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The inevitable encroachment of normie memes

in News/Uncategorized by

In the fleeting moments in between classes or procrastinating before starting that seven page paper due tomorrow, college students across the country often turn to their institution’s Facebook meme pages for entertainment. At Swarthmore, it seems as if the source of happiness has taken an unfortunately normie turn.

The college’s main meme page, Swarthmore Memes for Quaker Teens, often includes Swarthmore-related posts, such as the sad selection of Sharples’ breakfast and the lofty promises of the administration. Other popular posts cover current topics issues like the Korean treaty and Kanye West’s endorsement of Donald Trump.

In the past few weeks, however, students have complained that the content of such posts has become less original and more general, or “normie.” Josh Geselowitz ’21 explained that specificity most often produces better memes, and SM4QT’s niche is the college.

“I prefer the Swarthmore-related memes because other meme pages have better non-school related memes,” he said. “Either because they also have a specific topic or because they’re larger and therefore will likely have better content.”

Alessandro Getzel ’21 called for an end to normie memes at Swarthmore.

“I think memes that are actually about Swat are always the most successful on the meme page,” he said. “I get tired of seeing the same memes getting reposted from ‘sassy socialist memes’ or ‘college student problems.’ I mostly just want spicy, original content.”

In its current form, SM4QT includes almost 1,800 members, a group type of “family,” and location of Hell, Michigan. Any Swarthmore student can gain access, and many opt to stay in after graduation. The most popular posts garner over 200 reactions; the average post receives around 30.

According to USA Today College, the college meme-craze began in 2015—also around the time that Erin Jenson ’17 created the first campus-wide Swarthmore meme page, SM4QT moderator Dakota Gibbs ’18 reported. However, an unfortunate lack of moderation led to too many offensive posts, which propelled Kat Galvis Rodriguez ’17 to create SM4QT around a year later.

New guidelines were put in place to avoid the old drama and to bring in a new sense of inclusion amongst the Swarthmore meme community, Gibbs said. Now, one admin, Amorina Pearce ’19, and four moderators—Gibbs, Faith Booker ’21, Matthew Chen ’17, and Harsha Sen ’19—approve all posts before memes can become public. The group rarely rejects memes, but occasionally will veto one if it contains racist, classist, queerphobic, transphobic, sexist or otherwise discriminatory undertones.

In June, USA Today reported that students flock to college-centric meme pages—a subset of larger online forums like Reddit—to express sarcastic and bitter feelings about college. The pages serve as relatable outlets for such tension created especially by higher learning institutions.

Gibbs added that Swat-specific memes, which range from wholesome to political, serve a vital purpose in any Swattie’s life.

“[These memes] allow people to vent and express issues in a low pressure format and be a part of community,” he said. “Memes makes things very relatable and humorous in a way that is easily consumed in today’s internet culture.”

Booker said that memes serve a variety of functions on campus.

“Comic relief because we’re all stressed, procrastination when we don’t want to be working zombies, and a way to comment on and share frustration with administration, student culture, and other problems on campus,” she said. “It’s also a way to share your happiness and things you think are funny with other people.”

However, several students question how far the college meme culture can go without turning ugly. One student expressed discomfort with how many graphically sexual memes are featured on the group. Another suggested that in the comments of a meme is not the best platform to host debates.

Separately, Grace Taylor ’21 explained that she does not understand many memes on the main group page and called for more transparency from meme posters.

In response to the recent upsurge of normie content, Swarthmore shitposting—an offshoot of the all-inclusive meme page—sprouted about a year ago. The group includes about 350 Swarthmore students, all of whose entrance was approved by three administrators.

Pearce said SM4QT is an outlet for students to share more generic memes with a large group, while Swarthmore shitposting hosts more niche, often weird content for a selective group.

“People want a space to post weird stuff without feeling like 1,763 people are looking at it like ‘WTF,’” she said. “The group is very protective of its weirdness.”

Swarthmore shitposting moderator Nora Shao ’19 said the group was intended for a specific kind of humor and performance.

“Swarthmore Shitposting was originally a place for a cultivated, very strict competitive performance … Normie strikes were originally a mechanism for maintaining that performance while also being a part of that performance,” she said.

Last month, a student received pushback for posting a meme dubbed too normie to be allowed in such a group. The student’s expulsion from the page was debated, as was whether or not the group should “zucc,” or delete, themselves for becoming too large. (The term originates from the idea that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg can delete Facebook pages on a whim.)

