American language.” It’s hard not to see the reflection of these ugly moments of history in contemporary politics.

Xenophobia, understood this way, cannot simply mean fear of foreigners. Laughlin thought the line between acceptable and unacceptable immigrants should be drawn on the basis of whether their racial types are “assimilable.” Again, “assimilable” meant speaking English and being Western European. This is, of course, nonsense. After all, can what he thought were biological features even be described as “assimilable?”  But, by giving his and other eugenicists’ prejudices the credence of a scientific theory, he justified what many Americans already thought was true: these outsiders did not appreciate their language and their culture, these outsiders would contaminate their culture and their blood. As historian Yuval Harari points out in his excellent book  “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” hierarchy is often maintained by a primitive fear of pollution, whether by things or by people. It’s telling that Laughlin calls the “racial qualities” or “hereditary traits” of immigrants the “sanitary feature” of these people.

Would the TV show “Friends” have been so successful if it had been one Asian guy and five white people? I’m not sure. But in the course of writing this essay, I have to confront my own bias as well. What made me think that having American friends is so important? Why couldn’t I just drink coffee with friends back home in a Chinese coffee house? Why did I try so hard to learn the language? I do not regret coming to Swarthmore, of course, but motivation matters.

We also need to rethink how familiarity with English is intricately connected with membership in different communities, i.e. studentship at Swarthmore, or citizenship. There are many “radical” suggestions that we can possibly implement to deal with this issue.

First, we should stop requiring international students to take the SAT. It is unreasonable to expect international students whose first language is not English to read or write as fast as native speakers do while still in high school.

Second, Swarthmore should de-emphasize the English language testing requirement for international students. Many Chinese students, for example, score higher than native speakers on the Test of English as a Foreign Language after spending money on private tutoring. Some minimum requirement is necessary, and for students interested in humanities and social science the requirement can be stricter.

Third, we must stop thinking that being able to speak English is normal. Many international students, for example, are offended by people who compliment their English. I worry that their attitude ignores the fact that being able to speak English is itself a kind of privilege in an English-speaking country.

Finally, this should go without saying, but we cannot mock people who have an accent or who speak broken English. A friend of mine at a well-known business school told me once that a group of second-generation Chinese-Americans mocked their professor’s accent behind his back. I hope this doesn’t happen at Swarthmore.

Swat’s Culture of Athletes Supporting Athletes

in Columns/Sports by

As the Men’s Basketball team completed their final seconds of the Centennial Conference Championship game, the crowd erupted and rushed the court to celebrate the win. This crowd was distinctly comprised of fellow athletes with almost every team having at least one representative in attendance for the victory. Here at Swarthmore, athletes support athletes. The pictures and videos from the Men’s Basketball and Women’s Soccer Championships make this fact visually apparent. This support comes from awareness of events, love of sports, and an understanding of other athletes.

        For some athletes, their awareness of games comes from their teammates, whereas for others it is simply conversations with friends to keep them updated. Events such as this weekend’s upcoming basketball games are well publicized, but sometimes it is easy to forget the regular season games for various teams and that’s when teammates can come in handy.

Women’s Softball pitcher, Emily Bowman ’18 said, “As a team, we keep each other posted on the games that are going on throughout the week, and we try to save seats for each other to get as many people from our team together at a game.”

Coaches often like to remind their teams when other events are as well, to both support their fellow coaches or to set an example for an atmosphere that they would love to have at their own games.

Volleyball setter Elise Cummings ’19 said, “Our coach makes a big point of having us go to other sports teams’ games because she thinks it’s always important that student athletes support each other.”

The genuine love of sports makes a general awareness and commitment to attend games possible. While all tend to love and excel at their own sport, they have either come in with a true love of other sports or have developed an interest based on their friends’ sports.

Runner Joaquin Delmar ’18 said, “I have grown to like new sports from my time here at Swarthmore and I love the fact that my friends are playing these sports.”

There certainly are some sports that get more support than other, as component of their style and performance.

“Men’s basketball, both soccer teams, and men’s lacrosse in my opinion get the bulk of our support. It has to do largely with how well these teams are doing and the nature of the sporting event,” Delmar said.

Hopefully this support will continue for the Garnet’s Men’s Basketball team into the NCAA tournament. During the playoffs, more fans typically attend the games. It is safe to say that the bedrock crowd finds its majority in fellow athletes. Within this program there is a strong sense of camaraderie as we are all athletes, classmates and friends.

Defensive lacrosse player Christina Labows ’18 said, “I believe Swarthmore athletics has a good culture. It is balanced in the sense that we celebrate each other’s accomplishments, but recognize that results are not the end-all-be-all of our time as a Swarthmore athlete.”

        This bond within the athletics department does not always carry over into non-athletic realms on campus.

Cummings said, “Within the athletic department there is a really positive culture, but from the outside looking in there is not the best view which is why it is so important to support each other.”

Often, athletes tend to understand each other well, but not all students are on the same page about the commitment to sports.

        “There is a definite disconnect between athletes and non-athletes on campus,” Bowman said.

However, other people who agreed with the initial disconnect also remarked on the efforts that the college has undertaken to make the athletics realm more appealing for certain non-athletes. Some non-athletes are unaware many athletes do get into Swarthmore completely on their own academic merit and it is important to break that misconception that they do not.

“Continued efforts to break the sporty boundary are definitely happening and I think our campus is reaching a point where non-athletes are much closer to athletes. In my three years, I have seen increasing appreciation for the commitment athletes have for their sports and the way they represent our school,” Delmar said.

This growing community throughout the college is key, and the inroads that teams, such as the soccer and basketball teams, are making by competing in playoffs are vital to increase support on campus. Swarthmore athletics have certainly had past disappointments with support, such as when the fan bus to the Men’s Basketball away playoff game got cancelled last year because not enough students signed up. While we need to work to add to the fan base so that we will never have to cancel a fan bus again, at least we always know that there will be fellow athletes at games.

