Stories of Capitalism

Last summer, we were sitting at Cathy’s favorite Vietnamese restaurant — the only one she vouched for in NYC — after a day of wheeling free office chairs through the NYC subway and chatting about why we do movement work. We were getting ready to dive forks-first into the dishes she had ordered for us, when she muttered, “Capitalism literally made my family sick.” She said it so quickly and off-handedly that I almost missed it. It sounded like a rehearsed prayer recited before meals. I looked up, already mid-chew, and felt her words slowly wrap itself around my throat.

For the next couple of moments, I merely picked at the bánh xèo, not knowing how to continue the conversation. I know the sickness of capitalism too well, having seen too many of us beaten down by it. I wondered exactly how many families capitalism had worn through, how many it had displaced and tossed, how many it had locked up behind bars. There is a sunken heaviness in the bodies of those who drag around the wounds of capitalism. Familiar lines of fatigue etched around their eyes, giving them an eerie look and prompting me to turn my head for a second glance, wondering why it reminds me of the hollowness of my own father’s eyes.

If capitalism sickened her family, it scattered mine. It is the reason my family exists in our current fragmented state — with my father working 12-14 hour days at a corporation in China, my grandparents aging isolated and alone in Korea, my mother and siblings in a Midwest suburban town pursuing the American Dream, and me usually off in big cities across the U.S. trying to financially make it work.

Perhaps all of this is why I’m so focused on getting “home.” A part of me believes that finding “home” would bring all of us together, back in one place and eating rice over the same table. Home, where children could sit in grandparents’ laps and take lazy summer naps. And perhaps in a home like that, the overly wary and calculated relationships that we’ve constructed as defense mechanism could slowly fade. There would be no tally system of the give-and-take. We could dilute each other’s pain. And perhaps then, we could begin healing our wounds.
Another argument with my mother in the kitchen. About money. Our fights always seem to be about money. How she didn’t have enough growing up. How my father is throwing away his life trying to make enough for us. How much they invested in me. How I need to give them a return on that investment. And how I’m not doing that now.

She hates when my anti-capitalist rhetoric flares up — worker’s rights, living wage, how I don’t want to be valued only by my job title. Sometimes the latch releases, and my unformed thoughts about worker’s co-ops, free education, and communal living within an alternative economic system flow out in a jumble of Korean and English phrases. That’s around the time that my mother tells me to go to North Korea, since I hate capitalism so much.

네가 뭐라고. 네가 뭔데 그런것까지 바라냐.
Who do you think you are? Who are you to want those kinds of things?

네가 그렇게 싫어하는 그 더러운 돈으로 널 먹여 살렸다. 어쩔건데?
We fed you and clothed you with that ‘dirty’ money that you hate so much. How about that?

I try to feel out the faded line between self-care and First World overindulgence / between courage and arrogance / between demanding my rights and not devaluing the lives of those who could not make those same demands. Often, after these kinds of exchanges, I escape away to our backyard and lie there with the grass tickling against my skin, genuinely wondering if I what I want from this world is simply too much.

I wonder if backyards are a luxury. If clear blue skies and occasional summer showers are a luxury. If affordable healthcare is a privilege, then perhaps my safety or sense of belonging, too. Sometimes it feels like I am greedy to want all these things. Good health, a sense of togetherness, and maybe even an occasional meal together over the dinner table with my family. They have all become things that I dare not wish for. I wonder if in the process of trying to curb the greed of capitalism, we have made luxuries out of human things.
I am on the phone with S, a soon-to-be labor attorney who will have a hefty sum of student debt upon graduation. Being from a working class single parent household, she is hoping to help financially support her family when she graduates, but the nonprofit jobs lined up all make around 40k. If she stays at a nonprofit job for 10 years — being overworked with no weekends and high rates of staff turnover — her debt will be forgiven by the government. By then she will be in her mid-30s. When I casually mention that she could consider going corporate to make money, she immediately repeats back all the lines we have been taught. That would be selling out. I want to serve the people, not corporations. There is a pause of silence before I open my mouth. “I’m serious. If you have to go corporate to support yourself and your family, it’s okay.” It’s okay. It really is. I know plenty of radical friends that would call me a sellout for even saying that, but I still stand by it.

