We’re All Family

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The light bulb donning its conical hat illuminated the white wall to which it was attached and the pavement halfway across the alley, enough to illuminate my cousin’s moped. I felt intimidated by the idea of riding a motorbike, but it was all there was. The rest of the universe remained in darkness. Growing up in urban USA where the streets, sky, and mysteries are lit, and cars encase us in a bubble of protection, the unknown darkness of Saigon’s alley’s whilst my body, exposed, rode through made me nervous.

My cousin came out of the house wearing a crisp shirt as white as the wall with a warm, encouraging laugh, then stood tall next to the bike and waved me over with his dark caramel colored hands. He pointed out all the parts and invited me to sit down. I looked at him so my eyes could say everything, and he laughed again before asking me to get on the bike with him. He drove through the alley, let out little honks to neighbors he knew, and helped me shake off my jitters that finally fell away as we came to a stop. “Your turn! Then you’ll really be a Saigon girl.” Motorbike truly was the best way to get across the intricate metropolis along with the millions advancing by way of critical mass. I started the motorbike and proceeded into the darkness, never looking back… because turning one’s head throws off the balance and I was scared AF! I came back around the corner and stopped next to Tuan. He smiled and said, “Saigon girl!”

Tuan, my cousin, is the oldest of the cousins and I’m the youngest, by Vietnamese traditional measures (it’s not by age, it’s by our parents’ age/birth order). Between us is time, our 60+ other cousins, an ocean, and a vastly different set of life and cultural experiences. His mom, my aunt, died when he was young and he grew up during the violence and famine of war’s end. When he was sixteen, he was drafted to fight the Khmer Rouge, contributing to the end of Cambodia’s genocidal wave.

I’m one of the few cousins born in the US who’ve gone back to Vietnam, and Tuan is one of the few cousins in Vietnam who took time to show me around one-on-one. Thanks to him, I’ve ridden an elephant, fed alligators, and learned the critical skill of riding a motorbike, which served me well on my later journey throughout Southeast Asia. The last time I saw him, we ate in a large dinner hall with family based in Vietnam and the US. He got up on stage and sang, standing between white ionic columns and before red velvet curtains. I bought a red rose from a vendor walking amidst the dinner tables, and brought it up to Tuan. He gave me a smile like the one he did when I finished my motorbike circuit. Growing up worlds apart, we’re still family.

Today, Tuan is only able to take in 80% oxygen into his lungs–not enough to be cogent or functional. The Delta variant is winning. He was up to 95% a few days ago such that the hospital discussed returning him home and free up the much-needed bed, then his health regressed yesterday. We’re able to get news because a few of his friends work in the hospital he’s in (visitors, even close family, aren’t allowed). Though in different wards, one was able to send a photo to our family. Tuan, who I’ve known as a fit, strong, tall man has been reduced to a skeleton during the weeks he’s been hospitalized. He originally didn’t want to be admitted, even though he had the rare opportunity since he’s a veteran, because the common perception is that anyone who goes in doesn’t leave.

Vietnam was a stellar case of non-contagion, albeit under authoritarian mandates, until Delta came along. Delta developed people refusing to take COVID precautions–masking, distancing, quarantining. It was preventable. Now my cousin, along with so many in countries that can’t afford vaccines, oxygen tanks, and hospital infrastructure, are needlessly suffering. Tuan’s brother, Tuyen, told me that his neighbors on one side experienced 11 people in their family getting sick, four of them dying, and the neighbors on the other side suffered five deaths from Delta.

Even as people across the world, increasingly children, become infected by COVID and its variants, there are those who complain of the inconvenience of safety measures. Cases among children are dismissed because many recover, which overlooks the fact that the virus is learning about our last line of defense through our children’s (anti)bodies. Our society needs to look beyond ourselves and immediate families as to who we are protecting. We farmers who care for community and earth have made great sacrifices to our health on a daily basis by working in smoke, heat, and storm to feed society. Wearing a mask is hardly a sacrifice, and refusing to do so is a display of ingratitude for how we receive our basic sustenance, for our global family of human beings.

My uncle passed away a few weeks ago and three of my friends’ fathers passed away this month. I don’t want to lose another person.

I’m going to send financial support to my cousin’s daughter, his only child. If you’d like to contribute, please Venmo me @farmermai.