“The athletes at our school are great! Everyone is very supportive. We’re such a small school that many athletes interact with each other in classrooms. We all know each other’s sports and I genuinely feel everyone is supportive of each other,” Delmar said.

Each year Swarthmore welcomes in new athletes, who then commit themselves to this same support system. Hopefully a continued excellence in sports will draw large crowds, but when in doubt, even on a team’s toughest day, they can have faith that their fellow athletes will be in the stands to cheer them on no matter what.

Cultural appropriation in trap must go

in Campus Journal by

Appropriation of black style is and has been a prominent issue in discussion surrounding pop culture. In my view black culture is pop culture, therefore any assimilation of pop culture is an assimilation of black culture. This dynamic of incorporating aspects of African American style is especially prevalent in the music industry; specifically in the hip hop and R&B spheres where many white artists have been accused of imitating the portrayals of the black stars and innovators of the genre. Iggy Azalea, Justin Timberlake, Madonna, Robin Thicke, and Taylor Swift are a few of the names that come to mind immediately. Another name that has been added to the conversation recently: Niykee Heaton.

Heaton, who is white, was born in South Africa, but moved to Chicago where she was raised by an alcoholic father and lived with her terminally ill sister. She established herself by doing musical covers that gained popularity from being displayed on Youtube, and the controversial media site Worldstar; notorious for compiling and redistributing black entertainment clips for white enjoyment and profit. Worldstar began as a “content aggregator” for mixtapes. It also featured a lot of softcore porn.

Originally, she started doing covers of popular songs because she had no real content of her own. Trap music comprised a lot of the material she sampled from, likely due to the fact that she was raised in Chicago; the epicenter of trap and drill music.

Heaton, age 19, received the most attention for her video covering Chief Keef’s  “Love Sosa,” a song that is iconic to the rise of trap/drill music. Upon release, Heaton’s performance went viral and almost immediately she received offers from multiple rappers to be featured in songs, music videos, cameos, private hangouts, and parties. The instant rise to fame has to be credited in part to the nature of the songs she sang.  

So basically, if you consider performance of a culture other than your own to be a theft, as I do, then Heaton is the trap music cat burglar. Her entire career was energized by the influence and simulation of trap music.  But in any robbery of this caliber there must be an accomplice…

Cue in hip hop group Migos. The recent release of their new album “Culture” has generated a lot of publicity for the North Atlanta artists receiving several large endorsements before it’s drop. This included fellow Atlanta-based artist — and star of the television show “Atlanta” — Donald Glover. The debut of the album drew much attention to the music Migos had released and been featured on leading up to the project. One such song was Heaton’s “Bad Intentions” remix.

The song has a visual accompaniment that was released in July. If you haven’t already seen the video go and check it out right now; it’s very well made. The camera work is on point and the plot isn’t half bad either.

The release date of the Heaton-Migos collaboration video is important in the context of the timely success of  “Culture,” which includes the national hit “Bad and Boujee” as well as several other popular songs. In simplest terms, the feature could be viewed as ploy for publicity on Heaton’s end.

The scene opens with Heaton and the Migos walking away from a successful bank robbery. The Migos are all dressed in black with their faces covered by scarves and masks. Heaton is the only one with her face exposed: she is the leader of the group, while they are all henchman. At the same time, this subtle difference highlights the effect of the male gaze on the video-making process; selectively displaying only the woman’s physical exterior as relevant.

Heaton displays a repeated affinity for the rappers throughout the video. She’s hypnotised and particularly enamored with Quavo, arguably the star of the group, but continues to show physical affection and sexual attraction to all three artists. Each time she seduces a member of the group she collects a portion of their money from the robbery.

The whole song is about money, actually. First she criminalizes the Migos by leading them in the attack on the bank. She seduces each one of the Migos one by one and eventually causes them to turn on one another. The video ends with the Migos committing an implied triple homicide/suicide.

Heaton’s presence in the video is a representation of greed. Each time a Migo falls for her trap, he is stripped of his wealth and instead ingrained with the seed of envy; prompting him to confront his partners presumably about the lost money. It is this consistency that forces me to consider whether or not Heaton is ever really “present” in the video. If watched closely, the viewer will notice that the Migos only ever look directly at Heaton when one of them is alone with her. To me, this suggests that she is simply a symbol for jealousy and the power that money has, corrupting even the closest of allies.

In several scenes of the video Heaton is shown wearing heavy lipgloss and box braids. These particular style of hair and makeup are iconic looks for black women in America. Heaton also coopts popular trap music elements, particularly in the use of weapons and money as props. The prominence of these elements in trap visuals is due largely to their relevance in gang culture and life in the ghetto. If it weren’t for the presence of the Migos in Heaton’s videos, these aesthetics would seem completely out of place in contrast with Heaton’s own whiteness.

It is only the Migos status as trap rap artists that enable Heaton to use these aspects in her performance without receiving harsh criticism: she uses them for their stature to establish her own credibility within the genre, and a larger  culture that is not hers to claim.

This leads me to my main point about Heaton’s place — not just in the video — but in regards to the constant phenomenon of appropriation. Heaton makes herself a shining beacon for white artists reping a culture that’s not theirs. It’s not only her selection of genre that makes this apparent, however. It is in the emulation of certain traits and appearances that are iconic to women of color.  She has augmented her body to match the new standards of beauty that have always distinguished black women. The altered lips and surgically-enhanced curves reflect characteristics of black women that have been constantly degraded and slandered. Attributes that are considered unattractive in women of color are seen as far more appealing on white women.

