Monday, December 11, 2017

The Sum of My Attempts Thus Far to Visit the World's Largest Starbucks

So the world's largest Starbucks just opened in Shanghai last week. As it happens, I live in Shanghai, so I decided to go and see it and bring back pictures for you all. It's at exit 3 of the West Nanjing Road subway station.

However, when I went there, there was a huge line of people waiting outside, and Starbucks was only letting in a limited number of people at a time, so I decided not to actually try to go in, this time around. I'll go back in maybe a month or two when the crowds are smaller.

Anyway, here are the photos I took of the outside of the building:

Here's the same picture but zoomed in.

Here's the entrance. Apparently the Starbucks mermaid has 2 tails? What?

It's called "Starbucks Reserve Roastery."

People waiting in line to go in.

Apparently it has a bakery.

Here's another shot of the bakery.

Lots of people taking pictures on the street.

This guy brought a whole camera with a tripod.


If you want to see more posts like this, consider supporting me on patreon~ When I reach my goal of $20/month, I'll do a series of blog posts about various aspects of life in Shanghai. With lots of photos. ^_^

Thursday, December 7, 2017


An image of a heart with the text "I didn't actually know what love was till I left Christianity." Image source.
1. Actually, Creationists Do Believe in Evolution (posted November 29) "Yes, really. Let’s think about the timeline here. According to Answers in Genesis, Noah’s flood occurred in 2348 BC. The Tower of Babel occurred in 2242 BC."

2. The Love/Life Principles Seminar: (Not) Making Friends and Influencing People. (posted November 30) "We never learned what acceptance really was, nor that it’s quite rude and controlling to treat others like DIY fix-it projects."

3. ‘All right, then …’ (posted November 29) "Tear up the letter. Turn the raft around. And if you can think up anything worse, do that too."

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

That Time Jesus Got Hangry

A breba fig. It's the first crop of the year for a fig tree and is usually inedible. In the photo, it is green like the leaves. Image source.
Today let's read Matthew 21:18-22. It's short, so I'll just copy-paste the whole thing here:
Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.

When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.

Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
So, wtf is going on here?! Why does Jesus curse the fig tree? Was it because he was hangry and had an irrational emotional outburst?

Okay, I did some reading, most of which took me to websites of the "bible is inerrant" bent (which means they could be biased toward forcing the bible to make sense when it actually doesn't), but I found what they said was backed up by this non-religious webpage about fig trees:
Fig trees produce two crops every year, but only one of them may be edible. The first crop, called the breba crop, occurs relatively early in the year on the previous year's growth. These fruits are frequently small, acidic and inferior in texture, but may be useful for preservation. The second crop occurs later in the year on the current year's growth and these figs should be edible.
So, even though it wasn't the season for figs (as Mark's account tells us), the fig tree should have still had breba figs. But Jesus found only leaves, which means it wasn't a healthy tree that was going to produce figs in fig season either.

The idea is, even though the tree appeared good, it really wasn't, and when Jesus cursed it and caused it to wither, he was exposing its true nature. He wasn't letting it get away with looking like a good tree when it actually wasn't.

So maybe it's a lesson about hypocrisy and how "there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed." Recently in the news we've found out about sexual assault and harassment committed by famous and powerful people, victims have shared their stories with #metoo hashtag, and people have also talked about sexual abuse in the church with the #churchtoo hashtag. A lot of this has been covered up for a long time, and it's good that people are finding out about it. Just as Jesus cursed the fig tree, let's curse the corrupt systems that cover up abuse- let them wither so everyone can see how evil and rotten they are.


All right that's all well and good, I could just end the blog post there, but I still think this fig tree story is freakin' weird and we could also talk about these aspects:
  • If the fig tree was already unable to bear fruit and Jesus was just exposing that fact, then why does he phrase his curse as "May you never bear fruit again"? It really makes it sound like the tree would have had fruit in the future, but Jesus decided not to let it, as a punishment for having only leaves right now. Seems like if this interpretation is true, Jesus should have said "you will never bear fruit again" or "you are a fruitless tree" or something. Is this a translation issue? Is the interpretation about exposing a fruitless tree wrong? Did Jesus phrase it in a weird way to make some kind of point?
  • Was Jesus angry? Did Jesus do a bad thing here? Was he being unreasonable when he cursed the fig tree? Did Jesus ever do anything he later regretted?
  • All right, it is super-not-okay what Jesus tells the disciples about "if you have faith and do not doubt" you can move mountains and "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer." This teaching leads Christians to believe that they have to manufacture certain emotions in order to make their prayers "work." Which is really bad for mental health (and I touched on this in my post Prayer Rates Don't Correlate With Actual Risk). It means you can't be honest about how you really feel, because if you allow yourself to be aware of your belief that something you prayed for isn't likely to happen, then it's YOUR FAULT when it doesn't happen.
  • It's also worth noting that the fig tree is used in the Old Testament as a symbol of the nation of Israel. This passage could be interpreted as a judgment on Israel for their hypocrisy and lack of "fruit."
  • The account of the fig tree is a fun one for apologetics because Matthew says the fig tree withered "immediately," while Mark has it withering by the next morning when they walked past it again. Here's an apologetics site that explains "Actually, if we want to be particular, that's not what Mark says. Mark says nothing about when the tree withered; he says that the next day Peter in particular noticed the withered tree." To which I say, ah yes, and Obi-Wan didn't "remember ever owning a droid" even though we saw him with R2-D2 all the time in the prequels because Jedi don't technically own property as individuals. Right. Yeah, that's why. Sure.

This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Clearing the Temple Was Not a "Peaceful Protest" (Matthew 21:12-17)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

Monday, December 4, 2017

It seems I can't make an exercise plan because I used to be evangelical

Three women doing a workout routine. Image source.
So I said to myself, I should exercise, so I can be healthy and strong. I've been really trying to do that- maybe a few times a week I stand up and move around/ stretch/ jog in place/ do crunches/ jump/ etc for 15 minutes or so while I'm watching youtube. And that's a good start, but really it would be better if I had some kind of a more organized plan. Something more structured than "do whatever exercise-ish things come to mind, if I feel like it."

Something with clear goals. Where the number of repetitions or length of time is determined beforehand, so I push myself to finish it instead of stopping because "I'm tired." Something like "on Monday I'll do these exercises for 30 minutes, on Wednesday I'll do these, on Friday I'll do these." Probably there are apps that can recommend a plan and keep track of it all.