Uncertainty

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Seeing the distant thunder cloud caused my body to tense up. Muscles fusing like ice forming across a water’s surface. Rigid, tight, and terrified.

As I mentioned in my earlier post about the Megadrought, mainstream discussions of the drought doesn’t address that heat causes water to evaporate and stay in the air. Water has a higher heat capacity than air, so when it vaporizes the atmosphere can hold even more heat than if it were mostly air. This positive feedback of increasing heat capacity that correlates with increasing atmospheric moisture makes for humid days. And grain does not like humidity.

In late July of this year, I harvested 6,000 lbs of rye one day and woke up to rain clouds the next day that brought me scrambling to the field in order to tarp the combine holding that bounteous harvest. That batch was spared the drizzle, but I still had grain in the field. That meant I had to wait several days before I could harvest again, during which I had no control over whether the grain would absorb moisture and mildew. A few warm days passed such that I could harvest again, but I could tell the grain was more moist than usual.

A neighbor asked what the big deal was about a little drizzle. The maximum wheat moisture level for safe storage and clean milling is 13%, but 11% or less is preferable. One percent makes the difference between whether a farmer can sell their crop or not. I tested the Chiddam Blanc de Mars that was harvested after the drizzle, and it was at 21%! To bring the Chiddam to a salable moisture level, I needed to take it to a dryer, ironically, which was a 6 hr round-trip drive.

When last week rolled around, I had a few acres left to be harvested and about ten acres of wind rowed grain–a means of letting grain dry in the field. (Those ten acres yielded nearly 20,000 lbs of Wit Wolkoring, which is worth $65,000.) My colleagues in the raisin business laid their grapes on the ground to sun dry, just as they’ve done for decades, but this time rains splashed dirt into those shriveled nooks. There was no historical reason to be concerned about moisture. And that was the flaw in our reasoning.

Climate change brings what we thought was unlikely. It’s perpetual uncertainty that makes farming more than just risky. Risk is like a die toss with equal chances. But, climate change is more than risk because it holds unknown unknowns. Who would have imagined Sonoma having a rainstorm in early September? Not only rain, but thunder clouds. Thunder means lightning, and summer lightning now means wildfires. Seeing that thunder cloud brought up feelings from seven seasons of fire, from evacuating, from passing out due to smoke inhalation. Trauma and uncertainty is exhausting.

I’m a millennial, and we’ve grown up with uncertainty. We’re the generation that grew up under Boomer banners welcoming multiculturalism and watched Rodney King brutalized by a police mob. Crippling violence can befall you anytime and the police and a watching world will not bring justice. TVs were rolled into our classrooms to see the OJ Simpson trial verdict and how being a celebrity who appeals to ‘race blind’ white supremacy may give you a pass. We started high school when Columbine became the first mass school shooting, so any of us who displayed difference as we came of age were scrutinized by peers and principals. Our Junior year was when the California curriculum impressed US history and government upon us, highlighting our civic duty to vote. That’s when we saw a candidate win the presidency and not become president. In our Senior year, as we began applying for colleges, the World Trade Centers and Pentagon were attacked and shook the security of mainland USA. We saw the President who wasn’t really elected kick off what would become decades of war based on lies, and witnessed our Muslim and South Asian fellow citizens become demonized and subject to deportation.

Some of us still went to college and were still told that if we worked hard enough we could be whoever we wanted. The lie was exposed when we graduated into the greatest global recession in history and saw that safety nets only existed for the wealthy. For those who decided to have kids, it was around the time a global pandemic set in and epic wildfires raged across the world.

We’ve known uncertainty.

So, I laughed when I heard NPR Marketplace’s show today called “Uncertainty is the Economic Legacy of 9/11.” Part of the program discusses the mental-emotional toll of 9/11 that is hard to trace but is definitely present in the economy, and has been lasting. “The not-knowing for businesses and governments and us. And 20 years of that, and who knows how many more years, just takes a toll.” It started before 9/11, so the toll is more than they think.

More than Survive

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I recently caught up with an old acquaintance who lives in Trinity County where he’s currently immersed in wildfire smoke. We lamented that our children will not enjoy late summer swims in rivers, playing outside for half the year, or know predictable weather. My friend shared that his son said, “The problem is people. People made this problem,” and my friend replied that he hopes their generation will come up with needed technological solutions to climate change.