Pearce said the term “normie” can be either ironic or elitist depending on the context. Lately, she said, calling out such content has turned into the latter, which has intimidated new members.

“If there’s a question about whether it’s normie or not, I would say to post it in SM4QT. Save the really weird shit for shitposting,” she said. “Swarthmore shitposting uses the term to set a boundary between what should be posted in the main meme page and what should go in shitposting.”

Two weeks ago on SM4QT, an incoming freshman posted a photo that pictured a rattled-looking Jim from The Office with the caption: “mood when you were admitted early decision and the meme group is full of memes about not liking swat.” The meme received 270 reactions.

Current Swarthmore students and alumni swarmed the comments of the incoming freshman’s post in SM4QT to reaffirm that they made the right college decision. They emphasized the constant roasting of the college on the meme page is, mostly, in good fun.

Courtney Caolo ’21 commented with a Harry Potter meme captioned, “…you’re gonna suffer but you’re gonna be happy about it.” Tom McGovern ’17 said attending Swarthmore was the best thing that’s ever happened to him and offered to chat about any concerns the student might have.

“Truth is, the griping doesn’t necessarily mean there’s any place we’d rather have ended up,” Gabriel Meyer-Lee ’19 commented, which received 41 reactions. “We criticize admin not necessarily bc they’re worse than other schools but because we want to be better.”

While the meme culture at Swarthmore might be headed in a normie direction, Swat memes still serve to unite the community in a unique way. They still reflect real frustrations seen on campus, such as the uphill battle of o4S and the Sabra hummus ban—and even provide comic relief in between classes. Just keep the content original.

A warning on simplifying Songkran festival

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

Those of you who have talked to me probably know I came from Thailand and have lived in the U.S. for virtually two years. A few days ago, I saw a poster about the Thingyan Water Festival which is taking place at Parrish Beach on Monday, April 16. The phrase “water festival” sounded familiar to me, but I could not recall what it is. So, I Googled it and found out Thingyan Water Festival is similar to one of the most famous festivals in Thailand — Songkran. Historically, Songkran is a celebration of Thailand’s traditional new year. “Songkran” is a Sanskrit word; meaning “passage.” In this context, “passage” refers to the passage of one year to the next.

Officially spanning from April 13 to April 15 of every year, Songkran festival is decreed by the Thai government as a national holiday. People usually celebrate the festival for an entire week in two ways: returning home and splashing water. Because job opportunities disproportionately cluster in urban areas, many people in Thailand must live away from their hometown in order to secure their jobs. Hence, Songkran festival is one of the rare moments where every family member can gather and cherish the presence of one another. People also splash water to bestow good blessings upon one another: splashing water washes evil away and freshens one’s body to prepare them for the upcoming year. Thingyan Water Festival in Myanmar shares similar cultural aspects and historical origins to Songkran festival. Born and raised in Thailand, I am definitely accustomed to the tradition of Songkran festival.

I was therefore troubled by how I had learned about the festival. Understandably, “Thingyan” might not ring a bell to me because I have always called the celebration “Songkran.” However, the keyword “water festival,” along with the date, should have provided me with sufficient clues to understand what Thingyan Water Festival is. It did not. Water festival is not how I conceptualize Songkran.

To elaborate, Songkran encompasses many aspects beyond splashing water. As aforementioned, family members, especially those who do not live together, use Songkran as an opportunity to reconvene. Together, they do good deeds, such as praying at temples or cleaning the street, and devote that good karma to themselves as well as their ancestors. Members within the same community also greet, hang out with, and bless one another. Youngsters also pay respect to the elderly and receive blessings from them. In other words, Songkran encompasses so many aspects of Thai tradition, such as adherence to Buddhism, environmental-mindedness, strong family bond, and so on.

Water splashing is merely a symbol people use when they give blessings and therefore cannot encompass the whole picture of Songkran celebration. Why, then, do many countries use the phrase “water festival” to promote this celebration to foreigners?

