Viranga Perera

Ph.D Candidate at Arizona State University

On the Issue of Jerks

Over the years, I have slowly developed the art of letting go of my frustration when someone irks me. It is a good ability to have but I am not even close to mastering it since I still get upset when people behave in annoying ways. Humans are weird sometimes and probably unexplainable most of the time. Often I think it is best to talk it out with family or friends, go for a run, and let it go. 

Occasionally, I find it useful to tell certain stories on the web for others to hear. If we are going to build a better world then we need to talk to each other about what works and what doesn’t. I think this is one of those times. Today, I was talking to someone who burst into laughter in a belittling manner once I asked the definition of a word he used. I wondered why…

There are two points I like to make about what happened. First, this occurred in an academic setting which makes this action egregious. The environment of a school, college, or university should be structured so that every person within the institution can feel welcome and comfortable to learn. That is the whole point isn’t it? Laughing at, making fun of, and/or belittling someone’s lack of knowledge on a particular matter should not be acceptable. Although the vast majority of the people I have interacted with in all of my schooling have been those with a welcoming focus towards learning, there are some who I have come across whose personal insecurities or whose overall bad manner makes them come across as arrogant. It seems like the primary intention of those few is to proclaim their greatness.

My second point is on the definition of words we use in day to day life. The words we use and the references that we make are specific to certain cultures. That point might seem obvious but without thinking too many people overlook this point. ‘American’ culture includes, for instance, heavy uses of baseball terminology. “It’s a new ballgame,” “cover your bases,” “it was a curve ball,” “you hit it out of the park,” “that came out of left field,” “play ball,” “rain-check,” and “right off the bat” are terms used frequently in ‘American’ culture. Or so they say. I use quotation marks when writing ‘American’ culture because it is something that is not well-defined. America includes a range of people who have been here for a few seconds because their airplane just landed to those whose families have been here for generations. It is probably the most diverse place on Earth and that is a wonderful thing. But what isn’t so wonderful is the need to pass on a or the ‘American’ culture. Isn’t it a form of discrimination when one calls someone “uncultured” as a way to demean them? Who’s culture are they referring to? Which stories should one have read to be an “insider?” Which pop culture references must one know? Who decided or decides these?

You don’t know what ____ means? Hahaha! Huh?!

I am a weird hybrid of an American insider/outsider. I was born and lived in Sri Lanka for the first 13 years of my life and then immigrated to America. Now I have lived more than half my life in the United States. This strange condition of being an immigrant gives me opportunities to both know and to not know the meanings of certain words and phrases. While many words and phrases I have learned were by listening to and imitating some people, some words I learned due to awkward laughs from others. Today, I try to use my perspective to kindly help newcomers to America who might ask for a napkin as “could I please have a tissue?” and who might refer to a cookie as a “biscuit.” Making fun of them might make some people feel a sense of superiority but I know that is not the case with a majority of Americans who are welcoming to those tempest-tossed.

Don't be a jerk!

Judging

Do you think that you should not judge other people? Go ahead and take a moment to think about it.

Now, are you on Tinder? 

It’s ok. 91% of people judge other people. The only ones who don’t are enlightened individuals called toddlers. 

We accept judging. We might even say that it’s necessary for our well-being. Heck, judging people might help us find our soulmate. That’s big! 

When it comes to judging there are several types. An example is one that saves your best friend from having to give you the It-Wasn’t-A-Good-Fit-For-You speech for the 25th time. However, I’d like to discuss a type of judging that is more automatic and is more alarming. Let me give you a few examples to illustrate.