But whenever I start to think about making a plan, I feel like I'm trapped and I have to get out. I feel anxiety. And it's because of all the time I spent as a good Christian reading my bible every day.

See, here's the way it works: When you have a "personal relationship with God", you need to "spend time with God" every day, which means taking some time to be alone and away from all distractions, and reading the bible and praying. This is how you grow your relationship with God. This is how you be a good Christian.

We all knew that was the ideal: having a "quiet time" every day. But that's quite a high standard to reach, and most Christians don't actually do that. And so we need to perform guilt about it. People show up at bible study and "confess" their "sin" of not reading their bible every day. Pastors talk about "Jesus loves you so much that he came and died for you, and you can't even set aside 10 minutes every day to be with him?" Christians blame themselves for not having a better relationship with God, saying it's their own fault for being too busy and making excuses rather than spending time every day reading the bible.

It was an impossible standard- but "the gospel" we believed was all about impossible standards. We only deserve to go to heaven if we can be perfect- that is, never ever sin any time throughout our entire life. Never be mean to anyone. Never be selfish. Never be jealous. Of course that's impossible, and therefore we all deserve to go to hell. Those bad "worldly" people think that as long as their good deeds outweigh their bad deeds, they'll be able to go to heaven- well, my Sunday school teachers warned me about how wrong they were. See, the bible [supposedly] says it doesn't matter what good things you've done- all that matters is that you have done a nonzero number of bad things. And therefore you are bad and deserve to go to hell, but God loves you anyway and you should be forever grateful for that because you suck and there's no logical reason God should ever do anything nice for you.

I was the best Christian, back then. I did read my bible every day. Maybe I missed a day a few times a year.

I remember there were times I had so much anxiety- when I was traveling so my schedule was all weird and it would be evening already and I would be all stressed out, thinking "I haven't read my bible yet today", trying to find a time to sneak off alone and do it, worried about how I could explain to friends if they saw me sneaking off, telling myself "well maybe I don't need to get my bible out, I can just think biblical thoughts and we'll say that counts", giving up on it when I get to the hotel room and there are people sleeping so I can't turn on the light.

I remember when I had a really long streak, where I hadn't missed a day in a long time, but I still felt bad because, you see, sometimes I would put off my "quiet time" til the evening. I would be so tired, and sitting up in bed for a few minutes, just reading the bare minimum amount and then falling asleep. I believed that was a sin too- I should be making God a priority, not putting it off and then trying to do a "quiet time" when I was too tired to think straight. I felt a lot of guilt over that.

I was so sleep-deprived in college- one day I slept through my alarm and somehow didn't wake up til 3 or 4 in the afternoon. I had missed all my classes except one. But I decided to skip that last one, because I needed to read my bible. God would be my first priority, and since I was obedient, I trusted that God would deal with whatever consequences came from skipping class.

When I came to China... there's a 12-hour time difference, and I wondered how to count a "day" when I was traveling, because I needed to make sure I read my bible every "day." I don't remember what my solution was. Maybe I read the bible on the plane, just to be sure. Maybe I gave myself some leniency on that day.

I did love God, and I really did love reading the bible and praying. I don't want you to think that I did it just because it was a rule- it was much more complicated than that. But when "no" isn't an option, what does "yes" really mean?

Then, probably around 2013, my relationship with God was falling apart and I tried to keep reading the bible every day. The only thing that kept me going was the guilt- that if I don't do it, then I am a bad Christian, I am bad, I am bad. I would read a passage and be overwhelmed by a mountain of questions- the "clear" interpretations I learned in church didn't cut it any more- and be so stressed because of the questions, stressed because "quiet time" is supposed to be about feeling closer to God and I wasn't feeling that at all, stressed because stopping wasn't an option- that would mean I am a bad Christian.

Eventually I came to the belief that God's love for me is not affected by whether or not I do all the "good Christian" habits like praying, reading the bible, and going to church. And I decided that it would be healthiest for me to actually stop doing all those things, for a period of time- to really put my faith in my belief that God's love isn't dependent on them. I decided it's okay not to read the bible every day- and what's more, it's okay not to feel bad about it. And that has been so incredibly healthy for me, these past few years.

So fast forward to right now, and here I am thinking about making an exercise plan. And all I can think is I've never been very good at exercising, so I'm definitely not going to be able to stick to the plan 100%. Maybe I'll plan to exercise 3 times a week, but some weeks I'll end up not exercising at all. Maybe I'll lose interest entirely after 1 week and abandon the whole plan. And when I fail- because, anything short of 100% is a failure, our good deeds are like filthy rags and all that- then that means I am bad and I should feel bad.

When I think about having a plan, I don't feel like "this is a good thing because if I work hard I will be stronger and feel good." Instead the only thing I can imagine is all the shame, all the shame from each day that I miss. One after another after another. Just a pile of shame from all the things I've done wrong, all the good habits that I haven't kept.

(In my analysis of the VeggieTales movie "Rack, Shack, & Benny," I talked about how harmful it is to equate healthy habits with morality. Yeah, turns out that kind of teaching makes me not exercise because I'm too scared I'll "sin.")

Readers, can I let you in on a little secret? I don't really want to write blog posts about the gospel of Matthew. I'm just doing it because 5 years ago I said I would do it, and I feel guilty over the fact that I never finished. Like, don't get me wrong, I think the Matthew posts I've written recently have been good posts- but I would actually prefer to spend my time and energy blogging about other topics. But see, I have this guilt hanging over me. This thing I said I would do 5 years ago, and I still feel bad for not finishing it. I blog about Matthew to make the guilt go away. I wish I didn't have to.

Okay. I have to relearn this. Let's say I make an exercise plan that says I'll do this or that 3 times a week, but then one week I don't do any of it at all? What is the meaning of missing a few days? If it doesn't mean "I'm bad and I'm a failure", then what does it mean? How can I understand this? That belief needs to be replaced with something healthy- but I'm not really sure what.

Here's what I have so far: I don't have any urgent medical issues going on right now, and therefore it's a good time to start exercising. It doesn't matter what exercise I did or didn't do in the past- don't feel bad about the past, just look ahead to the future. I can always improve and get better, and that's a good thing. Don't compare myself to other people- instead, compare my current situation with my potential.

But what if I miss a day? Or a whole week? Or more? What does it meannnnnn? Does it mean I am bad? If I can miss a day without guilt, then what's the motivation to stick to the plan?