My first assumption is that water festival is the best slogan for garnering travelers’ interests. Indeed, the word hypes up travelers. When travelers see the phrase “water festival,” they cannot help but wonder,  “What is a water festival?” “Water is just water. How can it be festive? What do Thai people do with the water?” Because most tourists travel to explore the unexplored, the catchy phrase “water festival” works wonder for attracting foreigners’ attention.  Seeing an army of people dressed in flashy clothes splashing water on one another is more unexpected than seeing people dressed in white praying at a temple. Both traditions of Songkran, exciting though it was, are not unexpected for me: I have seen the festival before.

To validate this claim, I searched the word “Songkran” with two different keywords: Songkran as written in Thai and English alphabets. The first entry redirects to websites written in Thai whereas the second entry redirects to websites written in English. The result:  the first entry yields pictures of people gently splashing water to one another or to Buddha statues appear as one of its top results. On the other hand, the second entry does not display similar entries unless you scroll to the very bottom. Rather, the images of people carrying water guns fervently as if they were fighting a war appear as the top results. With how the searching algorithm works, we can infer that foreigners find flashy, action-filled pictures more relevant to them. After all, the results people click the most frequently will appear as the top results. At this point, one may question what is wrong with people gravitating towards one aspect of a tradition over others: tourists are consumers; they can consume whatever they want. Such a mindset, in my opinion, defeats the purpose of tourism. When we read novels, we care not just what each character does but also what drives them to do so, because the latter enriches our understanding of the former. Likewise, tourists should care not just what Thai people do during Songkran: why they do so matters as well. It is rather unfortunate to see how many people trivialize the culture-rich Songkran festival into a period where people hurl water to strangers. Songkran is definitely more than that.

The second and more optimistic explanation is that people involved in Thai tourism industry use water splashing as a means to pique interest among foreign travelers. Attracting foreigners to visit Thailand receives the utmost priority and outweighs any “trivial” cultural misrepresentation. Once the latter visit Thailand, the former will promote another aspect of Thai culture as well. As a Thai citizen, I am hopeful tourism authorities in Thailand use the buzzword “water festival” merely to promote the overall industry. Unfortunately, this case is unlikely. Most blogs about Songkran water festival I have read so far talk about how fun it is to see everyone dancing wildly while getting soaked with water. The origin of Songkran, how Thai people spray water to reduce heat during April —  the hottest month in Thailand — and other crucial aspects of Songkran are usually not included.

How should we address this misrepresentation problem? Changing how the tourism industry uniquely portrays Songkran as a water festival is difficult because such marketing tactics are so effective. It hypes travelers up, boosts Thailand’s tourism industry, and promotes some aspects of Thai culture. That people associate the word Songkran with a water-splashing war is not problematic per se. That certain aspects of any tradition receive so much attention that they completely eclipse other meaningful narratives is. Next time when you travel, always wonder why people do what they do. There is more to any festival than meets the eyes.


Black History Month: necessary but not enough

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

Since 1976, every U.S. president has designated February as Black History Month. In February,  the struggles and successes of the black community are highlighted and recognized nationally. In February, we lift up the voices and stories of members of our community who have been oppressed since before the conception of this country, and remain oppressed today. However, when considering Black History Month, we need to be careful. Students and the college cannot descend into the pitfall of patting themselves on the back for recognizing Black History Month in February and then forgetting about it March through January. When we think about this month, we should think about the reason the month is required in the first place — we need to prioritize black voices because society at large fails to do so.

At Swat, the theme of this Black History Month’s series of events is “reclaiming our voices.” We at the Phoenix value how organizations and departments across campus come together during this month to have discussions about creating a more inclusive and supportive environment, both at Swarthmore and beyond. Just some of the departments supporting events this year have been the Black Cultural Center, Intercultural Center, Department of Educational Studies, Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, Department of English, and Swarthmore African American Student Society. These departments and organizations have sponsored events such as a public conversation with Thomas Defrantz, an artist who created a dance about “The Black Magic of Living,” and an open mic night entitled “And Still we Rise” to highlight the black experience. In hosting these events, the campus is taking a collective role in bringing light to what it means to be black in today’s society.

As students, it is our role to attend these events and engage in the conversations around inclusion, strengthening our community, and taking action against injustices. Yet, it is also our duty to continue these conversations beyond the month of February. Not only do we as students need to purposefully engage with issues of race, both with our peers and with our acquaintances outside of Swarthmore, but we also need to continue to work with the BCC, IC and other groups on campus to facilitate events throughout the year that embrace the beauties behind diversity and fight the bigotry currently surrounding society.