Since when did striving for financial stability become forbidden in this work? Sometimes it seems as though being in The Movement (or being a “good” person, as defined by The Movement™) means living on a below average salary while working around the clock, having all of your emotional boundaries pushed to its limits, straining relationships with family, not having time to breathe let alone relax, and not being able to afford decent health insurance. It seems as if our dedication to The Movement is measured in how little we sleep and how much pain we endure. But what told us that working class people are not allowed financial stability or organic food? What told us that true organizers should reside in pest-infested housing and live on food stamps? What told us that being dedicated to the Movement as a lawyer means drowning in student loans? Is that what we’re fighting for?

This is a race to the bottom. Soon, there will be nothing of us left.
These days, I think about how to live guided by abundance rather than scarcity

To remember how a single scoop of rice with my hands always makes enough for two. How a single flame can light an infinite number of wicks. How a fruit is both the final product and the seed to begin anew. It feels as though we are trying to remember things that we used to know once, long ago.

I am fighting for the breaths of fresh air.
The grass between our toes.
That sweet tang of the first fall strawberry
picked straight off the vine, and
friendly chatter with the neighbors
who always carry a stock of our tupperware
from the latest exchange of food.

I want it all / to bring us closer to ourselves
and keep reminding us of where we are going / how we can all become free.



Going Home

A year after college, I quit my job and accepted a fellowship. I was placed me at an organization in NYC to work with Korean tenants in public housing, so here I am in the city. I have been spending my summer in the steaming hot hallways of public housing, knocking on Korean tenants’ doors to talk about issues they face. Come inside, they say. “밥묵었나?” I nod, but they still feed me steamed potatoes dipped in brown sugar. I’ve come to realize this summer that my usual awkwardness melts away when I am with older folks. We dip into their ridiculously pro-America politics, frown-squint up at the kitchen ceiling that’s been leaking for the last year, and chat about how the stream of family and visitors have slowed over the years.

I eventually go into my organizing piece, and we get to talking about privatization: private companies buying up public housing land all over the city to turn into unaffordable luxury towers. Many just nod, knowing that it means that they will be pushed out eventually. Public housing is the last frontier of affordable housing in NYC, and for many, there would be nowhere else to go.

Organizing is 120% legwork. And I would add, 200% emotional labor. I meet with tenants twice a week to hear their struggles with language, mobility, and repairs in public housing. Then the next day, I walk into our Chinatown office to news about another building of Chinese residents moving out en masse after taking buyouts from the landlord. Another step in this terrifying sprint towards Chinatown decimation nationwide. K tells me that housing organizing is always being in “crisis mode” — and I see the emotional toll that it takes on us. Homelessness, evictions, tenant harassment, threats, lawsuits, buyouts, gentrification. My heart aches every time I see snapback white boys drinking coffee on wood plank benches on Ludlow Street. And the Wyndam Gardens hotel standing tall where the Chinese theater and Chinatown community mural once stood. And don’t get me started on those damn white photographers who come to take photos of elderly Chinese folks at Hester Park, as if they are on display, as if folks are all part of their cultural tour experience. There is a lot of protective anger, pain, and fear in this work. I wonder how we can keep going and if anything will be left in a couple of years.

In the quieter moments of this summer, I also think a lot about what it means to go “home.” I notice myself asking tenants about their faded Virgin Mary statue wrapped in a thick, green rosary, identical to the one that stands on my mother’s bedroom dresser. I catch glimpses of my grandmother in softly aged creases of our members. Traversing the trapped staircases of public housing, my body has developed an eerie ache for the stifling heat of Seoul summers, and I wonder if anything will ease my diasporic tug quite as much their repeated questions of if I’ve eaten dinner that day. As I ride the train back to Brooklyn, I wonder when this restlessness cease and allow me to find what I am even looking for.

It’s unclear what I am leaving this summer with, because at times, it feels as though I am left with more gaping questions in my vision for social justice. Who do I do this work for? How do I build a political home? How do you articulate something you do not know, that does not yet exist? How do you go home when it no longer exists?

I trod up the darkness, unlock the door to breathe in the hot silence of the apartment. A thud and a clank as my bags fall to the ground, and keys onto the desk. I lie on the futon with only the phone glowing in the room. My fingers count out the hour differences before my thumbs drum out the number that my mother used to ingrain in me as a child. 여보세요?

She replies with the thick kyungsang namdo accent from memories of my childhood. 응, 그래. 밥묵었나?