Faye Yan Zhang
The past days I have spent falling into the blue vortex. What’s really scary about the internet is that it goes on forever. Websites— urls, bookmarks, forums—are only a method of organization, like chapters in a book or the Dewey decimal system. Scrolls disseminated human knowledge before books were able to organize them more efficiently. The Bible was a series of scrolls, lore and prayers merely, before some monks stitched it all together. If the entire collection of Widener Library was a scroll, I wouldn’t be surprised if it reached the moon. If the internet were a scroll, it would be an infinite expanse. I’ve been consuming news at a faster rate than I have ever before. I can’t stop clicking down my Facebook feed, I’ve started reading Twitter. I can’t sleep, and my wrists frequently itch. I see a conspiracy theory behind every virtual door.
I think this is a kind of coping. Some people listen to music or paint, but I can’t stop behaving like some kind of internet-bot, mindlessly combing through short text and long text and grainy images and sharp images until some kind of reality unfolds in my mind like a ghostly program. The more I fall into the blue, the less real my real memories become—friends, family, childhood begin to feel terrible unhinged. This is ongoing insanity. I cast a message out to the web to attempt some kind of empathy. Someone replies.
Her name is Eleanor, married to a white American, retired mortgage banker, 63 years old, with a daughter, and one grandchild. She was born in South Korea, but moved to Kansas in 1975, where she became a born-again Christian. Eleanor is also an active member in the “Asians for Trump 2016” Facebook group. The first thing she demands of me in our first exchange is to reveal whether I was in the country illegally. I write that my parents, who grew up in families left destitute after China’s civil war, had moved to the US on work visas when I was three years old, and that I became a citizen in 2015. Eleanor warms up after this. She tells me she voted based on Christian reasons, and that she thoroughly aligns with Trump’s nationalism, his stances on sexual identity, immigration, and reproduction. She sends me a laundry list that justifies Trump with selected passages from the Bible. How is it possible for me to refute this distilled core of her very being?
I then write to Eleanor that I am 22 years old, was born in China, and grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, not so far from Kansas, and that I was worried about the future. This time, Eleanor does not respond with doubts about my citizenship. She becomes sympathetic. She tells me she had left Korea when she was very close to my age, 21. In her words, she was born Catholic, and even at young age she knew that there was a God, someone, somewhere higher than anybody. She joined the Church of Christ at age 19, but that church felt “empty” to her. One day, she was listening to a Christian broadcast by a Baptist pastor in Georgia. His messages intrigued her, and she started to read the Bible on her own. Her prayers began to be answered during times of personal tribulation. To assuage my worries, she recommends that I attend church and read the Bible, which had given her so much comfort. She writes to me, “God will put you in a position so desperately... so that you’ll get some clarity with what’s troubling you, with Trump’s election—FEAR? Right?”
Eleanor is right. I am afraid. I’m afraid for my friends. I’m afraid for those who are intimately acquainted with hate. I’m afraid of the world. I’m afraid of my ignorance, suddenly sharply afraid of my body, of my face, of my eyes, of my skin, of how easy it is to slip into that endless blue vortex. Is Eleanor a human being that I can feel that through the pop- up window that connected us, or was that a sham littered through platitudes of love and acceptance? I don’t want it to be a sham. I want to believe that a few sentences sent over the internet can bridge a wide chasm of fear. In another world, would I be like Eleanor?
People throw us into a group called the millennials. We are “snowflakes” who are easily offended, “narcissists” obsessed with social media popularity, we are the “participation trophy” generation, constantly seeking gratification and incapable of empathy. The Bible has been replaced by the glass tablets in our hands, the black screen reflected in our eyes.
But it was not the millennials who chose Donald Trump, a man who has used tools of hate to gain his popularity. We feel empathy just as sincerely or hollowly as people always have, but our new world allows us a wider network to share our lives. We feel less antipathy to difference than any previous generation. We are criticized for political correctness, but until very recently in the course of history, women, people of color, and LGBT persons were not citizens with full rights—perhaps our “correctness” is a necessary balm and divergence. Perhaps our neatly tuned emotions allow us to sense something sinister is afoot.
I was brought here as a kid because my parents believed in the American dream. The story that I learned was that America is exceptional because it has been, is, and always will be a nation of immigrants. As a kid I bought the story. I swallowed it. Apprehensions of terrible wrongs were soothed by it. This is the story they told me as I grew up in Nebraska, a state named after the word for “at water” in the Chiwere language. This is the story they told me: African-American and Irish pioneers moved west, followed by Polish immigrants with stockyards, Germans with their breweries, Italian, Mexican, and Chinese rail workers on the Union Pacic, Mormon migrants who never made it to Salt Lake, refugees from Sudan, immigrants building layer upon layer of that great and innite dream. Now, that was only the rst generation, they told me. We weren’t “millennials” back when they told us the story—we were kids. You kids are the future, they said, we love you and have hope in you.
In 2016, 60% of Nebraska voted for a vision of American identity and nationalism that, to my mind, never existed in reality. People like Eleanor, people who were my surrogate grandmothers in childhood, openly admitted that the dream they peddled was a sham, at least in their minds. They loved many of us when we were children, loved us so deeply that they told us stories to calm our nightmares—was that love so hollow that now they see us grief-stricken and frightened, and laugh? Maybe we can reach each other over that great divide. For me, the best thing that can happen now is that the president’s policies will somehow move compromise. The worst thing is that his words will become normal, that his vision will corrupt the American dream into a twisted, shrunken, shattered, demented version of the beautiful dream of my childhood. And then I don’t know if I will be able to believe it. Can you?