The administration also needs to take responsibility for their role in reclaiming voices by listening to and prioritizing the voices of black students, who have in the past and continue to demand accountability and consideration. This means taking concrete steps towards creating a Black Studies department, not just a program. This means financially and symbolically supporting both programming and courses surrounding issues of race. This means doing better than before.

Maya Angelou once said, “Won’t it be wonderful when black history and native American history and Jewish history and all of U.S. history is taught from one book.” That day — the day where the histories of disenfranchised communities are represented fully and faithfully in textbooks — will indeed be wonderful. When celebrating black history month, we must keep in mind that day has not yet come, and there is much work to be done to achieve it.

Alcohol for the atmosphere: Swarthmore as a wet town

in Campus Journal by

Maybe it is just me because I come from a state where you can walk into a Walgreens and see a handle of vodka next to the health vitamins, but I think Pennsylvania alcohol laws are weird. When I first visited Swarthmore during my senior year of high school, my parents decided to go get something to eat in the Ville while I was visiting classes, and after walking around the two blocks that consist of downtown Swarthmore, they were puzzled by the lack of food options. A quick Google search showed that Swarthmore was a dry town, and that was probably why there were so few restaurants. Due to this fact, they have continued to make fun of me for wanting to go to an urban school and ending up at a school in a dry town 11 miles outside of Philadelphia that looks like it could be in the middle of nowhere.

But this summer that might all change.

Swarthmore 21, a community organizing group, is working to change Swarthmore to a wet town on this summer’s primary ballot. For more on that see: “Swarthmore 21 Causes Debate in the Borough.”

The thing about a dry town is that it doesn’t just prevent stores from selling alcohol: it prevents the town from growing. The mark-ups on alcohol in restaurants are astronomically larger than the mark-ups on food, allowing more restaurants to make a larger profit. An increase in restaurants brings more foot traffic to the town, allowing other stores to open up. Basically, our economy runs on alcohol.

When I chose to come to Swarthmore I knew I wasn’t getting a school that was integrated into a big city or had a huge party scene, and I was okay with that. But now that I am here I miss having a downtown area to wander. I miss walking around on a nice night and seeing couples eating outside of restaurants or kids playing in the fountains. I miss the quirky local shops and restaurants. More than that, I miss the atmosphere.

If you want to know what this is like, just walk by the Inn on any given night. Has anyone else noticed that people at the Broad Table Tavern always look happy? As I walk by the big glass windows I stare in wearily, wishing that the ziti didn’t cost $20. The place is always packed, and the reason isn’t just because the food is decent: it is because it is a monopoly. Regular people that drink and just want to enjoy a glass of wine with their dinner only have one place to go in this town, The Broad Table Tavern. Hopefully this will change soon.

I envision several restaurants opening up, offering students and residents alike places to eat out and laugh over a nice glass of wine. I see families walking through the streets on their way to a nice dinner. I see residents and students enjoying a nice conversation as they wait for a table. I see people walking through the Ville just because it is a nice place to be.

I don’t think my expectations are that out of line. Small towns have charm, why can’t this one?

Philly beat springs forward

in Campus Journal/Philly Beat by

If i’m not mistaken, this will be my third to last CJ piece this semester, which means the year is wrapping up. It’s kind of crazy how simultaneously fast and slow time moves here. So with only a few weeks left and the finals period about to kick in, here are some possibilities to blow off some steam, or just treat yourself.

The other night, I went to Hibachi Japanese Steak House and Sushi bar, which is just up the road. Unless you’re in a large group, it makes for an intimate experience dining with total strangers, embarrassing yourselves as the chef insists on flipping shrimp off the grill and into your mouths. In my case, the family sitting next to us had an extra coupon for 50 percent off your second entree, so I can’t complain.

After that, if you feel like walking, it’s only a five minute walk to the AMC Marple theater, and while I waited for the movie to start, I wandered in and out of Five Below, Marshalls and DSW.

Kong: Skull Island is in theaters now, which if you’re a fan, I would recommend. It’s a good dose of monsters and anxiety and Samuel L. Jackson blowing things up. But if that’s not your thing, Beauty and the Beast is showing, and Get Out is still in theatres, which if you haven’t already seen, you MUST.