Or maybe if I miss a day it means on that day there were other things that were higher priorities than exercising. And that's also something people feel shame over- you're supposed to feel bad about "I would rather watch tv than exercise"- but why? Wouldn't it be better to be honest with yourself about it? To just accept that it's the honest truth about how you feel, and it's not necessarily good or bad? And then you realize that your short-term desires contradict your stated long-term goals, and you can decide how to handle that. Maybe you decide the goal isn't worth it- and that's fine, nothing wrong with making that choice, you don't have to feel guilt about it. Or maybe you decide the long-term goal truly is important to you, and therefore it's even more urgent that you alter your day-to-day behavior- and that's your motivation, instead of "I am bad." Ideally, you find a form of exercise you enjoy, so it doesn't feel like a giant pain to stick with it.

My point is, the first step has to be honesty about what you really want and how you really feel. Without that, all you have is socially-mandated guilt that doesn't actually motivate you to do better.

So. Years of believing that daily "devotionals" were REQUIRED in order to be a good Christian have left me too stressed to be able to set goals about exercise and other good healthy habits. Back then, it was all about impossible standards and sin and guilt; we weren't allowed to be honest about our priorities, because it just wasn't acceptable to have other things that were- even on the time scale of one day- more important than our "relationship with God."

Readers: Have you had similar experiences with "daily devotionals" and guilt? Any ideas about a more healthy perspective on what it means when you make a goal but it doesn't work out?

Thursday, November 30, 2017


Cat touching a Christmas ornament. Image source.
1. China Marks Transgender Day of Remembrance With National Survey (posted November 20) [content note: anti-trans violence] "Based on more than 2,000 valid responses — the largest such survey to date — the Beijing LGBT Center’s report points to a lack of access to medical treatment, domestic violence, campus bullying, and workplace discrimination as issues that take a heavy toll on the lives of transgender and gender-nonconforming people in China." Also their video is worth watching.

2. Shocking sexual abuse allegations at a kindergarten in Beijing has China on edge (posted November 24) [content note: child sexual abuse] "On Friday, Beijing’s major newspapers barely mentioned the case. Yet the allegations still went viral on social media websites in China, where decades of draconian family-planning policies have engendered a society-wide obsession with early-childhood education, and pervasive censorship and corruption have engendered a deficit of social trust."

3. Wishful Thinking, Forced Intimacy, and The Nashville Statement (posted November 15) "Due to my work, I read a recent article at John Piper’s website by Nashville Statement signer Rosaria Butterfield. In it, she gives some of the worst advice I have ever read to a woman in a mixed orientation marriage."

4. Nazis Are Just Like You and Me, Except They're Nazis (posted November 25) This is a parody, and it's HILARIOUS.

5. Translating Away Justice (posted November 20) "The noun, for example, is usually translated as 'righteousness,' not as 'justice.'" As a bible nerd, I am ANGRY about this. All bible nerds should read this post.

6. #ChurchToo: abuse survivors speak out about harassment in their religious communities (posted November 22) [content note: sexual abuse] "It’s certainly true that many religious communities’ insularity, combined with their frequent focus on women’s sexual purity, renders these spaces as particularly fertile ground for sexual harassment or abuse." Yes. Focus on women's "sexual purity" is DIRECTLY CONNECTED to abuse- and that's something I never would have suspected back when I was in purity culture. See, "purity" teaching creates an environment where victims are ONLY able to come forward and be believed and be treated as innocent and deserving of sympathy and justice IF they have NEVER BROKEN ANY OF THE PURITY RULES.

7. The Nationalist's Delusion (posted November 20) "What I found was that Trump embodied his supporters’ most profound beliefs—combining an insistence that discriminatory policies were necessary with vehement denials that his policies would discriminate and absolute outrage that the question would even be asked."

And this post based on the above article: Blasphemy. "Many white churches support white nationalism and Trumpism. Other white churches allow the option of not supporting it. But it is only that — an option, one that is permitted and tolerated, but never demanded. This, too, is blasphemy."

8. If you believe that only “bad” theology and twisted scripture could result in the sort of abuse #churchtoo describes you must also believe that the following are all examples of such bad theology: (posted November 28) A must-read Twitter thread.

9. Perfect Number Watches VeggieTales "The Toy That Saved Christmas" (posted November 29)

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

"The Author of Leviticus Would Have Been Cool With It"

An image showing a hand holding some kind of old-fashioned pen and writing on a scroll. Image source.
So let's suppose I'm writing the bible, and God "inspires" me to write this:
Kids played soccer outside the church.
Let's assume we believe that the bible is the inerrant, inspired word of God. So, based on this one sentence, can we make any conclusions about God's opinion on the pressing issue of "is it called 'soccer' or 'football'"?

Well, you might say, this passage uses the term "soccer" because the author was an American. But the passage doesn't say that "soccer" is the only correct term and that "football" would be incorrect.

All right let's say I'm "inspired by God" to write this:
Kids played soccer outside the church. Some people think it's called "football" but they're wrong.
So here we find, in the inspired word of God, the statement that referring to soccer as "football" is, in fact, wrong. And, you know, the bible is inerrant, so that means this is The Definitive Truth on the "football vs soccer" debate. It's a sin to call it "football." The bible is clear.

Let's suppose I'm "inspired by God" to write it like this:
Kids played soccer outside the church. There was a British man there who was not very intelligent, and he called it "football."
Heh. Now what can we say about this? The text- the inerrant text- tells us two things: the British man was not intelligent, and the British man called it "football." Clearly the author intends for readers to link those two things together- the author is saying that people who call it "football" are less intelligent, and just plain wrong. But if you look at the actual words of the text itself, it does NOT explicitly say those two facts are at all connected.

So my question is, what part is "inerrant and inspired by God," exactly? Just the text, or also the not-exactly-explicit messages that reflect the author's own biases?

Yeah I'll admit my own biases on this- I'm not a fan of British English because I'm an American and I'm living as a minority here in China, where the English that's taught in schools is way more British than American. I'm homesick and I'm tired of recalibrating my English so it's compatible with silly British stuff that Chinese people learned in school. I'm tired of trying to explain that this is pudding and this is jello and this is jelly but the translation software might tell you otherwise because British people have a totally different understanding of what's pudding and what's jello and what's jelly.

(But on a rational level, I do realize that the rest of the world all calls it "football" and there's no objective right or wrong about language. And obviously the bible wasn't written in English.)