“I would much rather my music be true and have someone on it because I have a connection with that person, not because I paid them a lot of money to do a feature on it.” Heaton says when discussing her own music and incorporating features from other artists. So I guess Heaton feels some level of connection to the trio of gangster rappers from Northside Atlanta. I guess.

This is my beef with Heaton. There isn’t exactly a fine line between appropriation and appreciation of a culture, but any artist must still be able to gauge where they stand in the conversation. In an Interview with the Huffington Post, Heaton credits “the hip-hop, urban community” — referring to the Worldstar community — for jumpstarting her career. She’s been writing her own content since she was 5 years old, but the content that viewers took notice of was her performances of songs made predominantly by black male artists.

“I was going to open mics… and it wasn’t getting me anywhere,” she said of her initial struggles with finding an audience for her authentic performances.

Well if you can’t beat them you might as well become them, right?

Wrong.

I’ve always viewed music as an expression, and an important part of expressing yourself is being genuine. Heaton seems to have lost sight of that.  Though her original content may not have been as popular as the work she covered, at least she kept it real.  She sung about her difficult childhood and the pain she experienced in her youth. She opened herself to the world and that is where true art is formed.  Once she began to rely on voicing the experiences of others, she lost sight of what it truly means to be an artist.  This isn’t as relevant an issue now that she’s able to make music of her own, but she has continued the practice of incorporating styles and images that she had no hand in creating.

Where do we draw the line? Is it enough to verbally credit the community that generated the content, or is there something else one must do in order to be allowed to use the portions of culture they’ve keyed in on? Sure, Heaton has a few claims to the culture she simulates.  Her troubled upbringing, the city she lived in, and her own perception of beauty; all factor into her understanding about her role in the music industry and her decision to utilize the culture she’s been exposed to. I think it’s important, however, to factor in the degree to which she has come in contact with said culture. But the question remains, does she have the right to use the forms she observes from oppressed people in her own work?

Some solidarity with the community might help, and a vague shout out to hip-hop simply will not suffice. What Heaton and artists like her must realize is that hip-hop grew directly from the trials of Black people in America. It seems that time and time again, artists are willing to flat out copy the practices of marginalized peoples for the sake of making money.  I want to give her the benefit of the doubt, but part of me sees the video as Heaton celebrating her victory in profiting from black culture.  

Browning America: Into the alterity of mestizxs

in Campus Journal by

In the colonial lexicon of Latin America during the 19th century, mestizos were perceived as subordinate iterations of the white, European self. This class in the caste system consisted of people of mixed Spanish and indigena lineage, occupying the intermediate space of colonial society: not white enough, not brown enough.  

Mestizaje describes this process of interracial mixing and its cultural entanglements. By 1825, mixed bloods constituted 28.3% of Spanish America, according to Pew Research Center, and continued to threaten Spanish sovereignty.

Out of the precepts of colonial Latin America, however, mestizaje became less of a cry for assimilationism and more of a call for unification. It was instrumental to the new, Latin American states as a nation-building ideology to reject subaltern constructions of the colonial caste system and invigorate new diverse, social realities.

All history lessons aside, the concept of mestizaje has shifted once more in the contemporary era, evolving to be more than just a function of the state. It has become a social movement that has generated complex aesthetic dynamics and the recombination of structural realities.

This holds true even in the United States; according to another study by the Pew Research Center in 2008, 1 in 7 new marriages in the US were between two spouses of different races or ethnicities. Not only is this kind of relationship becoming more common, but also more normalized. In another study, Pew found that as of 2009, 83% of millennials approved of interracial dating.

And while the growing prevalence and acceptance of mestizaje shows prospects for changing social norms, mestizxs, or multiracial peoples, face new psychological conundrums. Here, we depart into the alterity of the contemporary mestizxs.

“I am not 100% anything.”

This is what Jordan Reyes ‘19 said to support his multiracial identity. With a mother from El Salvador and a father from California, Reyes was raised with an array of cultural influences. I asked him how he was able to reconcile his diverse racial and cultural origins.

“It’s hard to do so because I didn’t have a lot of El Salvadorian influence growing up. More than anything I had a lot of Cuban and Islander influences growing up,” he explained. “We lived in Miami for a couple years which is a highly Cuban area.”

For Reyes, he parallels his disconnect with his Salvadorian identity with his detachment from the cultural “aesthetics.”

“I can point out more aspects of my Mexican cultural identity; things like food, music, dance, history, art. I just don’t really know what makes up my El Salvadorian identity,” he said.

In confronting his multiracialness, Reyes finds that his challenges primarily manifest in linguistic barriers.

“Spanish was my first language, but after my mom came to this country, she was harassed a lot for not speaking English properly — she thought it was really important for her children to know English and to speak it without an accent. I was thrown into English classes from the get go,” he said. “After that, I kind of stopped speaking Spanish altogether.”

Growing up, he was targeted as being “not Mexican enough” for abandoning his Spanish proficiency. He saw the legitimacy of his identity begin to dissipate.

“You are not legitimately Mexican, you are not legitimately El Salvadorian, you don’t have a legitimate Latinx identity,” he said, echoing the sentiments of his childhood friends. “Yeah, I am El Salvadorian; yeah, I am Mexican. I take pride in both of them. I remember feeling like I always stuck out from my Mexican friends at home because I knew a lot about salsa and merengue and other cultural aesthetics.”

Similarly, he grapples with the idea of a “legitimate” cultural or racial identity in itself. Is there a set criterion that delineates inherent “Mexicanness” and “El Salvadorianness?” In what ways does this criterion manifest itself?

“Thinking about legitimacy in terms of who you are and what you are: does knowing more make you more?” he questions.

“Speak Spanish? Check. Have brown skin? Check.”

From Reyes’ experiences with his own interracial complexity, we see that interracial mixing describes more than just the hybridization of cultural practices and fusion of disparate communities. It describes the psychic status of the multiracial person, grappling with contending narratives.