If you are a sushi lover and haven’t tried Poké, there is a place nearby in Ardmore called Poké Ono. It’s a Hawaiian rice bowl with cubed raw fish and tons of other good stuff from edamame to kimchi. You can either build your own or order their specials. There’s also a place in Philly called Poké Bowl on 958 N 2nd St that is smaller than the one in Ardmore, but not by much. The one in Philly has better specials, but the one in Ardmore gives you more toppings if you build your bowl.

A great place to unwind and catch a quick exhibit is UPenn’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), located on 36th and Sansom. The museum is entirely free and often hosts artists events and workshops. Their most recent exhibition, The Freedom Principle, offered a survey of the visual culture that accompanied South Side Chicago’s avant-garde, post-1965 jazz movement, complete with interactive and sonic installations. Unfortunately, the exhibit ended last week, but the museum will be reopening April 28, so in the meantime, follow them on social media if you want up-to-date info on exhibits and events.

If you feel bold enough to venture out of University City, hit up Bluestone Lane Coffee for a late brunch. They have two Philly locations, one in Rittenhouse, and another right next to City Hall. Be sure to try their avocado toast or coconut oatmeal — both are good as hell.

On the flip side, while I’m reticent to mention this to all you future gentrifiers, 52nd street is the heart of West Philly and also poppin’. But since I know a lot of you will be moving there, I’m gonna push you to at least try to be patrons of some local business, so you don’t mess it up like ya’ll did Brooklyn. For great juices, love, and Caribbean food, hit up Brown Sugar Bakery. Get yourself some oxtail with the green callaloo, or curry goat roti. Get a fresh detox juice with that, stop playing yourself.

Overall, there are countless new events, activities, and spots to check out before the semester ends. Some are closer to Swarthmore, and others are further away – but all of them are worth it.

Order a pizza, and it shall come

in Campus Journal by

Salam sejahtera, saya mampu bertutur dalam pelbagai bahasa dan ia memperkasakan saya — Hi, I speak multiple languages and that empowers me.

As an ethnic Chinese from Malaysia (a country that’s not particularly kind to the children of immigrants), I was brought up to view languages as a currency of sorts, a means to buy your way into another culture’s good graces, be it in pursuit of a higher education, economic gain, or political cooperation. Over the years, my need to learn multiple languages “just in case” seeking prospects overseas became a necessity evolved into a deep respect for and love of the different cultures of which foreign languages are a part. To speak a people’s language well is to gain an understanding of the people themselves, which eases access to their society. It empowers me to know that my multilingualism enables me to connect with an incredibly diverse range of people on opposite sides of the globe.

Well, I’m here now, aren’t I? Twelve time zones apart from (and 20°F colder than) the tropical island I grew up on, there are times when Swarthmore feels so strange to me that it’s like I’m wading through a fever dream. But my command of the English language allows me to reach out to this community, and what better way to connect with people on this campus than by writing for a student publication?

One quote in particular adds to this discussion.

“The most important aspect of knowing another language is that it will permit the speaker entry into a different culture … and in turn the realization of these differences illuminates one’s own cultural suppositions,” said German Professor Hansjakob Werlen.

By unravelling these cultural suppositions, learning another language helps to increase one’s understanding of one’s own culture, and offers a certain insight into the mechanisms of the culture that monolingual individuals in the same society might be less inclined to notice. This is, of course, closely tied up with increased individual growth and wisdom through a developing awareness towards one’s sociocultural environment. Here’s a personal example: there are four different ways to say “you (singular)” in Malay, with varying degrees of formality and familiarity. A greater emphasis is placed on respect for others in Malaysian culture than American culture, and the language reflects that. Yet, there are a stunning number of correlations between both countries. For example, sex and religion are inexplicably invoked whether you’re cursing in English or Malay, one of the countless social phenomena that can be tracked through nuances in speech patterns, turns of phrase or even types of swear words.

This makes me think of another professor’s words.

“The fact [is] that often you’ll discover links that you didn’t expect between your language and the other language … learning a foreign language teaches you ultimately how much more we’re similar, I think, and how much that you just weren’t taught, that you just didn’t learn until you learned [the language],” said Professor and Head of Russian section Sibelan Forrester.

But the pros of multilingualism extend both ways. Whilst language acquisition can empower the speaker, it can also empower those who are spoken to, as it may be seen as a gesture of respect.

“Speaking a foreign language to someone whose language that is, or who also is a speaker of it, indicates your respect for them and their culture, that you’re accommodating them rather than expecting them to accommodate you,”  Forrester said.