But here's my point: If you believe "the bible is inerrant and inspired by God, and God used imperfect people to write it", then why is there so much study and debate over "what the author intended"? Maybe "what the author intended" was actually wrong. When people claim that the bible is inerrant, are they actually claiming the author's thoughts and intentions and opinions while writing were inerrant? That is quite a claim.

(And again, let me be upfront about my biases: No, I no longer believe the bible is completely inerrant and inspired by God. Maybe some parts are, but definitely not the whole thing.)

Here's an example from the bible: Genesis 30:25-43 describes how Jacob put striped branches in the water the goats were drinking, so then they gave birth to striped offspring. (Jacob did this because he had made an agreement with Laban that all the striped or spotted goats in Laban's flock would be Jacob's.)

Now, the text itself only says that Jacob did this, and then the offspring were striped. It doesn't technically say that striped branches actually cause goats to give birth to striped baby goats. And I used to be an apologetics nerd; I know that when somebody comes along and says "hey that's not how genetics works", the correct answer is "well yes, we know from genetics that striped branches won't cause the offspring to have stripes. Really it was God who made the offspring striped, because God wanted to bless Jacob. Jacob thought it was because of his little striped-branches scheme, but that really had nothing to do with it."

But let's imagine we're interested in "what the author meant" and we're having a conversation with the author:
So, what did you mean when you said Jacob put striped branches in the goats' drinking water, and then they gave birth to striped offspring?

I meant that when female goats look at striped branches, they are more likely to have baby goats that are striped.

Did you mean like, just in this one particular case that's what happened, or did you mean that's something that's true in general?

Yes that's how it always works. Anyone who wants striped goat babies can try this at home.
I believe that, based on their ancient understanding of science, the above hypothetical conversation is "what the author of Genesis meant." Would Christians who believe in inerrancy accept that this incorrect understanding of science is "what the author meant" but then claim it doesn't matter because it's not what they wrote? What they wrote can still be interpreted as inerrant. So... no issues for inerrancy?

Or, let's suppose the apologetics explanation I mentioned is actually "what the author meant." Let's see how that conversation might go:
So, what did you mean when you said Jacob put striped branches in the goats' drinking water, and then they gave birth to striped offspring?

I meant that Jacob thought his striped branches were causing the baby goats to be striped, but actually that's not how science works. Actually it was God intervening to make them striped.

What do you mean by "God intervening"?

I mean that God favored Jacob- not Laban, not Esau- so he chose to bless Jacob by giving him more goats.

What do you mean by "God favored Jacob"? Why would God like Jacob better than Laban or Esau?

"Jacob" is just a way cooler name, obviously, so that's why God liked him better.
Okay it's a silly example, but my point is, you can keep asking "what did you mean by" questions- to anyone, about any topic- and sooner or later you will inevitably hit upon some bizarre/ignorant/nonsensical belief that they hold. Because we all have beliefs and biases that aren't really rational or true. So what I'm asking is this: For those of you who believe the bible is inerrant and are SO INTERESTED in "the author's intended meaning", where do you draw the line between what's inerrant and what's just the writer's own flawed beliefs?

The only solution that could potentially make sense is to say the literal words of the text are inerrant, but "what the author meant" is NOT necessarily inerrant- though it is certainly useful and informative to discuss "what the author meant." I don't see any way to separate out "what the author meant" about one particular bible passage they wrote, such that their opinions on that specific passage form a closed, inerrant system of beliefs that is in no way connected to their imperfect understanding of reality.

But what does it even mean to say the words of the biblical text are inerrant, but "what the author meant" by those words is not? How can words have a meaning which is separate from what the author meant by them? I'll give you an example: Suppose I use the term "red shirt." What does "red shirt" mean? Well it's a reference to the characters on "Star Trek: The Original Series" who wore red shirts and always died in attacks or accidents, and the main characters didn't care about them- their deaths were just a way to show the audience that our heroes were in a dangerous situation.

But then you say "no no, apart from the context of Star Trek, what does 'red shirt' mean?"

That question doesn't make any sense. If I, as a trekkie, say "red shirt", there is no possible way to understand it besides as a Star Trek reference. You can't remove it from the context of my experience watching Star Trek and expect to understand my meaning. It's not like I'm using some intrinsic, context-independent definition of "red shirt" and then adding the Star Trek thing on top of that. No, the Star Trek thing is the entire meaning.

In the "red shirt" example, it's easy to see how it's possible for a word or phrase to literally not have any meaning at all if one attempts to separate it from the opinions and lived experience of the writer or reader. But it's not just because it's a term from a TV show. I believe ALL OF LANGUAGE is like this. ALL OF LANGUAGE has no meaning apart from the lived experiences of people.

See, I know this because I speak Chinese. And in the process of learning Chinese, I didn't just read a dictionary and memorize an abstract definition for each word- no, if you want to learn to speak a language, you have to study by speaking the language. It's about being in situations where you use the words. It's about talking to people. It's about experiencing the culture. How can you talk about what a word means just by itself, without situations, people, and culture? There is no meaning apart from those things.

In sci-fi movies, characters can "download" a language into their brain, or there's a "universal translator" so everything is in English- but here in the real world, languages don't work that way. Tell me this, after you "download" Chinese into your brain: What is a 发票 [fā piào]? A dictionary will tell you it means "invoice" but I'm here to tell you it doesn't. Personally, if I absolutely have to translate it into real English words, I call it a "fancy receipt"- it's a special kind of receipt that serves as proof that the seller paid tax on the income from the sale. There are regular receipts, and then there are fapiaos. At a restaurant they'll give you a normal receipt when you pay, but if you are getting reimbursed by your company or something, that receipt isn't good enough- you need to ask your waiter to give you a fapiao. And usually the waiter will direct you over to a cashier with a special printer just for fapiaos, and the cashier will ask you if they should print your name on it, or your company's name, or what. The fapiao is usually printed on narrow paper like a receipt, and always has a very officially-looking red stamp. For some people, depending on how the salary structure works at their job, some of their income may be tax-exempt if they can submit fapiaos for it- for example, at one place I worked in China, I submitted fapiaos for the rent I paid on my apartment, and then I didn't have to pay tax on that part of my salary. It's a very special, very official type of receipt, and there is no equivalent concept in the United States.

