Pre-Reflection by Kristi Kao

As the Alternative Spring Break trip to Arizona draws nearer, I am more and more conscious that preparation requires both physical and mental-emotional measures.  Preparing physically is the easy part: buying a suitcase, doing laundry, struggling with packing efficiently into a single carry-on bag.  It’s just another task to be crossed off my ever-expanding to-do list.  Preparing mentally and emotionally for this experience is a completely different story.  This preparation is not something that can be crossed off a list or ever completed; it is a continual process, requiring thought even after the trip has ended (most likely even more thought at the end of the trip).  The actual physical trip will end; the struggle to mentally and emotionally process the trip and its implications will be a lifelong journey.  Packing for this trip provides a good opportunity to reflect while I prepare physically for this experience.

As a 5th year senior, double major, triple minor, graduating with 177 credits, I have taken my share of classes, studying a broad range of topics including Chinese history, statistical analysis, persuasion, sociological perspectives, and many classes on inequality, classes titled, Race and Ethnicity, American Indian Studies, Multicultural Awareness, Sociology of Gender and this class, Issues in Genocide and Refugee Advocacy.  I’ve read and studied numerous articles from famous activists including bell hooks, Peggy McIntosh, Patricia Hills Collins, Gloria Steinman, and Robert Jensen.  I’ve been no stranger to the unequal oppressive constructive nature of human societies.  While I am well acquainted with the systematic oppression of groups of people, which can sometimes lead to genocide, up until this point, what I have read has just been words on a page.  I read articles explicitly demonstrating the atrocities that persist throughout the world, but I read them in the safe haven of my house, consciously knowing that my life has been unfairly privileged.  There is a disconnect that I struggle with between the words and the real world.  It feels like the atrocities take place far away from me, not in my neighborhood, not in my life.  I read numbers and personal testimonies, watch movies and documentaries chronicling the genocidal acts, but struggle to put faces to the multitude of humans who are experiencing firsthand the power of dehumanization.  After reading an article or watching movie, I have the choice to walk away and continue living my privileged life.  The people I read about don’t have that choice.  From this experience, I want what I read about to become real to me; I don’t want to have the choice to walk away anymore.

Typically, when oppression or inequality is discussed, the focus is on the group being oppressed or fighting for equality.  On the other side of the oppressed groups are the oppressor groups, who slink back unnoticed.  To understand why and how groups of people are oppressed, it is important to understand why and how other groups of peoples are oppressors, both consciously and unconsciously.  Being able to engage in good service-learning requires understanding the groups to which I belong to.  I must understand myself before trying to understand others.  For starters, I can list the obvious qualities that I possess: I am a woman, half Taiwanese, half White, abled, college student, nonreligious, middle-class, heterosexual.  I am systematically privileged in some categories and disadvantaged in others.

I have witnessed both firsthand and secondhand the impacts of racism and sexism, but I have also experienced privilege from being able to “pass as white;” I’ve experienced both sides of the racism continuum, not able to belong exclusively to one group or another.  However, one of the biggest advantages in my knapsack is that I was born into a middle-class family, who were able to provide me with an education.  For my entire life, my parents have encouraged and pressured me to excel in school.  My father, a college professor, views academia in the highest regard.  I am extremely lucky that I have parents who are both able and willing to pay for me to have gone through 5 years of college.  My education is one of the most important things to me, something that my father has instilled in me since I was young.  These are the experiences that I bring with me to Arizona.

Acknowledging these experiences is useful in recognizing that there are unearned privileges granted to groups of people simply because they can claim that they can belong.  How can I use this information to create positive change?  How do I cross the bridge from simply acknowledging these privileges to breaking them down?

Up until this point, I have not had the chance to actually immerse myself in a culture that has seen firsthand what it is like to be “enemies” of their own state, to have witnessed mass killings, to have been displaced.  Words on a page will come to life, but am I ready?  Thinking about the upcoming trip is filled with excitement, anticipation, hesitation, and uncertainty.  I have no idea what to expect; after a few years of studying oppression and inequality, and just half a semester specifically studying genocide and refugees, I find myself completely unsure of what is going to happen.  My preparation has led me up to here; will it be enough?  Is it okay if it’s not enough?  The best I can do is just go into the experience with an open mind; I have never done anything like this before, I can prepare and learn as much as I can, but nothing will compare to the learning experience that awaits me.  I am armed with background knowledge, but hearing these stories, seeing the impacts of genocide, how will that change the way I perceive the world?  Going into this experience, I have more questions than answers and I only expect to have more questions at the end of the trip.  I am nervous and apprehensive.  Am I going to say or do something wrong?

How can I provide good service-learning?  Having never done this before, I am not completely sure of the answer, if there even is an answer.  However, I can begin to contemplate some possible ways to contribute to a positive service-learning experience.  First, I want to be a good active listener.  I want to hear their stories, hear their experiences, hear their struggles.  I want to be the learner; to learn how I can be an active contributor in service-learning.  Second, I want to offer what I can, even if it’s just a listening ear.  Third, I want to go in with an open mind, letting life lessons walk into my life without any expectations.  By expecting certain things to happen, I might miss other things going on in my peripherals.  My only expectation is that I will gain a great deal from this experience; I want the people that I am meeting in Arizona to gain from me as well.  I want this to be a dual process, hopefully learning from each other.

As I reorganize my suitcase for the third time, double-checking the list, realizing that I somehow managed to over pack in a small suitcase, my stomach does flips from nerves.  I am all set physically, am I ready mentally?  I guess I won’t know until I step foot off the plane in Arizona, and ready or not, it’s going to happen.  The experience I am embarking on can never be taken back.  Together, with my classmates, we will hopefully figure out how to engage in good service-learning.

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