She continued, “Not only, but especially [with] small languages, languages where there aren’t many opportunities to learn them, if you aren’t in that culture—if you show up speaking it, even not very well, it’s a huge affirmation for the people to whom you’re speaking,” she said.

Swarthmore’s facilitation of foreign language events and student-run cultural organizations may help with that, at least to some extent. Since English is almost always used out of necessity here, hearing someone else make an effort to speak your first language rather than the other way around can really make your day. Or perhaps just a demonstrated willingness to learn someone else’s mother tongue is enough to bring a little positivity into someone’s life: I offered to pick up Bulgarian so my professor would have someone at Swat to talk to, and the smile I received in response was worth every hour I’ll be spending poring over Cyrillic during the summer.

As a linguistics minor, Natalie Flores Semyonova ’19 stressed the importance of language itself.

“I think that languages are the foundation to humanity as this social entity and so being able to harness that in more than one language than your own … just opens you up to so many different experiences and so many different perspectives and feelings and people,” she said.

Werlen agreed, especially with regard to his own personal experiences.

“When traveling as a teenager in Europe, I soon experienced that special empowerment that knowing other languages affords the speaker, whether it was arguing about soccer in Italian or trying to write love letters in French,” he said.

To say that communication is key in the ever-expanding age of globalization is somewhat of an understatement. Here, at our little liberal arts college that emphasizes ethical and social concern, exercises in understanding are especially pertinent in the process of preparing for the “real world” after graduation. But, while learning another language for some global-scale purpose is a noble pursuit, you don’t have to have some cosmically crucial reason to do so.

For example, the reason for Flores’ acquisition of a second language was family.

“My grandma speaks no English, and she’s lived with us since I was born, so I wouldn’t have a relationship with her if I didn’t speak Russian,” Flores said.

We read together and there’s times when we’ll just sit down for three-hour chunks of time and she’ll just talk to me about different grammar rules and read me old stories. Through her and through the fact that we share that, it sort of connects us and also connects me to the culture of Russia.

On the other hand, Werlen cites the ability to read literary texts in a foreign language as a major draw.

“I studied Spanish with my wonderful colleagues here at the college and loved my new power … to read one of my favorite poets, Pablo Neruda, in the original,”  Werlen said.

However, it was his desire to understand the lyrics of the music that he listened to that led Werlen to learn English as a teenager, with a humorous twist.

“I was an exchange student in Wisconsin and I still recall the horror of my very British English teacher when I returned [home] from there with an exaggeratedly pronounced Wisconsin accent,”  Werlen recounted.

Finally, being able to reinvent herself was an added bonus to the study of other languages for Forrester.

“You get to be someone slightly different in the other language. You get be more picky and precise, or you get to be more kind of freewheeling in what you say … so you really gain in richness as a human being,”  Forrester said.


In her final comments on why Swatties should pick up another language, Forrester hit the nail on the head with the ultimate motivation.

“Look, you can order a pizza [in a foreign country], and it comes,” she joked.

A Happy Psuedo-Persian New Year

in Campus Journal by

When it comes to observing cultural holidays while at Swat, being away from my home and family has always been a challenge. No matter the occasion, I always find myself defying conventional traditionalism and celebrating a filtered-down, dorm-room-makeshift interpretation of the holiday.

With the vernal equinox comes one of my favorite family holidays: Norooz. Celebrated on the first day of spring, Norooz celebrates nature’s rebirth concurrently with the Persian New Year. It predates Islam, dating back to the ancient monotheistic religion Zoroastrianism in Iran, and is observed across a number of political borders, including Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and of course Iran.

One of the hallmarks of this holiday is the preparation of the Haft-Seen table. President of AMENA (Arab, Middle-Eastern, and North African Cultural Group) Ava Shafiei described this tradition as a “7 item representation of the hopes and values for the new year” in a email sent to the Swarthmore community announcing the implementation of the Haft-Seen on the upper floor of Sharples for the week of March 20.

These components include seer (garlic) for good luck, sumaq (ground berry) for the color of sunrise, seeb (apple) for health and beauty, senjed (sprouted wheat or barley) for rebirth, samanu (sweet pudding) for wealth and affluence, and finally serkeh (vinegar) for patience and old age. For additional ornaments and decor, sometimes a goldfish, a mirror, or the Qur’an are incorporated to represent life and reflection.