Try downloading that into your brain. It's impossible to really understand what a fapiao is without that lived experience. Without ever having the feeling like you're lost in a giant bureaucracy and you're just screwed because you don't have the right fapiao. (International people living in China actually say "fapiao"- we don't really try to translate it to English. Whereas a lot of Chinese people call it "invoice" when they're speaking English because they don't realize that we don't have that concept in English- they don't realize it's not something you can just easily translate like that.)

Here's another example: I was talking to an American friend, let's call him Mark, who also learned Chinese. He mentioned the fact that the Chinese word for "giraffe" is "长颈鹿 [cháng jǐng lù]", which, if you translate each character individually, is literally "long neck deer." He said, "Before I started studying Chinese, I never thought of a giraffe as being like a deer, but ya know, it kind of is." Then I told Hendrix (whose first language is Chinese) about what Mark said, and how it was true for me too- it had never occurred to me that a giraffe is like a deer. Hendrix was SHOCKED. How could someone live their entire life without realizing that a giraffe is like a deer????!!!!!

My point is, language is connected to the way we think. If someone's first language is Chinese, they probably conceptualize a giraffe as being like a deer but really tall and with a long neck. Whereas if their first language is English, they think of it as just an unusual animal that's not really similar to any other animals. Obviously no matter what language you speak, you are able to study biology and find out what animals a giraffe is actually like- but those biological facts will be layered on top of the implicit assumptions you were taught when you learned your first language. Language affects the way we think. And vice versa.

All of language is like this. Words mean nothing without culture, without people, without experiences. So how can someone say the literal words of the bible are inerrant, but the "author's intended meaning" is not? The "literal words" have no meaning by themselves. And how can someone say the "author's intended meaning" is inerrant, but the author is still a flawed person with an imperfect understanding of reality? Where is the line between the author's thoughts on the bible passage they wrote, and the rest of their opinions about the world?

I titled this post "the author of Leviticus would have been cool with it" in reference to the argument, made by some queer Christians and allies, that "in the bible, where same-sex relationships are condemned, it's always in the context of rape or pedophilia or other exploitative relationships, not consensual relationships between equal partners. If the writers had known about consensual same-sex relationships, they wouldn't have condemned them." I don't agree with this argument- though I do believe it can be an important first step for people coming from a "the bible is clear" background.

Because, who cares how the author of Leviticus would have reacted in this hypothetical situation? Seems like the only reason someone would even be talking about this is if they believed all the author's opinions were inerrant- not just the ones they wrote in the bible. But that's ridiculous- I've never heard a Christian make a claim like that. Usually they say "the bible is inerrant and inspired by God, who used imperfect humans to write it."

Maybe the author of Leviticus would not have been okay with same-sex consensual sex, but God was okay with it so God didn't "inspire" them to write that particular opinion of theirs in the bible. [That is, if you interpret what they did write as only referring to coercive relationships- which the text doesn't say explicitly, so again this gets into what the author wrote vs what the author meant.] Or, we could invent all kinds of hypotheticals about "God's opinion was this, the writer's opinion was that, this particular aspect is inerrant and this one is not." Maybe it's a fun game, but I'll just put my cards on the table here and say it doesn't actually matter to me because I don't believe the bible is inerrant. I believe the bible got lots of things wrong.

When you actually start to think about how "inerrancy" would work, how it could be that imperfect people wrote a perfect book, you'll see it doesn't really make sense. And it makes even less sense for Christians to be so concerned about "what did the author MEAN by this?" Are they really claiming that not only the bible is inerrant, but also everything the authors "meant" when they were writing the bible is inerrant? How can that be? That's not how language works, and it's not how humans work.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Roy Moore Dating Teenage Girls "For Their Purity" is 100% Logical in Purity Land

Cats dressed as a bride and groom. Image source.
[content note: child sexual abuse]

So. We have to talk about Roy Moore. He's a Senate candidate who has been in the news recently because it turns out he sexually assaulted multiple teenage girls back when he was in his thirties. (However, even before this learning about this, we all already should have known Roy Moore is a terrible person. The Slacktivist sums it up well. )

Anyway, a pastor named Flip Benham came to Moore's defense, saying, "He did that because there is something about a purity of a young woman, there is something that is good, that’s true, that’s straight and he looked for that."

In some versions of purity culture, it is explicitly taught that it's good for teenage girls to get married to men who are older. In the strand of purity culture I learned, I never heard anything about that at all- though there was occasional discussion of "maybe we should encourage kids to get married really really young, like in their teens, to prevent sexual immorality." (I personally believe that teenagers having consensual sex is NOT sexual immorality, but parents pushing their kids to get married too young IS.) But I never saw that go past a philosophical discussion. The adults in my life who taught purity culture at least had enough sense to know that the vast majority of teenagers aren't ready to get married.

But even though I never heard anyone teaching "adult men should date teenage girls", I did hear discussion on the problem of finding a "pure" enough partner if one is in one's late twenties or older. I've read blog posts about "I'm 30 years old, I'm a virgin but the statistics say that I'm unlikely to find a spouse my age who is also a virgin- how can I deal with this problem?" Because yes, it certainly was treated as a problem. You follow all the rules and "stay pure" but "our culture is so sinful and worldly" so what if there just aren't any potential partners who are also pure?

In some cases, their solution to this "problem" was "God's plan is for me to marry this person who is not a virgin, so I can learn forgiveness." It was seen as a hardship that God would use to make you a better person- the hardship of having a spouse who has had other sexual partners besides you.

In other cases, the solution was "I am trusting God to bring me that pure partner, and I am NOT going to lower my standards." One time, I remember our pastor was telling us about this woman (let's call her Linda) in our church who had gotten married when she was 40 or so. He said, "Linda told me that she was looking for a husband who had never been married before, and I told her that wasn't realistic and she should be willing to date a man who's divorced or widowed. But she didn't listen to me- she said God told her she was going to marry a man who had never been married. And finally she met Bob and they got married- the first marriage for both of them." The pastor didn't mention sex in this case- but the point is, this story only makes sense if you start with the assumption that a person who has never been married before is by definition a better potential spouse than a person who has been married.

I never heard anyone solve the "problem" by creepily looking for high school girls to date. But, given the logic of purity culture, which says that the #1 most important indicator for a successful marriage is how little experience you had beforehand, that would actually be a perfect solution, wouldn't it?

Purity culture is 100% founded on the idea that the less experience one has with sex and relationships, the better a spouse they can be. They explicitly teach that if you had sex with a previous partner, then you'll never be able to truly love your spouse. Your ex will still "have a part of your heart." Forever. (Please note that this is complete nonsense.)