Last week I went to the Coffee and Conversation Hour here at Arizona State University. I had received emails stating that this was where “domestic and international students gather to chat and build cross-cultural connections over a cup of coffee.” Sounded nice, so I went. I spotted the coffee and I walked straight towards it since as a grad student coffee is an essential part of my sustenance. A lady, who I suppose works for the International Student Center, was setting up the coffee. I said hello and she said hello but she gave me a confused look. I didn’t think much of it as I poured myself some coffee and looked for the creamer. At that point someone else had approached the table from behind me and the lady directed her attention to that person. From the way she was speaking, I thought she was talking to a child and I wondered what a kid was doing in line for coffee. As I turned around, I was surprised to find an undergrad. The lady pointed at some cups and told him that “those are ex-tra.” It was the way she said “ex-tra” that caught my annoyance. She made sure to pronounce each syllable very carefully with an awkward pause in the middle. I really hoped that she knew he was just an international student, not five.

The pronunciation of “extra” might not seem like a big deal but it is a subtle indication of you are different from me. “Ex-tra” says that because we are different, I will alter my speech for your benefit. This is an example of our automatic judgments getting the best of us. However, it doesn’t just apply to the way that people speak but also to the way that people look.

A few months ago, my sister was at a store looking for a dress to wear to one of her friend’s weddings. She had picked a dress that she liked but wasn’t quite sure if it was good, so she went to the checkout counter to ask. “Do you think this dress would work for a wedding?” my sister asked. The lady at the counter responded, “Well, it’s ok for an American wedding but I’m not sure about an Indian one.” Overhearing this a few yards away, I was pissed. So, I tweeted about it. What made that lady say that? My sister isn’t Indian so why assume that she was based solely on how she looked? Why assume that a dress that is appropriate for an “American” wedding would not work for an Indian one? Out of curiosity, what would that lady define to be an “American” wedding? Would Darius Rucker and Beth Leonard be invited? How about Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka?

It is not only your accent that generates special treatment but also the way that you look. You can sound like a foreigner, which makes it proper to talk to you like you were a child. You can look Indian, which makes it acceptable to assume that you should dress differently. This automatic judging behavior is by no means unique to a certain group of people doing it to another group. This form of judging is rampant.

For example, in high school I volunteered for the Rose Parade in Pasadena. After one of the events I was waiting for my ride home. As I waited, a lady approached me and asked me a question in Spanish. I wasn’t quite sure what she said so I responded as best as I could with “No hablo español.” She repeated it back to me with what I could only describe as revulsion and disappointment on her face. I got the feeling that she could not believe that someone who looked like me didn’t speak Spanish. I wonder if it would have helped if I could have told her that I was born on the opposite side of the planet.

It would be all too easy for me to write a blog post and say that we should stop doing this type of judging. It isn’t that easy to do. Instead, I think we can try to be more aware of it. Hopefully, over time we can keep it in check. For now, go out and say hello when you meet someone. Ask them “How are you?” or “Kohomadha?” or “¿Cómo estás?” If you don’t know what to say, just smile, because that, says it all.

Postmodernism

I am neither a historian nor a philosopher but I find both subjects quite interesting. History is fascinating due to the human stories of the past that led to our society. Philosophy is intellectually stimulating since many questions that began in philosophy, such as Earth’s origin, have now been answered by physics, astronomy, and geology. Being curious about these subjects, postmodernism peaked my interest since it is a fundamental concept in the humanities. To learn more about it, I read Postmodernism for Historians by Callum G. Brown. I strongly object to certain parts of the book, such as his listing of metanarratives (“the metanarratives of ‘the power of reason,’ ‘scientific method,’ ‘white racial superiority,’ and the 'virtue of rational religion.’”). That listing makes the scientific method (and in turn science) seem sinister. Overall, however, I think the author presents postmodernism in a way that is understandable to a layperson.

Postmodernism can be quite involved; however, one of the basic tenets is that there is no objective reality. Postmodernists claim that “truth” is a human construct that is dependent on culture and that it is not fundamental. In history, for example, that there is no objective reality makes sense to a certain degree. Was it the right decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II? We can talk about the facts. We can debate the decision. However, we should admit that event in human history will continue to be plagued with sadness, regret, and confusion. Could George Washington have been King of the United States had certain events transpired a little differently in the late 1700s? This is the type of claim that fits well into the postmodernist idea that there cannot be a “truth.” To know the “truth” in this case would mean we have the capability of reading George Washington’s mind and being able to fully characterize the minds of early American citizens. We can read what George Washington wrote. We can read what those close to him have written about him. However, none of those would truly represent a complex historical character let alone any ordinary human being.