“We are not exactly what used to be, and we are not exactly what is here now. There is growing consciousness of an ‘other’ and recognizing that I am that ‘other,’” he said.

While terms like mestizxs and mestizaje are entrapped in colonial vocabulary, in the contemporary era, the alterity of the mestizo class persists, even in the United States. Its story is fraught with visceral fears of displacement because of their failure to conform to either extremity of their racial and cultural identities.

“What am I? I don’t know.”

Checking boxes

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

When I landed in Beijing this past summer, everything was the same as I had remembered it: my house still had the same awkward color paint cracking off of its sides, the air was still filled with an unique mix of cigarette smoke and smog, and the street food vendor I always frequented had the same smile that he used to greet me with every week. But one thing was remarkably different, I checked a different box. Instead of checking the “returning home” box, I claimed I was just “visiting” as I passed customs.

It is a weird situation to be in when you can no longer call the place you lived in for seventeen years “home,” weirder yet when you realize this is exactly what you wanted. Sparing details, I had been bullied up until junior year of high school for being obese. Even as the bullying ceased I often found myself at odds with a large portion of fellow students and teachers in high school as many saw me as an archetype raging liberal: a situation I am sure many of my fellow Swatties have experienced. I longed for a change of setting and when I discovered Swarthmore I thought I had found myself a new home.

Honestly, Swarthmore has yet to disappoint. Sure my bowels may disagree with Sharples even more so than it does with all the gutter oil that goes into Beijing street food… but who am I to complain? I love Swarthmore, I really do. But something I never could have foreseen happened to me over the course of my freshman year—I became more Asian.

You may ask, “How the hell does one become ‘more’ Asian?” This transition has nothing to do with changes in the way I behave or look or anything intrinsic to who I am at all. Rather, this augmentation of Asianness arises from changes in those who surround me. Never have I had to check a box that identified my ethnicity as “Asian” before arriving at college, nor had I ever experienced being stuffed inside the same box I had been forced to check.

Growing up, being an American citizen in a British international school in China, I had always been seen as “American.” Yet now, in America, I was not American enough, I did not act American enough nor did I look American enough. As a Toni Morrison quote helped me realize, in this country “American” means white Christian. Everyone else gets a hyphen. Last year someone told me that I should not be allowed to claim I am Californian, in spite of the fact that I have San Francisco’s motto tattooed across my heart. You see no matter where you go, they take the most distinct difference about you and confine you within the boundaries of a labeled box.

They call me a third culture kid (TCK). I was born in California, raised in Beijing and attended a British international school there for ten years. My mother works in Hong Kong. I have spent an entire summer with Canadians studying abroad in Europe and I also speak a little Spanish. Ask me where I come from and my answer may vary.

We TCKs have many unique privileges related to our background: having our experience and the ability to shift identities in different situations is not a power many have. I sometimes wonder if we use that to become as different as possible or if we package ourselves within easy-to-define boxes for others to check. I also wonder if it truly is a privilege to conform to one of these boxes when one has to leave out everything that does not ‘belong’ inside. I know not who defines the boundaries of these boxes, but I do know that these boxes were not designed for all of us.

My cultural identity confuses the hell out of me and I think the standard of writing I present here really encapsulates that confusion. To the class of 2020: Swarthmore will challenge your conception of identity and personhood in more ways than you may foresee, but I hope you are not afraid of that challenge or the uncertainty that may ensue. I believe it will forever remain important that we, as a community, embrace each other and the difficult questions about ourselves that we may never be able to answer.

Swarthmore is the little box that I call home now—whether I chose to check that box or was forced inside it against my will is yet to be seen.

Sex and Nerf guns? Trying to move past our vision of ML

in Campus Journal by

Like most people on campus, I’ve always had a well-defined idea of “Mary Lyon culture,” and, like most opinions on campus, this conception was based mostly off conjecture and rumor rather than facts or actual experience. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve visited ML, and I can’t name more than a few people I know who have actually lived there. Yet for myself and many others — including the editor who gave me this assignment — those two little letters have always connoted a land where nerds, nudists, and Nerf gun warriors run wild, a mysterious dorm far away, geographically and culturally, from the main campus.

In fact, while ML may be a bit of a hike from the rest of the college, the dorm is not exactly “quirky” in the way our dominant on-campus mythology constructs it. Current and former ML residents, in fact (including a nudist and one of the founders of the famed human-vs.-zombie Nerf gun wars) pointed out that the dorm’s most unique and consistent feature is an incredibly strong, involved sense of community, a place where people easily make a lot of friends.

***

Doriana Thornton ’16 lived in ML for a year and half. They spent their first semester of freshman year hanging out in ML every chance they could, and then moved in with a senior for the spring. The following year, Thornton lived in the dorm in a single.

Thornton was drawn to ML largely due to the residents, rather than any “quirky” activities.

“For me, what made ML so special was the people that lived there with me my freshman year and the closeness I had with them,” Thornton said. “Having people that shared my interests in sex positivity and body positivity was so cool.”

Asked how they found their way to ML in the first place, Thornton let loose their signature laugh and said, “It’s actually a pretty hilarious story.” After their Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention orientation workshop, Thornton mentioned to their workshop facilitator that they enjoyed playing strip Apples to Apples (similar to strip poker) at home. The facilitator encouraged Thornton to come to ML that Friday evening, when the game would take place.

“I was just really happy to be around that,” Thornton remembered fondly. Earlier that day, during an orientation ice-breaker, Thornton had been asked what they were most worried about at the college. “I had said, ‘Not being able to be naked, just around, like I can be at home,” Thornton remembered. Thus, being able to hang out naked in ML was “just really funny and really nice.”