They even say "your virginity is the most precious gift you can give your husband." Seriously. I mean, look how laughable that crap is. I hold responsible every adult who did not interrupt and laugh them out of the room when they said things like that. I'm married, and I'm here to tell you that the most precious gift you can give your spouse is being a good and loving partner. It doesn't matter what you did in the past.

If it is true that virginity is the #1 thing that matters in a marriage, then, logically, it would be a good idea for a 30-year-old man to date teenage girls rather than date a woman his own age who has had sex. Again, to be clear, nobody I knew ever did that. Nobody I knew ever taught that. But they did teach that virginity is the most important thing, and they did discuss what to do about the "problem" of older single people being unable to find "pure" partners.

This is what happens when you teach that inexperience- ahem, "purity"- is the best thing you can have in a romantic relationship. You end up with an ideology that says the proportion of people who are suitable partners decreases with age. You end up with people defending predatory men in the name of "purity."

Thursday, November 23, 2017


Mr. Incredible holding baby Jack Jack in the "Incredibles 2" trailerImage source.
1. Biggest-Ever Singles' Day Buying Binge Has Left Behind a Record-Setting Pile of Trash (posted November 17) "Singles' Day" is what November 11 is called in China (11/11, see there are four 1's, like, they are single, get it??? Or 双十一 [shuāng shíyī] in Chinese, which literally translates to "double eleven") and it's a day when online retailers have huge sales and people buy tons of stuff. (Like Black Friday, except online, and without "I'm buying Christmas gifts for other people" available as an excuse for spending so much money [because giving Christmas gifts isn't a thing in China].)

Anyway this article is about the "estimated 160,000 tons of packaging waste" produced as a result of all these items being shipped. Let me tell you: It is MIND-BLOWINGLY convenient to buy stuff online in China. It is ABSURDLY convenient and cheap. I live in Shanghai and typically when I order stuff online it arrives within 1 or 2 days, and it's often cheaper than buying stuff at a store. It is also RIDICULOUSLY convenient to order food through an app and have it delivered. I do this EVERY DAY because I don't want to spend a ton of time cooking or going out somewhere to get food.

I cannot emphasize enough how cheap and convenient China's delivery system is- especially in big cities. Tons and tons of stuff packaged up in disposable packaging and delivered to people individually. There's so much of it because it's just so damn convenient and cheap. So yeah, I can definitely see that this would create a huge problem with the amount of waste it produces.

2. The Sorting Hat's BIG Secret | Harry Potter Theory (posted November 16) "I'm sorry but I feel like the logic there is a little flawed. But so is the [Fidelius] charm altogether, a little bit. Like, what are the limitations of this thing? Can you just hide any information inside of someone? Like for example, how to use a doorknob. Could I just, like, hide the knowledge and information about how to do that inside of somebody? And then even though lots of people used to know how to open doors, we'll now all be stuck behind doors. Unless that one person tells everyone."

3. Perfect Number Watches VeggieTales "Rack, Shack, & Benny" Follow along as I livetweet this episode of VeggieTales~

And here's the next one: Perfect Number Watches VeggieTales "Dave & the Giant Pickle"

4. On public mourning when Evangelical culture kept you in the dark (posted 2016) "When the rest of the culture engages in these displays of public mourning for departed pop stars, I feel like I’m left here mourning the childhood evangelicalism stole from me."

5. Top 10 Hardest to Animate Things in Pixar (posted November 21)

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Clearing the Temple Was Not a "Peaceful Protest"

Protesters in Durham, NC kick a Confederate statue after tearing it down. Image source.
This week we're looking at Matthew 21:12-17. Jesus enters the temple in Jerusalem and drives out the vendors who are selling there. Later, the religious leaders get all upset about children saying "Hosanna to the Son of David" and Jesus quotes a bible verse that says "From the lips of children and infants, you, Lord, have called forth your praise."

I'd like to look at Jesus clearing the temple as a protest. In the past, when I read this story, I always thought of it as Jesus getting really mad and kicking out all these sellers- as if it was just an emotionally-driven interpersonal conflict between Jesus and the sellers. As if they were breaking the biblical rules and then Jesus enforced the rules and fixed the problem. But what if it was Jesus making a statement? He drives them out, but really they're just going to be back the next day. The situation doesn't really change- but he sends a message to the public. Other people may be inspired when they see Jesus taking a stand, and this can lead to change in the long run, even if those same sellers were back in the temple the next day.

Maybe it wasn't "Jesus happened to be walking through the temple and just got really angry." Maybe it was planned. Maybe it was calculated and intentional, to send a certain message. (It doesn't really help that this is the go-to example when Christians are like "it's okay to be angry, Jesus got angry too.")

So what message was Jesus trying to send? What was he protesting? There are a few different explanations I've heard:

1. By selling animals in the temple, they weren't respecting God. God's house is supposed to be a place of worship, not greed and money. I used to go to a church that built a coffee shop next to the lobby, and apparently at the time there was debate about it because "the bible says you're not supposed to sell things at church." People making that kind of argument would be the people who believe Jesus' protest was over the idea that business shouldn't be anywhere near a place of worship.

2. The sellers were telling people "you have to buy these specific animals for the sacrifice", claiming that other animals weren't good enough. And the money-changers were saying that because the Old Testament law specified certain ancient units of money, worshipers are required to change their money into those units before they can buy anything. Sort of creating a monopoly on the sacrifice system, and thereby ripping people off. Excluding people from worshiping God based on their ability to pay. People who interpret the passage in this way can be further categorized into two groups:
a.) This is bad because ripping people off is bad.
b.) This is bad because they were interpreting the Old Testament rules about sacrifices all wrong.

3. The selling was happening in the outer court of the temple- the only place that Gentiles were allowed. Gentiles couldn't go into the inner part. So by having all those animals and crowd noise in the outer part of the temple, they were taking up space that was supposed to be for Gentiles to worship God. (Note that in Mark's version, Jesus says "my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.")

So there are interpretations all along the spectrum from "these sellers were breaking God's rules, which we must follow because God said so, and these rules may or may not be arbitrary or have any relation to how we should treat people" to "these sellers were being cruel and taking advantage of marginalized people, restricting them from access to the temple." Y'all won't be surprised to hear that I'm at the "Jesus defending poor people's and Gentiles' right to worship" end.