Yes, some people made this problem. And many people have fought for a different world. And the tools we make are only so useful as who owns them and how we use them.

During these days of apocalyptic despair, I think of how our world was already destroyed. For my family, the water was poisoned, air made toxic, and nowhere was safe. Millions died and millions more suffered. Their world was destroyed, yet they are here and held onto enough hope to make me. We are making a home on land stolen from people whose worlds, ways of being, and relatives were actively sought out for destruction. They are still here with their songs, wisdom, and traditions. And as we watch Kabul crumble into bloody factions, some people are getting out, and some will stay and survive.

Watching scenes from Kabul’s airport reminds me of footage from the Fall of Saigon. Families desperate to leave. They couldn’t imagine what would happen next. My mom knows. She knows about the starvation, destitution, suicides, prison camps. War is often measured by number of deaths, but not the suffering. The suffering that spans generations. The boys sent off by their families to establish a better life, mere teenagers who may manage to survive. Some of my cousins didn’t. Their remains in the mighty Pacific. Some made it here, but fell to vices that were more comforting than the US public school system.

Some must wait. My friend’s brother-in-law tried to get out at the Kabul airport, but a suicide bomber attacked the facility. “There’s no systematic way of getting out. It’s just individual Marines who’ve decided to help people or not,” my friend relayed from his family.

We can survive so much, and it’s our duty as fellow human beings to do more than keep each other alive. It requires equity, humility, and collaborative action. No one and no energy-intensive technologies will save us. We must save ourselves by saving each other.

By the way, I’m moving these blog posts from weekly to every other week cuz ATL.

“The megadrought is just one factor driving up the price of your bread”

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I was interviewed for the article “The Megadrought is Just One Factor Driving Up the Price of Your Bread” in The Counter that will give you a sense of what wheat growers and users in the US are dealing with, in addition to what I wrote in my post ‘2021 Harvest Outlook.’

What is missing from the dominant narrative about the drought in relation to climate change is what might happen next, and that change can happen soon–sooner than we think, which is the story of climate denial and inaction. There’s coverage of the aridity of the megadrought and how it lends to fires. The lightning storm and humid elements are left out, which point to a more complicated environment ahead. I brought up some of this in my response to the journalist’s follow-up question to my interview:

Journalist: If the megadrought (drought conditions+extreme heat from climate change) continues year after year, is it accurate to say that even the drought-resistant strains you’ve bred wouldn’t be able to survive without intervention in the form of irrigation?

When we arrive at a Mad Max scenario, yes, irrigation will likely be needed.
What we’ve seen so far and is projected to continue for in my region are intense winter storms (short periods of heavy rain) followed by warm, dry periods, and then little spring rain. We need to capture whatever water we get, and that can be achieved in the field by increasing soil organic matter. To do so, we need: policies that promote on-farm composting, municipal and industrial infrastructure to turn green waste into quality compost and distributed equitably to farmers, subsidies for diversified production systems from farm to table, programs that connect shepherds with farmers (and wildlands) to rotate animals for reducing fuel loads and turning them into nutrients, tools that reduce tillage, and compensating Indigenous land stewards and BIPOC agroecological practitioners in sharing their methods. In the bigger picture, we need to densify where people already live and stop developing on farm and wild lands that provide critical surface area for storing water and, of course, stopping climate change.
Building soil organic matter both increases our water storage capacity and plant-available nutrients, the latter of which is often left out of the drought and climate change conversations. Studies have shown that grains lose nutrients in high atmospheric carbon conditions (i.e. climate change), and our current global trajectory is increasing atmospheric carbon. Another reason why plants are likely to lose nutrients is that our skies are increasingly grey with cloud cover because heat volatilizes water, suspending it in the air, and increased wildfires send up more cloud condensation nuclei that seeds thicker, sunlight-blocking atmospheric moisture. Without full-spectrum light plants will have insufficient energy to photosynthesize, meaning they won’t produce building sugars (building blocks for the plants) or oxygen for us aerobic animals. They’ll need whatever nutrients they can get from the soil. From a human standpoint, this will make whole grains even more important–we won’t want to let go of any nutrients.
Under the projected scenarios of post-extreme heat that we’ll live in a dark, moist, warm world, the prolonged atmospheric moisture will breed disease, mold, and rot that threatens wheat. We may need to increase hulled varieties, which means we need better dehulling equipment because currently the standard return rate is about 15%–put in 100 lbs, get 15 lbs back.
Going back to irrigation, though, salient issues are 1) Northern California’s water is toxic because of the wildfires that burned synthetics and human-made products that leached into the water, so more wildfires mean likely more toxic water and 2) extreme heat has caused power outages, which turns off water pumps. Thus, water from pipes and pumping pose their own issues, and points to why soil organic matter is key to retaining water in the field.