The same night of the game, Thornton met someone who would remain their close friend throughout their first semester at the college. “We went and danced naked in the woods, and it was such a great experience. And that was my first time in ML,” they concluded, laughing again.

Thornton also enjoyed the distance between ML and the rest of campus, and said that it made them more likely to go for lengthy walks. “When I lived in ML, I walked a lot more and was a lot more willing to go on walking adventures,” Thornton said (they now reside in the Barn). “I remember doing ridiculous shit and walking to ridiculous places in the freezing cold.”

ML breakfast is also a unique and positive feature of life in the dorm, Thornton emphasized. They worked in the ML breakfast room for three semesters. Anyone can order “kooky” food, Thornton said — “We have food coloring and sprinkles and shit, and we’ll make you something neat, and we’ll sing … it’s pretty nutty … I made dope-ass omelets all day.”

Thornton, like the other ML residents I spoke to, talked about their time in the dorm with happiness and ease. “ML was great, just great people,” they said. “There were always just a lot of people in their hallways, in their rooms — it was pretty easy, most days, to walk around and hear something happening, and to just go into that person’s room and hang out with them.”

I was curious if this was a quality that pertained to the dorm itself, or came more from the people who ended up living there. “I honestly do think it was the people that lived there,” Thornton said. They reflected that their sophomore year was not quite as enjoyable as their freshman year, as many people had moved out. “I did still make really close friends, but I found myself sleeping more often in places that weren’t ML, and kind of bringing a community of people that didn’t live in ML over there to hang out, instead of already having those great people there,” Thornton said.

Thornton remembers too many funny ML stories to tell, they said — for instance, a Nerf gun battle once transformed into an eight-hour cuddle-fest. They also reflected on the way in which ML created a space for them to feel comfortable with and learn more about their own sexuality. “ML was where I got to explore my kinkiness,” Thornton said. During their freshman year, what Thornton referred to as a “high concentration of kinky people” lived in ML, and contributed to this comfortable atmosphere. (For more about kinky activity on campus, check out “Whips and chains excite them, sometimes,” in the first-ever issue of the Swarthmore Review, which mounted an exploration of BDSM at the college.) “I had never had the chance to explore such an important part of my sexuality before coming to college — actually, I hadn’t had a chance to explore much of my sexuality at all — and it was really cool to find people who had similar interests, or at least were not appalled by mine,” Thornton said.

ML culture is by no means static, Thornton pointed out. “I think the culture changes every year based on who’s living there,” they said. “There’s always an underlying culture of people who are into nerdy shit … actually, I don’t know. I have no idea — I mean, athletes used to live there and have crazy parties,” Thornton said, referencing the common story, difficult to substantiate but probably true, that ML was, years ago, inhabited almost exclusively by varsity athletes.

Thornton saw change within the dorm even on a year-to-year basis. “I know that during my sophomore year there weren’t as many sex-positive people … I had fewer friends there because dynamics were just different. For me, at least, every year’s been really different.”

The ML environment is also subjective, Thornton pointed out. “The culture also depends on where you are — like, how you feel at home in a place depends on where you’re at and what you need,” they said. “So I don’t know if any dorm has a culture … I pushed myself over there and spent all my time there because I felt so at home, but I haven’t been back this year. I’m not scared to go back or anything — it’s just that that place had so much meaning to me my freshman years and then a very different meaning my sophomore year … I don’t know, I just haven’t been back.”

***

Josh Ginzberg ’15 was placed in ML as an incoming freshman, and was initially nervous about living in the dorm, but, after sophomore year on campus, came back to ML as a SAM and now serves as an RA.

Ginzberg’s favorite feature of ML life is the strong sense of community. “I think a lot of dorms have difficulty with this, maybe because of the structure or because of the people in them, with cross-hall interaction, but ML has no problem with that,” Ginzberg said. As a freshman living on the second floor, Ginzberg’s friends were on different floors and of different class years.

“It was just a really great dorm community,” he said. “It really does tend towards a real dorm community, and then people find their groups of friends and everything, but there’s definitely a lot of interaction across all halls and class years.” Ginzberg thinks this stems in part from ML’s distance from the rest of campus. “I have no doubt that’s a function of being so far away from everyone else, but it’s also a lot about the people,” he said.

I asked Ginzberg about fun ML activities, and he mentioned movie screenings in the first-floor lounge, along with ice-cream parties. But I told him that what I really wanted to know about were the Nerf wars. To my surprise, Ginzberg revealed that he was actually one of the creators and first participants in the Nerf wars, which many on campus think of as an ML institution, but is actually a recent (and recently lapsed) phenomenon.

Ginzberg treated me to a brief history of the brief tradition. “I came to college, and I was like, ‘Oh, college means Nerf guns,’” Ginzberg said. As someone whose well-meaning yuppie parents did not allow them to possess any fake weaponry as a child, including Nerf and water guns — I was given a spray bottle instead, which was, needless to say, immensely dissatisfying — I can see the appeal and also the logic behind this statement.  “A couple of other people thought the same thing, including my roommate,” Ginzberg recalled. The purchase of several cheap Nerf guns, and then the they ran around the dorm “pursuing and hunting each other,” Ginzberg said.

The Nerf wars rapidly grew in size, averaging twenty five to thirty participants each week (if only I could get this many people to write for the Phoenix or play women’s rugby…), until, at one point in Ginzberg’s sophomore year, 65 people showed up. “That was way too much — we had to restrict it to ML-only at that point, because it’s a residential space,” Ginzberg said ruefully.

Usually, Ginzberg explained, Nerf wars are conducted in what he called “humans-vs.-zombies mode,” which removes some of the competitive aspect of the game, as the zombies inevitably emerge as the victors. “There’s less cheating that way,” Ginzberg explained, “less of people saying that they didn’t feel a Nerf dart, because when you’re running with adrenaline you don’t feel a Nerf dart.”

