First letter home, February 15
I’m writing you from 30,000 feet in the air above San Francisco. Current speed: 533 miles per hour. I can’t sit still–thankfully I’m in an exit row, so I can kick my legs freely in anticipation and excitement. Time is moving so quickly this semester, and I can’t possibly tell you everything I’ve thought about and learned the past two weeks, but I’ll give it a shot.
The beginning, that’s always a good place to start. I first learned about IHP two years ago in the spring of 2014. I took a few side steps and deferred my abroad program by a year so that I could take time off. But now it’s February 15, 2016 (a day I will mostly skip over, as it will be the 16th when I land in Hanoi) and I’m here. The first two weeks have been a whirlwind. My mind has been buzzing since the minute I arrived in San Francisco, but I’m finally in an academic setting that aligns with the topics, ideas, and philosophies that I’m most passionate about. The environment, restorative justice, food sovereignty, corporate greed, the commons—not an hour goes by without mention of these. We spend some of our day in class, some day listening to guest lectures, and some days going on site visits to farms, solar plants, or community gardens. 31 students comprise this new learning community—we all come to the issue of climate change from different perspectives. Although IHP has arranged many formal elements of teaching, I’ve learned so much through conversations in the hostel kitchen or on walks to Trader Joe’s. Though we’ve only known each other a week, the group consensus is that we are ready to travel to the other side of the world to learn, think and play together. And good thing we are, because the seatbelt sign is on. There’s no turning back.
A bit about San Francisco: It’s a city plagued in contradiction. NorCal has a reputation for being socially progressive, crunchy, and liberal, but the number of homeless individuals is higher than any place I’ve visited in the U.S. In addition, surrounding towns such as Richmond and Oakland struggle with hardcore social and racial injustice. In our time here, we have discussed climate change as a racial issue. We visited Richmond, for example, home to a large Chevron facility. Low-income residents—mostly black and hispanic families—populate the neighborhoods adjacent to Chevron. The waste products from the facility are poorly managed, despite efforts of community activism to clean up the surrounding area. The children of Richmond suffer from asthma at disproportionately high rates compared to the national average. Chevron’s pollution does not stop with water, soil, and air; they heavily fund politicians who they know won’t disrupt their business flow. Though about 75% of the revenue generated in Richmond comes from Chevron, the plant employs hardly any of the residents in the town. Though many residents know they are being poisoned by the company’s activities, it is hard to argue against the industry that provides the economic backbone for the society. Twisted stuff. And that’s only scraping the surface.
In an attempt to untangle all of this and try to relax, I took a run down by the bay. I started out at our hostel in the financial district. I had a huge cramp from the Chipotle and chocolate brownie I’d eaten a few hours earlier, and so spent the first mile focused on moderating my breathing to reduce the knife-like sensation in my stomach. But as I got down to the interstate, my pain subsided and I started to look at what was going on around me. Men and women sitting outside of small shops on milk crates, cardboard boxes, asphalt—really dirty dogs—a lot of feces—broken bottles—street music—shopping carts filled with cans—men draped in cotton comforters decorated with cartoon characters which I imagined were items discarded from well-rested kids in another part of town who outgrew snuggling with Finding Nemo characters. This went on for blocks and blocks and my former cramps turned to a sharp pang of dis-ease. This isn’t my city. These aren’t my neighbors. Objectively speaking, the homelessness and poverty that plague San Fran are not my problem. But in many ways, they are.
Then, on the other side of the bridge, the pier. White, fit yuppies jogging in their Nikes. Me, jogging, with my iPhone strapped to my arm. Jazz music pouring from open doors. Outdoor seating at every one of the pier’s restaurants. Tubby professionals sipping from wine glasses as big as my head—they’d leave rings of Merlot and an 18% tip on the tablecloth. The sun setting, innocently, over the bridge. A mother walking with her young, identically dressed daughters. A barge bringing satin seat covers and plastic iPhone covers and other “thneeds” from China. A bunch of neon lights decked out on a modern art sculpture. There was no sign of struggle on the pier, save one or two people picking through bins for cans. I thought about the tents under the interstate. About Chevron. Fracking. Super Bowl 50. I broke into a full on sprint and just kept going. I ran back through the financial district. It was 6:00 and there were a lot of blazers. Blazers and cigarettes and hills. Dinner plans and taxis. Cans clinking with change. Drunk individuals in alleys and shadows—they’d been there all day and they’d stay there long into the night, hollering at their demons. I drowned it out—my demons, my guilt, my all—with hill sprints. I turned up the volume on my trashy running playlist and focused on the way my body was feeling. I left my heart and stomach out of the mix and instead focused on the pain in the ball of my foot, the tightness in my shins, the shortness of my breath.
San Francisco looks different than New Haven, looks different from New York. Hanoi will look different than San Fran, ditto to Rabat and Cochabamba. Our courses teach us to look for differences among these communities; how have issues of power, privilege, and capital growth affected nations and cities differently? How are communities around the world adapting to climate change (the root cause of which is expanding global power, privilege, and capital)? But we also look at the similarities—what can we learn from these communities that will be useful when trying to help solve problems at home.
I’ve spent the last few years addressing my own contributions to climate change. I’ve made a few “radical” changes to my consumption habits, but composting and shopping second-hand and drinking from a mason jar instead of a to-go cup isn’t going to save the planet. And on the other side, my meat eating and car driving isn’t the sole cause of environmental destruction. I’m learning to hold my contradictions—to be as conscious to “green living” as I can be, but also to recognize that my ability to make certain ecological choices comes from a place of privilege. Our global economy and political process needs a massive overhaul. We need revolutionary change. We need to go back to basics. But what does that change look like? How can it possibly be implemented when behemoths like Monsanto and Chevron and Halliburton have so much control? I don’t know, and I’m not sure I’ll have a better sense by the end of May. But what I am sure of is this; I am so, so fortunate to be surrounded by individuals who care about the future as much as I do. Who think about these issues day and night, and not just because they’re headlining the syllabus. We’re teaching and learning at every turn. San Francisco has brought up a lot of thoughts and feelings which has added a lot of weight to my carry-on bag, but luckily Eva Air did not notice. Vietnam, here we come.