Being half-Persian, for the past two years I have implemented my own homespun Haft-Seen in my humble abode in Willets. My mom sent me some of the components in the mail, like the senjed and samanu, but for the most part I was collecting items from the most intimate niches of Swarthmore student life, i.e. I stole an apple from Sharples and put Goldfish crackers that I bought from Essie’s in a jar, like a true Persian.

I can just hear my Persian grandma joyously clapping her hands, her infinite amount of wrist bangles clanging in symphony, as she exclaims, “Afareen, azizam!” (Good job, sweetheart).

Admiring the absurd amalgam of objects scattered across the ornate Persian sofreh in my dorm room, I am perplexed by a shocking, existentialist thought: I, Yasmeen Namazie, am nothing more than this filtered-down, dorm-room-makeshift Haft-Seen, because 2,000 miles away from my home and family, I am hardly Persian at all. I am a messy, fractured, last-minute, sad excuse for a Persian.

I confided with one of the only other people who resonates with my existential anxieties surrounding my cultural and linguistic inadequacies: my beautiful sister Leyla.

My younger sister and I, while very similar in personality, could not be more visibly different. She has big, deep brown eyes that don’t squint when she smiles; she has a paler complexion that burns red and not brown under the Los Angeles sun and she has fuller, thicker eyebrows.

In other words, this girl is a cookie-cutter Persian.

“I have a very Persian-looking face — you know that,” my sister said to me on the phone.

“But what about you looks so Persian, Leyla?” I asked.

“I don’t know, I feel like just my face does,” she said.

I was asking her about the Norooz festivities back home in LA, and she was telling me about how she enjoyed our Persian-side gatherings more over our Chilean-side gatherings. This was her logic:

“While looking at both my Chilean and Persian side, I feel more connected to my Persian side because I look more like them so I don’t feel as out of place as I do when I am at Chilean parties,” she said. “I don’t really feel Chilean when I am at Abuelo and Abuela’s house.”

While I was at first critical of what I assumed was an absurd reason for enjoying one cultural space over another, I thought about how my insecurities with language and my inability to speak Farsi operate under the same assumptions: if I can’t participate in Persianness, I therefore am not Persian.

This has truly been the perennial struggle for my sister and I, identifying as bi-racial. Our lives are spent searching for points of reconciliation between our two cultural origins, to the extent that even something as mundane as a family gathering propels us into existential crisis. Even while we participate in the functions, eat the foods, and sometimes even utter the phrases, we are in a perpetual state of inadequacy, of “not enough.”

Leyla shares the same sentiments regarding linguistic barriers.

“Not speaking Farsi is pretty big barrier during relative gatherings for Norooz. Even though I do understand the gist about the Haft-Seen and the cultural significance of Norooz, I feel like when they are talking about it, especially in Farsi, I just can’t contribute because I have no idea what they are talking about. They usually have to translate it to me in English which makes you feel a little bit disconnected … like you are not a part of something.” she said. “I feel like knowing Farsi would make me feel more Persian.”

Together, we thought about what voids would have to be filled in order for us to “feel more” Persian or “feel more” Chilean. Learning to speak Farsi fluently? Taking up dutar lessons and embracing ancient Iranian folk music? Living in a remote hostel in the high desert of Chile? All this infatuation with justifying our Persianness and Chileanness was draining and picked at our consciousnesses.

“All I know is that I like being able to spend time with my family and being able to set up the table because it’s kind of like a family thing. You go to the market and you go buy fish and all the elements of the Haft-Seen — you do it together,” my sister said.

It was in this intimate conversation with my sister that I started to realize that perhaps my cultural identity isn’t conditional or situational, nor contingent on locale. So what if Goldfish crackers are the staple of my homemade Haft-Seen?

Assumptions of my sister and my cultural essentialism are not conducive to my understanding of myself as a multicultural person. Instead, there should be acknowledgment that sometimes I may have to negotiate and renegotiate the bounds of my racialness. Maybe I will just be perpetually grappling with my “pseudo-ness,” but at least I am the agent of this process of formation and reconstruction. Maybe next Norooz, I can be comfortable with this “new normative,” even if it entails grass plucked from the Scott Arboretum in lieu of sabzee.

I would like to thank Farsheed Shomloo for taking the featured image of the Haft-Seen for this article.

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.

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