In humans-vs.-zombies mode, humans shoot at zombies, who, if hit, must “go down” for thirty seconds. If a zombie tags a human, however, the human must become a zombie for the rest of the match, meaning that the number of zombies is constantly increasing. “You get some really creative people hiding behind doors, some humans trying to camp out in really open spaces so that they can see where people are coming from,” Ginzberg recalled.

Seeming to further prove the idea that ML culture changes from year to year, however, Ginzberg said that the Nerf wars have tapered off this year, due mostly to seniors’ lack of interest. “There hasn’t been as much enthusiasm, but there’s still a box of Nerf guns, so if people want to do that, they definitely can,” Ginzberg said.

Ginzberg thinks that the design of ML contributes to its communal feel, specifically the first-floor lounge. “You walk in and you’re in the biggest gathering space in the dorm, and that makes it very easy to join whatever’s going on — there’s always lots of hanging out, and we’ve got a TV in there and I think a PlayStation or something, and people just gather.”

So if ML is so great, why does it get such a bad reputation? Ginzberg thinks this is mostly because of the distance. “I can’t imagine why else it would get a bad rap,” he said. “It is far, for people who aren’t used to the walk or don’t like rolling out of bed and running to class, but I got to class a lot later when I lived on campus — it teaches time management pretty well, because you pretty much have to learn.”

I asked Ginzberg about people who might not enjoy or participate as fully in ML’s community. He again chalked this up mostly to distance. “It’s not like other dorms — you can’t just walk to the dorm that’s twenty feet away,” Ginzberg said. “You actually have to make an effort to get on campus, and it definitely is hard for some people.”

Others, though, Ginzberg remarked, like the distance, particularly those people who might want more alone time or space from the rest of campus. “You do get a bunch of different sorts of people in ML, some who really love the community and some who try to make or join another community,” he said. “It just takes some time to settle in, maybe a month or two, or there are some people for whom it never really clicks.”

I kept pressing, though — what about ML’s reputation as a nerd haven? “There’s definitely a very large contingent of people who do like some of the more classic nerd stuff — I would say I’m one of them — but I’d also say that there are plenty of people on campus who get attracted to that stuff who never live in ML and honestly never visit,” Ginzberg said.

So where does the stigma come from? “It would be unfair of me to say that ML gets its rep from people who haven’t been there, but a lot of proponents of ML’s more negative reputation have never been there, or have gone once and have had some bad experience and concluded that that encapsulated the dorm,” Ginzberg said.

Ginzberg expressed concern that this incorrect perception might frighten first-years who were assigned to live there. “There are things that are true — it does appeal to people who are comfortable being far from some of the social centers on campus and sometimes that does include a greater than average proportion of science-fiction/fantasy fans, more classic nerd people … I personally don’t see why it’s a negative but otherwise I don’t think it deserves much of what it gets,” Ginzberg said. “A lot of the reputation is from years ago,” he added, referencing ML’s history as a gathering space for the Swarthmore Warders of Imaginative Literature, the precursor to the modern-day science fiction/fantasy club which organizes the annual Pterodactyl Hunt and campus-wide live-action role play, Psi Phi.

“It changes every few years,” Ginzberg concluded. “The fact that it used to be a place where so many varsity athletes gravitated towards, and then became a place for SWIL, and in the years I’ve been here has been neither, and has been a very community-oriented space … I don’t know if it’s going to stay that way, but that’s been my experience of it.”

 

Buying your soul from the liberal arts experience

in Campus Journal by
IMG_7712
Photo by Bobby Zipp

I was assigned your account, because you’re quirky, and I’m the quirkiest they had.

I always say, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” So, instead of starting off with quirkiness at Swarthmore College, as assigned, I’m going to pitch something new: You. Or at least, who I think you should be.  I don’t know how you’ll like it.  All I ask is that you let me finish.

“The day you sign a client,” said Don Draper, “is the day you start losing him.”

Lights cigarette, inhales, looks you in the eye.

Right now I don’t have anything to lose, but you do.

Swat’s quirky. We all know that. But it used to be quirkier. There used to be this thing called Crunkfest (see Urban Dictionary); there were less rules, more humanities; there was funding for DJs; Public Safety officers used to toke on a joint before they started making it a policy of stopping and frisking the joint. There was a no-nonsense, work-hard, play-hard attitude. Paces parties were creative, not clichés. Pub Nite was an institution. It was like the 1960s had never died.

Deep sigh/exhale. People love a good story, like fish love bait.

Let’s just say that Swat, the small liberal arts college in southeastern Pennsylvania, had the potential to be the “Don Draper” of colleges: a master of its trade, but a good, quirky, mysterious guy, with access to a secret world and a secret suffering. Increasingly irrelevant, outdated, and antiquated, however, Mr. Donald Draper, of Mad Men fame, is struggling to remain relevant in the 1960s, in season 7 of the popular show (this Sunday at 10 p.m.). But at the end of the day, I think he maintains a quiet dignity.

At first sight, “he’s overburdened by history,” said Saty Rao ’15. “Like Swarthmore,” he doesn’t understand hippies at first.

His story parallels the struggle of the liberal arts for relevance in the 21st century. We can all see the numbers. There’s no need to back up my argument with bar graphs and surveys. You can almost feel it. The crisis of the liberal arts is tenable in everything right down, or up, to its price-tag. It’s become more culture-industry than organic. Even though culture is supposed to be free.

Like you and the liberal arts themselves, Draper works in advertising. And, speaking of price tags, Draper sells, but not the way you’d expect a businessman to sell something to a client, or TV audience for that matter. The liberal arts sell, but increasingly not in the way you’d expect Swarthmore graduates to sell their educations to life, or its pursuit.