Coming to our senses

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In the 2013 Slate article Going Against the Grain about whether small-scale regional grain growers can be profitable, they concluded that flavor difference in local wheat from industrial wheat wasn’t strong enough to convince the masses. “While those of us willing to shell out $10 for a bag of flour or $5 for a loaf of bread may understand intellectually the virtues of buying locally grown, small-farm grain products—our taste buds can’t deny the obvious: Bread made from local grains will never taste as revelatory as a garden-grown strawberry, a tree-ripe organic peach, or a freshly picked heirloom tomato.”

This assertion is the opposite of my love story. I was totally won over by whole wheat when I first tried fresh red fife flour. It was clearly different than anything I’ve had before! And while running the California Grain Campaign for four years and nearly a hundred events, I’ve witnessed thousands of people sample side-by-side comparisons and instantly tell the difference between industrial all-purpose flour and single-origin, identity-preserved truly whole wheat (aka natural wheat). People who consider themselves un-discerning immediately remark on the flavor, the surprise, the delight in whole wheat.

Also counter to the 2013 article, this week’s Slate article The Pandemic Brought More Flavorful Flours into America’s Kitchens was all about giving readers an idea of what wheat can offer. Quoting Cecilia Gunther on Janie’s Red Fife wheat: “The scent of this flour will transport you to a still, deep, and loamy forest in the early autumn as the leaves begin to fall,“ and Olivia Watson, chef, consultant, and organizer of Bakers Against Racism in Richmond, Virginia, “I can smell the difference. … Sometimes I’ll pick up floral or herbal notes, or nutty earthy vibes, and then I can build flavors around them.” About a month earlier Epicurious also published The Power of Fresh Flour extols the many benefits of regionally produced grain, principally among them the noticeable difference in taste between wheat varieties.

Are we finally coming to our senses?

Modern food marketing pushes us to rely on images, keywords, trends, and fear to determine what to eat. Algorithms to align market interests with recent emails, color filters to draw in the eye, catchphrases that signal you’re in our you’re out. This removes our personal agency to determine what we want based on our sense of self.

When I take my mom to a new, hip restaurant, she quickly discerns whether the establishment uses quality ingredients. However long the line, shiny the vintage relief ceiling, ornate the cocktails, my mom knows if it’s just a show. She taught me to assess quality by color, texture, smell, and taste and ignore whatever you’re hearing.

Checking in with our senses and bodies isn’t part of food marketing, otherwise we’d reject all these packaged permutations of gluten, salt, fat, and sugar. The climate controlled nuclear family home with climate controlled personal car to get to a grocery store with the world’s goods readily available after centuries of colonialism and genocide to ensure all things go to us ensures that we do not need to rely on our senses and are desensitized to the world’s ailments for our benefit.

But if we are coming to our senses, let’s use them to discern not only what to eat but also what world we want to live in.

Do you remember last year when everyone was forced to stay home, so few cars spewed their exhaust? Do you remember how clear and beautiful the skies were, how clearly you could see your surroundings? Do you remember hearing bird songs and leaves rustling?

Do you remember what the world smelled like when you took off your mask? Remember the intoxicating flowers and sunshine-scented fabrics?

I want to live in a sensible world.

 

Resist Drought with Biodiversity

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As I mentioned in the post “2021 Outlook,” this year’s drought has dramatically reduced California’s wheat production, and that I’m one of very few farmers with a crop this year. I’ve been asked how that’s the case.