So if we think of this as a protest, what kind of modern protest might it be equivalent to? First of all, it wasn't a "peaceful protest." Jesus drove them out through intimidation and threats of violence. In John's account, it even says that Jesus "made a whip out of cords", and then talked about destroying the temple. (Which, by "the temple" he meant his body, but he pretty obviously intended it to be misunderstood.) He knocked over tables and scattered coins.

Was it like when Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole at the South Carolina Capitol building in 2015, and removed the Confederate flag? Note that her protest was carefully planned, not something she just ran out and did, driven by uncontrollable emotions. (I believe Jesus' was too.) She had climbing gear and a helmet. She quoted verses from Psalms as she climbed down. She knew she would be arrested. She had a group of supporters with her, who recorded a video and posted it on social media. A new Confederate flag was put up immediately after she was arrested, but her purpose wasn't to just take it down and naively believe it would stay down, as if she could just go and singlehandedly solve the problem in one day. Her purpose was to make a statement and have people see it.

But Jesus' protest wasn't like that. He was much more confrontational and destructive.

Bree Newsome climbing down the flagpole with a Confederate flag. Image text: "You come against me with hatred, repression, and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today. Bree Newsome" Image source.

Was it like when a group of protesters tore down and destroyed a Confederate monument in Durham, NC? No, not really like that, because they destroyed a thing, but Jesus actually threatened people and forced them out.

Well what was it like then?

Here's the best analogy I can come up with: It's like going into a payday loan office and knocking all their stuff down while screaming at the employees to GET OUT. Because the whole idea behind the payday loans industry is lending money at immorally high interest rates to people who are desperate. It's making money off of people who are going through a financial crisis. You could reason that the whole business is immoral and shouldn't exist, and drive them out for that reason. Just like the business of selling animals in the temple shouldn't exist.

But now I've suddenly thought of a lot of problems with such a payday-loans protest- which apply to Jesus' protest too. Maybe the employees who work there aren't bad people, they just couldn't find a job anywhere else. (Maybe the people selling animals at the temple weren't bad people, they were also poor and needed the money to survive.) You're attacking the customer-facing employees, when it's the higher-up managers who are the ones really driving the whole immoral business. (Jesus attacked the people who were physically there handling the money, but were they the real masterminds behind it?) What about the customers who really are desperate enough that they needed to get the loan- now the office is closed, what will they do? The whole system is broken; if you just destroy one part it doesn't actually fix things. (What about the customers who came intending to buy animals? It's not like suddenly everybody's going to say "oh Jesus says we don't actually need to buy them" and everything is fine. More likely, people will be barred from worshiping because they weren't able to buy the right animals. Because Jesus forced that business to close.)

I'm a little freaked out by the idea of Jesus doing something like that. I personally don't really think it's a good idea.

And here is where we debate the ethics of protesting. Some would say that in order to be noticed and make an impact, your protest has to inconvenience other people. But it's poor people who are more likely to be inconvenienced. People with money and privilege have ways to isolate themselves so they're not directly affected. You protest some injustice, but the people who have to deal with the consequences of your protest and clean up the mess aren't the ones who actually caused the injustice.

Who picked up the tables that Jesus overturned? Who chased down all the animals and brought them back? Probably not the people who were responsible for the decision to operate businesses in the temple.

Any criticism of a protest should also take into account how bad the thing being protested is- if it truly is awful, then it may be valid to cause a big inconvenience to others in order to get them to notice and care and right the wrong. (On the other hand, it can also be argued that if you inconvenience others because of something that isn't even their fault, they will feel wronged and be less sympathetic to your cause.) The decision about how "peaceful" your protest should be, and to what extent it will inconvenience other people, is based on your specific goals, and it's reasonable for people to disagree about this. (I want to be clear, though, that it's a real problem when white people are like "I agree with your position but not with your methods"- this is usually said by someone who "prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice" according to Martin Luther King Jr. They theoretically agree that the thing being protested is bad, but they think it would be too much trouble to actually change the system so the thing didn't happen.)

When Jesus cleared the temple, it wasn't a "peaceful protest." Notice, though, later in the passage, there are children saying, "Hosanna to the Son of David," which can also be considered a protest. Even though the children's protest was peaceful, the chief priests still didn't like it.

Anyway. For the Christians who believe that everything Jesus did was automatically right and good- this passage means you can't also believe that the only acceptable kind of protest is a "peaceful protest." As for me, I don't believe that everything Jesus did was automatically right and good; I think we should use our own brains and our own consciences to judge him and judge the bible. We can talk about his reasons and goals in clearing the temple, and how it ended up affecting other people. And we can talk about other protests in those terms too.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew. 

Previous post: Either Matthew Was Dishonest, Or He Wasn't Writing an Apologetics Book (Matthew 21:1-11)

Next Post: That Time Jesus Got Hangry (Matthew 21:18-22)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

Monday, November 20, 2017

It wasn't just merit

Three children doing arithmetic problems on a blackboard. Image source.
I'd like to talk about my experiences in school- specifically, what it was like being a girl who excelled in math and science. In the past, I thought I did it all on my own merit- I wasn't held back by sexism in grades K-12. And yes, that's partly true. Sexism didn't affect my success in math/science in any meaningful way back then. But. That doesn't mean it was all my own merit. I now see that, all along the way, my parents and teachers encouraged me and shaped my expectations of what I could do. I was in an environment which pushed me to follow my passions and didn't think there was anything weird about a girl being good at those things. But I now see so many places where there could have been sexism or other types of discrimination, places where I could have subconsciously internalized the idea that participating in math contests is just not the sort of thing that I do.

My parents both have backgrounds related to computers and engineering. So they were happy to teach me all about science. In kindergarten, I was fascinated by the planets in the solar system, and my parents told me all about them. Throughout my childhood, they bought me science kits and books full of logic problems, because I loved that stuff. They told me it was so great that I was interested in science.

Actually, I liked art class the most, back in elementary school. But my mom and dad aren't interested in making arts or crafts, so they didn't really have the ability to encourage me in art to the extent that they encouraged me in math and science. They bought me all the art supplies and craft kits I asked for, but because they weren't personally interested in it, there wasn't the same "wow it's fantastic that you're good at this" that there was for science-y things. And that's not their fault, but my point is that I was raised to value math and science much more highly than other subjects. It was probably unintentional- I know my parents would support me no matter what job I decided on- but at the same time, I don't really see a way for parents to avoid passing that kind of bias to their kids. It seems like, if you have parents who are good at a certain thing, you'll naturally end up believing that it's "normal" to value that particular thing. I can imagine there are kids who would be good at some certain activity, but because no adults in their life do that activity, it never really occurs to them to do it.