Like Swat, Draper sells his services by telling a story, and his stories are his services. The myth of the American Dream, the first American ad, lies buried beneath the stories and Draper’s creative genius. But he prostitutes and pimps the American Dream. He finds a fatal connection in those stories, fictions, ads, and PR campaigns, something he shares with the consumers seduced by the stories he tells both them and himself. Draper believes in the Dream because his work is to enable others Americans that he’s never met to believe, and to believe more than ever before in the absurdity of it. Like him, we all find redemption and together can lose sight of our own flaws, institutional or otherwise, in affirmational belief.

Cigarette’s stubbed out, smoke dissipates.

But we also lose ourselves. You can’t forget though that Draper’s an alcoholic; that he’s unfaithful to his wives. You can’t forget that a journalist is unfaithful to the community he talks to and interrogates. That a student is unfaithful to his local communities when he crosses countries and states for the reputation of the liberal arts. But Draper isn’t unfaithful because he doesn’t love the people and children he grew up with. He’s unfaithful because he doesn’t believe in himself or that he ever deserved to be part of them in the first place.

“It wasn’t a lie,” said Draper. “It was ineptitude with insufficient cover.”

Draper came from nothing. Like Swarthmore financial aid, his story, despite and as a result of its fiction, is at the optimistic core of the American Dream. A product of white privilege — the straight-up lie he told to leave his broken childhood behind and become Don Draper — he’d probably pretend, however, that America had entered a “post-racial” society, before he’d ever give up his wealth for others. Draper after all, like Swarthmore, ain’t no socialist, commie, pinko. But at the same time he ain’t afraid to smoke grass, either, to immerse himself in the mind of a hippie, or the West Coast that’s inheriting their fragile pipe-dreams, just in order to obtain their stories — love — and learn more about himself as a result.

“Advertising is based on one thing,” Draper said, frowning: “Happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.”

“Aggressively ambitious, tone-deaf, seeing trees all the time instead of forests, genuinely liberal, but coming off as phony,” Mad Men is stereotypically progressive, like Swat, but it has its moments.

“Don’t you sort of feel,” a senior in a state of ennui, asked another this weekend, “like you’re getting out of Swat at exactly the right time?”

Donald Draper stares off into space whenever he’s alone, like the “Millennial” generation stares off into the moralities offered by Netflix and Google. Technical innovation, progress, advancement, like 4.0 semesters, all leave something behind, like the stories we suffer in becoming something more-than Swatties before even pausing to become Swatties in the first place.

“Oh, so you’re a Swattie?” any alum may ask, not because it was ever a question, but because there’s something otherwise unnamable and inexpressibly shared between you, like a dream, a demon, or a civilization. It’s that text and story — an ad fetishized by prospective students and the employers they want to work for — written by Swatties everyday.

Like Swat in recent years, Draper’s aging in the second half of the Mad Men series, as some sort of wine, fossil — or fuel. In the latter half of the season, Draper is fired and rehired as a partner at a New York City ad-firm, rehired only because of his ability to tell a story to a powerful cigarette-industry client. Like Western civilization to fossil fuels, Draper’s love for stories is forced to sell its soul, in the end, to the devil.

Here. Lighter clicks. Flame.

“I don’t really think he’s a fossil,” said Vikram Murthi ’15. “He’s just a fossil relative to the youth movement in the ’60s, which is maybe the only time in American history the established power structures were reasonably under attack. He’s growing irrelevant.”

In Draper’s absence, the agency signs a deal with IBM to install a new 360 mainframe in the office, replacing many of its “failed artists and intellectuals,” creative-directors, and other story-tellers, like Draper, in the process, with data.

“If Swarthmore were a person,” I asked, “who would it be?”

“I mean, probably a pretty shitty person,” one person replied, smirking. “Probably Zach Braff,” replied another. “Um, David Sera?” asked another. Suddenly the profession of acting made sense to me.

“Every great ad tells a story,” said Draper, melancholic and reserved, the day after the U.S. landed a man on the moon in 1969.

Increasingly irrelevant, out-of-date, and antiquated, Swarthmore, of liberal arts fame, struggles to remain relevant in the 2010s, in the third century of American culture, half-a-century after “we” landed on the moon. We used to say “we” when stuff like that happened, not because it was us up there, but because a voice over the comm to Houston told us it was. Can you believe that? The liberal arts used to be able to do that, too: tell us who we were. But increasingly it’s an ad “telling us we’re OK.”

Can you maintain a quirky dignity when selling your soul to the devil? I think that’s the rhetorical question both Mad Men and the privilege of a Swarthmore education together ask, and one reason why they’re two of the greatest artworks of the 21st century.

 

Smoking at Swarthmore

in Around Campus/Campus Journal by

IMG_5814Mention “smoking” on campus and many peoples’ first thoughts roll to images of bongs, nights in high school spent hotboxing someone’s mom’s car, and bowls packed tightly with bits of green-gray marijuana. Specify that you’re talking about cigarette smoking and many people don’t have anything to say, much less any mental picture harkening back to days of nervously buying a first pack of cigarettes or covering up the smell of tobacco on their clothes.

More likely, students have a removed concept of a “typical smoker” who leans against the back wall of Olde Club, hiding behind opaque waves of smoke wafting in front of their face. This image is probably not of someone they know, but of a faceless caricature of a “typical smoker.” Most importantly, their removal from the smoker subtracts the aspect of intrigue that accompanies weed smoking or drinking alcohol. The average Swarthmore student is disinclined to smoke cigarettes. Smoking is not something they’re interested in and they can’t imagine themselves in that same corner of Olde Club, breathing in filtered Marlboro air, indulging in the unknown.