I take no issue with postmodernism being applied to history or other related fields of knowledge. However, I do take issue when it is inappropriately applied to the physical sciences where objective reality is not only axiomatic but can be inferred through empirical evidence. The observable universe, which includes everything in our society, is solely a combination of mass and energy. Even complex beings like humans are governed by merely the laws of physics. So far physics has given us the equations that completely describe all electromagnetic phenomena (Maxwell’s Equations), that describe atomic phenomena (Standard Model), and that describes gravity at large scales (General Relativity). It is amazing not only for the fact that we humans have discovered these equations but also for the fact that they apply everywhere and through all of time in the universe. This notion, that the laws of physics apply to the whole universe, is suggestive of there being an objective reality sans Homo sapiens sapiens. The universe is after all about 13,700,000,000 years old, while the human species is about 2,500,000 years old. We know that the laws of physics are the same because we see evidence that light, for instance, behaves the same way on Earth as it does in the Andromeda galaxy even though that galaxy is 2.5 million light-years or 14,700,000,000,000,000,000 miles away from us.

I was prompted to write this blog post after seeing the news about the paper titled, “Evidence for a Distant Giant Planet in the Solar System” by Konstantin Batygin and Michael Brown in the Astronomical Journal. I could figuratively hear some people saying, “See, science cannot say anything definitely! First, there were nine planets, then eight, and now nine again.” Actually, the word “planet” has an interesting history, which includes the fact that the Earth was not initially considered a planet. Initially there were seven planets (the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn). It was believed that these planets orbited the Earth (Uranus and Neptune were too faint at the time to be seen without a telescope). There are a few things to take note. First, science as we know it today did not arrive until Galileo Galilei. The idea that the Earth was at the center with seven planets orbiting it was emplaced mostly due to cultural notions (e.g. the circle being the “perfect” shape) and due to the lack of interest in detailed observations of natural phenomenon (e.g. Aristotle did not bother to conduct a single experiment). Second, Batygin and Brown, in their paper, did not claim that the Earth is orbiting a golden elephant that is holding up a pot of gold coins nor did they claim that from now on when you drop a football it will travel in a skyward direction. The scientific process has led to certain truths about how the universe works and we are in the process of learning more. The Solar System is a very, very big place. Light, traveling at a constant 670,600,000 miles per hour, takes a little over 8 minutes to travel from the Sun to the Earth and would take about 1 year for light to travel from the Sun to the edge of our Solar System. Due to the size of the solar system, it is reasonable that there might be other planets far off in the distance. If there are 9, 8, 7, 27, or 981 planets, “science” is not being ineffective and wavery. This brings me to my last point. Science is a process. A process that is iterative but nevertheless grounded in reason and empirical evidence. The scientific process moves our knowledge about the universe in a certain direction that can seem turbulent at times but is actually converging onto a truth when science as a whole is considered since the time of Galileo. Do we have the complete truth? No, but we are working on it!

What I have written is my opinion. However, if you are going to claim that there are no objective truths and are going to apply postmodernist ideas to the physical sciences I do have a few thoughts for you. Next time your WiFi at home drops out, feel free to claim that the radio signal dropped out due to the lack of understanding by “science.” On the other hand, if your WiFi signal seems to drop out every time you use your microwave, you could just move your router to some place away from your microwave since they use similar radio frequencies but for different purposes. While you are at it, you might want to also turn off the electronic device that you are reading this on. Without a thorough understanding of quantum mechanics, that device could not work and would not exist. Please avoid using your car since setting gasoline on fire can have unforeseeable results. Make sure not to fly on airplanes since, really, who actually understands why measly air can hold up 100,000 pounds of metal and toiletries. Since now you are probably bored out of your mind, please turn off the lights and try to think about all the experiences that were brought to you by knowing, objectively, reality.