First the seed.
I started farming with climate change in mind, which, for California, means projections of less rain and more humidity and cloud cover. I sought out old plant varieties that have lived through hundreds to thousands of years, through many geographic and climatic changes. Ones that can be saved, regrown, and shared without penalties from chemical corporations, thus giving them the chance to adapt to a region. Ones that can thrive without irrigation or synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer. It takes a seed 20 generations to adapt to a place, which is 20 years in wheat time. So, when I began farming I saw myself in a lineage of seed savers to help prepare for the distant future of climate disaster. Turns out the future is now.
A seed’s adaptability still needs help from its environment–nature needs nurture. A diverse ecosystem that balances animals, fungi, plants, and natural elements is ideal, but much is out of my control. I intercrop an understory of clover and chamomile to provide nitrogen and to outcompete noxious weeds, rotate animals for weed control, fertilizer, and pest management, and incorporate long stalks of heirloom wheat into the soil to increase its water retention capacity. So, even if we only get 12″ of rain when we’d usually get 80″, the seeds are supported by its environment to have enough water and nutrients for a consistent crop.
The rest of the wheat growing world is very different. What dominates the wheat seed market are proprietary ones bred to be short, thirsty, fast-growing, pesticide and herbicide reliant, synthetic fertilizer-dependent, and millable into a sifted, refined flour. They’re expected to grow under the same conditions again and again, which is unrealistic geographically or in our climate change conditions.
We’re seeing clearly the benefits of planning for drought and for regional food sovereignty (i.e. I have a crop!), but it has gone against conventional business values. Chiddam, Wit, and many heirloom varieties are low-yielding compared to modern wheat (1 ton for me compared to 3 tons to the acre for modern wheat in irrigated, chemical conditions), I pay for intercropping seeds that don’t yield marketable products, and I have to invest in totally new equipment and infrastructure for this operation. I’m paying rent to trial seeds that no one will eat for maybe another ten years (because I’m starting with a tablespoon of seed!). I’ve invested in on-farm biodiversity because it creates an ecosystem that can mitigate and be resilient in the face of climate change–something scientists are only now coming around to recognize.
This is a time in our global society to reevaluate business as usual, and to build on and create businesses that integrate environmental stewardship, climate resilience, social equity and healing. This Flour Share has received attention as a model of a better business, a better grain economy, and it’s been made possible by the people who became members. It’s collective action that manifests meaningful change, so let’s get our institutions and policies to change and make health our usual business.

Event: Culinasia

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Join me on Wednesday, June 23rd 3:30 PM Pacific while I’m in conversation with fellow farmers on the Smithsonian panel event Asian American Farmers Look Back to Go Forward. The event is free, but you’ll need to register in advance.

Event Description
In film and popular media as well as farming and land ownership, Asian Americans have been historically underrepresented and repeatedly denied opportunities for advancement. The Oscar-nominated film Minari offers a unique opportunity to explore how being Asian in America is further complicated by the model minority myth and the “perpetual foreigner” burden carried by diverse communities. Asian American farmers and vintners come together for a discussion inspired by the semi-autobiographical story of a Korean American family that embarks on a new kind of American dream, traveling from their California home to a rural Arkansas farm where they nurture the father’s hopes of growing Korean produce to sell to vendors in Dallas. Presenters include Mai Nguyen, owner of Farmer Mai and founder of the Asian American Farmers Alliance; Kamayan Farm founder Ariana de Leña; and Thai American winemaker Kenny Likitprakong of the family-owned, California-based Hobo Wine Co. Participants can view Minari in advance of the program, Friday, June 18, at 7 p.m. as part of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s film program.

Culinasia: The Future of Asian Food in America. Free!

Reflecting while Reopening

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I wrote this at this time last year, but didn’t wrap up with the last line until now. I suppose its time to release it as Californians are eager for our state to “reopen” on June 15. As much as I want to see people, to linger in a cafe and share smiles, I think there’s a great deal of reflection that we still need to do in order to recover from over a year of heightened grief, anxiety, violence, and tension. Reflecting on the past century as well as our recent past might help us understand what approach we might take to healing our social divides and what’s at stake if we don’t.