Smoking cigarettes, though an uncommon and relatively unpopular hobby at Swarthmore, does not have the same mystique as does smoking weed, or drinking, or the camaraderie that arises from participation in those activities. What instead transpires from interactions between smokers is a mix of generosity, friendship and a certain insularity that the more public, prevalent party scene lacks. “It’s a social thing to do, but you’re not going to smoke a cigarette and then hang out with someone for three hours the way you would if you were stoned,” said John.*

Smoking is not simply socially motivated, though, and the impetus behind making a habit of smoking is multi-faceted. The progression of one’s interests, age and mental state from the first cigarette to the thirtieth is telling of the many ways in which smoking both shapes the smoker and is shaped by the smoker.

A smoking habit, for several Swarthmore smokers, began with a few puffs of a cigarette around 15 or 16. Others began smoking at Swarthmore. Either way, their initial interest was not particularly strong, but built up over time. “It started out pretty slow. You try to keep yourself limited, but if things get busy for many days in a row you feel justified,” said John. Daniel,* another smoker, echoed John’s sentiments, saying, “It just catches up to you.” For others, smoking is more of a social addiction. “I don’t have a physical association with what it feels like to smoke…I could go a month without smoking if no one offered it to me or if it wasn’t in my possession,” said Sam.*

Once these students became full-blown smokers, it became clear that there were places on campus where smoking was acceptable. In these spaces, smokers have had the opportunity to meet one another and bond over their common interest.  They have also experienced little pushback from fellow students in these spaces. “All of my friends smoke…[in] Olde club it’s… safe to smoke. I never feel uncomfortable smoking here,” noted Daniel.

Campus smokers’ sense of community is not derived from a need to defend themselves from discrimination. Instead, these students convene around other needs, feelings and desires. As Daniel alluded to, smoking indicates belonging to certain groups of people and is a highly social activity. Sam explained, “It signifies something in particular—it’s the same as dressing a certain way.” Smoking relays something about a person and exposes them in the same way that many of our outwardly expressed aesthetics and interests do.

Because smoking is so observable, by smokers and non-smokers alike, smokers on campus are easily identifiable. Daily, smokers unite around a common activity, share conversations and perhaps a cigarette, usually in public. Leah* expressed that many of her fellow smokers shared about the community of generosity and inter-group recognition that smoking engenders, “We all know the others that smoke. I’ll ask for a cigarette and they’ll give me one [and vice versa]. It’s nice.”

Daniel shared this feeling, explaining that smoking, “creates breaks in my day…it has taken some grasp over my schedule.” This shared schedule and these shared spaces, for many smokers, is the glue that holds together their bond. Just as people who have the same classes might walk and chat between their 9:55 and their 11:20, smokers talk, smoke and enjoy each other’s company in a similar way.

Smoking, however, takes on different meaning in less casual social settings, like parties. “It’s much easier to approach someone and be like ‘Do you want to go out for a smoke?’ or if you want to ‘talk to someone’ you can ask them to smoke,” said Daniel. Most often, these invitations are extended amongst known regular smokers.

Then there are social smokers, who are harder to identify. Social smokers and people who only smoke when they are at parties encounter generosity from the smoking community, but not of the same sort that regular smokers extend to each other on a daily basis. “If you’re going to ask me for a cigarette when you’re drunk, you might as well buy your own pack for when you’re drunk,” said Leah of her run-ins with drunk smokers.

Smoking is expensive, and beyond that there is an established pretense of giving and taking that social smoking does not lend itself to. Motives, too, differ between social and regular smokers. For regular smokers, sometimes the stress created by not being able to smoke and the stress of Swarthmore get confused. For a population of Swarthmore smokers, the stress of college drove them to smoke to cope with the anxiety, or to give them a break from the grind of busy Swarthmore life. Sam spoke to some of the reasons why smoking is therapeutic in the Swarthmore environment in particular, “I think that the days are really long at Swarthmore so there are just more opportunities to smoke for some reason…There’s something very relaxing and removed about it. Especially at Swarthmore it’s a really good excuse for idle time.”

John used smoking as a way to reduce stress and described smoking as a means for abating severe anxiety. “There are reasons that people smoke. It’s not as simple as ‘people are stupid and weak willed.’ There is a purpose.” He was quick to acknowledge the health risks of smoking and the messy negotiation between the stress of quitting and the stress of smoking in the first place. “When it’s already so hard to quit, thinking about the stress of quitting and then not having that relaxation or stress reducer — it’s doubly difficult to quit.”

Leah offered a similar perspective, but described the health threshold that she tries not to breach in her own relationship with smoking, “I’m well aware of the…willful ignorance you have to put yourself in as a smoker, but … as long as I’m faster than most of the people around me, it’s okay. In all other aspects of my life I try to be relatively healthy, eat well and workout.”

Quitting is no easy task, as Sam explained, “I’ve heard from other people who’ve heard that it’s really difficult to quit smoking at Swat because it’s really stressful and it’s not an environment that would help you quit.”

Some smokers on campus are intent on quitting, others have set up a timeline for quitting and some students have no desire to quit. Surely smoking — and quitting, a topic undoubtedly entwined with smoking itself — is a complex habit, whose intricacies run the gamut of mental, physical and social addiction. Still, for now, the smoking community continues to exist and perhaps metastasize as Leah described, “[The community] might be growing since last year. I remember last year there were fewer people smoking.”

Despite a small increase this year in the size of the smoking community at Swarthmore, the size remains small and the atmosphere private, further removing non-smokers from having a circumspect understanding of smoking and everything it involves. Maybe non-smokers haven’t even labeled Swarthmore smoking culture correctly in their misunderstanding of this modestly-sized, exclusive group of students. After all, Leah wasn’t the only person that ended her interview saying, “It’s even weird to call it a community—it’s more like a loose collection of human beings.”

*Names have been changed at the request of interviewees.

 

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