Winning

A pistol goes off and several people, who were waiting in anticipation, take off running with the single goal of being the first. This means that while running nothing else matters but crossing the finish line before anyone else does. There is a particular race that my mom has told me about many times over the years. It took place several decades ago during a school sports meet at St. Joseph’s College. Though called a college, it was an all-boys Catholic school that taught kindergarten through high school in Sri Lanka. Located in the commercial capital of Colombo, it was a large school with a cricket field near the entrance and a church just behind the field. 

On that particular day, my mom was sitting in the stands by the cricket field. A small crowd had gathered for the school sports meet where students from various grades would compete against their classmates in an amateur version of the Olympic games. As she tells the story, one of the races was about to start. The race began and she watched as a boy took off quickly. The crowd cheered as it was clear that this boy was going to win the race handily. However, a few yards away from the finish line the boy stopped. The crowd was confused and in their confusion they started to yell at the boy to keep going. That way! They pointed and shouted. Finish the race! The boy perhaps did not hear or did not care. After having stopped running, he turned around as if he was looking for something he had lost. After a few moments, the boy turned back around and finished the race. However, by that time two of his classmates had overtaken him; therefore, he came in third.

Ever since hearing this story for the first time, I asked my mom why that boy stopped before finishing the race. She believes that the boy was looking for his friend. He had noticed that he had dashed off and his friend who was there at the start of the race was no longer with him.

I know what that feels like. Around my junior year of high school, I started to focus and be driven to excel in my academics. This led me to completing two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree, and being half-way through my Ph.D program all by the age of 28. Someone fired a pistol and I, like that boy, took off running. I had to get to that finish line. Was it my idea? Was it that boy’s idea? Perhaps. Maybe, on the other hand, we both started running because that’s what we thought we had to do.

My mom had the podium picture of the top three finishers of that race. It was just another picture until I slowly started to realize how important that boy’s actions were. Therefore, I asked my mom for a copy of that picture and now I have it as a reminder to try to be as altruistic as that boy was running that race. I admire that boy. He had it right. He could have easily won that race but he thought about something more important. He thought about his friend. Where is my friend? I could imagine him wondering as he hit the brakes and turned around. 

That picture and the story that goes with it has helped me reformulate my plans for the future. When people ask me what I want to do when I graduate and who I want to be, as much as careers and jobs are important, I hope not to lose sight of what is vital. Therefore, when I grow up, I would like to be as good as I once was when, those decades ago, I turned around looking for my friend.

Waiting

Fifteen years ago today my family and I moved to the United States. I moved because I wanted out of a country at war and towards a place I felt like I belonged. It has been an amazing journey filled with laughs and smiles, tears and fears, hopes and dreams, alternate roads and unexpected triumphs. There is so much to be said about what happened over the last fifteen years. In time, I will try to explain. For now, I would like to mark this anniversary with a poem I wrote called Waiting…

They say to ruin this country is my goal
Hear people screaming that I should go home
Brown skin means get eyed by Border Patrol
In these United States I want to roam

Immigrants were those on the Mayflower
Lamp blown out and the Golden Door closed
Fence and shoot the tired from a tower
Thankful that I am not getting hosed

How the rhetoric has got me stressed
Though will be doing my best till I am rusty
This is where I want to be put to rest
Question all but my love for this country

At a T-junction why only left or right?
Want neither just trying to go straight on through
To get to that Dream without a green light
Only colors that count are red, white, and blue

At a pomp singing the Star-Spangled Banner
Waiting till I put that in my planner

Introduction

Thanks for visiting! I started this blog to express myself and in the hope that some of my perspectives and stories will be useful to others. What I write here are my own opinions. I am just another one of the numerous Homo sapiens sapiens and I do not claim to have any special understanding of almost anything. I will write my thoughts and views based on my own experiences. Even though I am fairly young, I have had a variety of life experiences that have shaped me to be the person I am today. Due to these experiences, I am able to vocalize several sentiments. My past, present, and future will drive my writing and I hope that you find some of my words to be useful to you.