Without commutes, coworkers, parties, and travel, we were left with our own thoughts, habits, and history. We turned to ourselves to ask, “Am I ill? Do I need to quarantine?” To our families: “Is my child sick? My partner, siblings, parents, grandparents?” To our friends and neighbors: “Who is at greater risk than others? Do they need anything?” Beyond a certain point, others’ well-being was unknown and out of our individual control, and any concern was exercised by wearing a mask and physically distancing from anyone outside one’s household.

With less external activity, this has been a time to turn inward. I’ve been thinking on the phrase “turning inward.” What might we notice? What might we learn? What are old lessons to find such that when we turn outward, again, will we have changed for the better? As I looked inward in search of tools I already have to get through this time, what I’ve learned from elders and ancestors, I arrived at the past pandemic. During college I learned about the period of turning inward following World War I wherein the horror of modern warfare and, in the case of Germans, shame of defeat catalyzed a period of turning inward. Reflection. What have we done? Was all the death worth it? In the US, this gave rise to the Lost Generation and the Harlem Renaissance–movements exploring the deep interior, with revolutionary implications in the case of the latter.

Last year I became interested in the parallels with World War I-era social conflicts with that of today. We know Gravilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, assassinated Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife. Ethnic groups such as Serbians wanted to have national sovereignty and break from the Empire. The desire to have one’s ethnicity respected and to have self-determination resonates in today’s continuing efforts for racial equity.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire and its ally the German Empire (known together as the Central Powers) were united for many reasons, among them fighting separatist nationalist movements to preserve their empires’ monoculture. When the US and Allied Forces fought against the Central Powers in WWI, they weren’t doing so for the advancement of ethnic nationalism and diversity per se, but looking back those issues were worth examining because they became core issues in the next world war. For after the period of turning inwards, when they turned outward they saw a renewed fight for monoculture, specifically white, Christian, heternormative supremacy, led by Hitler and the Third Reich. So, it’s important to consider why white supremacy wasn’t defeated.

What I learned in college was that German’s feeling of humiliation and shame was deepened by how they felt the Allied Forces over punished them for the war. While Woodrow Wilson wanted to create a multinational body to facilitate peace-keeping, France wanted Germany to accept the blame and to atone. It’s argued that because Wilson caught the Spanish Influenza, which caused cognitive impairments, that he acquiesced to France’s stance. This relatively more harsh approach lent to greater feeling of shame. That feeling of shame was ripe for a group to come along and boost German pride by insisting that not only were they blameless but rather correct and superior–an Aryan race meant to inherit the earth. Thus, the rise of the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler.

What do we learn from this? If we want peace, we need to find ways to hold people accountable for their unjust acts and also to forgive them. Isolating and shaming them breeds discontent and self-righteous violence. (Another lesson is that Trump could get COVID and have cognitive impairments that disable him from making (less) sound decisions?)

What else can we learn from that time? I think it’s worth highlighting the aforementioned artistic movements: a Lost Generation of white men and the fleshing out of Black people in the Harlem Renaissance. One of the Renaissance’s notable characteristics was expression of full Black personhood–dynamic, nuanced, and distinct from the old ways of portraying African Americans through a white lens. Black soldiers returning from WWI contributed to this ethos and movement through conveying their experiences of a less segregated Europe. But, the relief from oppression put them at risk during war. Today, we’re seeing deservedly increased attention to Black artists and -owned businesses. It came at the cost of black lives.

The Red Summer of 1919 when riots against police murder of unarmed Black people also inspired artists of the Renaissance. Have we learned from those artists? Have we built on the work of the anti-police activists and prison abolitionists? How was our Summer of 2016, or Spring of 2020 much different from the Red Summer of 1919 nearly a century ago?

Examining these long-standing ethnic and racial tensions connect to helping us understand the systems that failed all of us in ensuring our health and safety in the past year. Racialized and gendered agricultural and care-related labor are parts of why our society has neglected those critical sectors. Our society’s bigotry and sexism harmed all of us, and let’s not turn away from that.

What reflections and processes will help us reengage without reopening old wounds, without creating another world war?

Hiatus

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Hello from Jello Town, also known as the hospital. I’ve been unwell for a week and am not sure when I’ll be in the clear. No diagnosis yet, just a prescription for a clear liquid diet for the foreseeable future. Send any good recipes my way!

Also, guess who is on ABC Good Morning America’s Inspiring Asian American Pacific Islanders list? 😀