My parents told me "you're good at math and science- you should totally be an engineer!" and guess what, I'm an engineer now. And yes, of course I love it, I wouldn't want to do any other job, but I wonder how much that choice was influenced by the idea that "kids like you, who are good at math and science, should become engineers when they grow up"- because that's pretty much what I was taught. That's what I always thought I was "supposed" to do.

In high school I discovered contest math. Well, actually, those of us in the upper-level math classes were required to participate in math league. We had to attend 3 math league meets per year. My 9th grade math teacher told us that math league questions were so hard and hardly anybody ever gets any points. She framed it as something that we had to do, but nobody really has fun or is successful at it. I went to the first math league meet of the year and scored a bunch of points- I don't remember the exact number, maybe 10 out of a possible 18. Which is way above average (the questions are hard, but it turns out I'm a math genius).

The next day, my math teacher was like, "So who went to the math league meet last night? ... So... did anybody get any points?" and I told her how many, and she was shocked and I was kind of embarrassed, like I was freakishly good at it and I was weird.

So that's how it was my freshman year of high school. I went to exactly 3 math league meets (the bare minimum that was required), did really well, but it never occurred to me "wow I am really good at this and I really like solving these types of problems- maybe I should go to more than 3 meets." Because my 9th grade math teacher had set the expectation that math league isn't something people are actually interested in, and the other kids complained about how hard the questions were.

In 10th grade, I thought I would just do the same thing. I attended the first 3 meets of the year, thinking then I'd be done and wouldn't have to worry about it for the rest of the school year. At the third meet, I got 18 points. Out of 18. Pretty amazing- it was very rare that anyone in our school got 18 points. Still, I considered myself done with math league. Until the day that all the different clubs at school were having their photos taken for the yearbook, and when I got there for the math league picture, the head of the math department was like "where is Perfect Number?" and handed me the trophy that our school had won at that third meet, and I had to hold it, front and center, in the yearbook photo.

And then I kind of felt like, well I'm holding the trophy in the yearbook photo, I guess I can't just quit math league now.

So I went to every meet that year, and I found the other kids who were actually interested in math league. I qualified to go to the state math league competition, and it was great. Nerds everywhere! I loved it. I had finally found my people.

After the state math league meet, our coach gave everyone an application for the national math league meet. (Yes, math league teams have coaches. Also we sometimes referred to ourselves as "mathletes." Because of course we did. Also, fun fact: A group of nerds is called a nerd herd.) My parents were like "are you going to apply for it?" and I said no. They wanted to know why not. Eh, it just didn't seem like the kind of thing I would do. I wasn't really the kind of person who filled out applications or attended national competitions. Just seemed kind of weird.

My parents were like "but you had such a good time at the state math league contest" and I realized I didn't have any good reason not to go to the national one. I had just thought it didn't seem like the sort of thing I do, but there was really no basis for that belief.

So I filled out the application. I made the team. My mom told me I had to write a letter to my school and ask them to cover the costs for me to go on the trip. Did that. Did more math. Had a great time.

And after it was established that I was a huge math nerd and that I was totally the type of person who missed school to attend math competitions in other states, I started pursuing them more and more. I found so many different math contests. I met other math nerds online. I took the USAMO.

But I see now that raw talent alone was not what allowed me to participate in those contests. It was adults telling me "you're really good at math, therefore you should participate in this optional contest"- and sometimes they needed to convince me because I just had never thought of myself as the type of person who did that sort of thing. It wasn't enough to have the ability- I also needed to have an understanding of my own identity that included being a math nerd and/or math genius. And let me tell you, it was a big step when I decided I was a math nerd, back in high school. Before, I felt social pressure to "be normal"- straighten my hair, shave my legs, put on makeup, don't wear t-shirts all the time- basically to meet society's standards of what high school girls should look like. I didn't want to (it seemed like a lot of work with no real purpose), but I felt like everyone was judging me. (They probably weren't, I was just insecure. You know how high school is.) When I decided I was a nerd, it meant I could stop trying to meet society's standards of what "normal" looks like- I could stop trying to be someone I'm not. And most importantly, I no longer had to hide my math skills. I no longer felt embarrassed for being freakishly smart. (I definitely had to deal with sexism for this aspect- I've written before about how presenting in a more feminine way would make me "look like" I wasn't as much of a math nerd, and it wasn't until college that I decided I could be cute and feminine like I wanted, without calling my nerdiness or math skills into question.)

And I started applying for colleges. Because my parents taught me that everyone is supposed to go to college, that's normal, that's what we do. I always knew I was going to go to college and major in engineering- the only choice was which college. What if I had been raised in an environment where going to college wasn't seen as "normal"? Would I have been able to recognize that it would be a really good thing for me and that I was capable of doing it?

I went to a well-ranked engineering school, and a lot of my classmates were planning to get Phds. Many of them had known for their whole lives that they wanted to get a Phd. I never even considered it. My parents don't have Phds, and there was never really anything that prompted me to ask "I wonder if it would be good for me to get a Phd." I thought "normal" was you go to college for 4 years and then you're done with school. That's what I had been expecting my whole life.

I remember some of the other students did co-ops- which meant working at a company for one semester, instead of taking classes. I never even considered doing a co-op because I just didn't get it. Like, the way life is supposed to work is you go to college for four years, and then after that, you get a job. Right? Taking a semester off to do a co-op (or study abroad) didn't fit into my idea of "normal," so I never even thought "hey is that something I would want to do?" And nobody ever sat me down and specifically addressed my not-getting-it and explained that no, my ideas about "how life is supposed to work" weren't necessarily true. Maybe I wouldn't have been able to do a co-op anyway because I was double-majoring and it wouldn't have been possible to take no classes for a whole semester. Maybe. Who knows? The opportunity was there, but I never even looked into whether it could be a good thing for me, because it didn't fit into my assumptions about how life is supposed to work.

My advisor talked me into getting a masters degree. The school had one of those programs where you can take some grad-level classes while you're an undergrad and then finish the masters degree after only 1 extra year. I wasn't interested at first, because I had always figured I would do 4 years of college and be done. Why would I want to do something different than that? Isn't that the "normal" thing people are "supposed" to do? But my advisor was a really really big fan of the school's MS program. He was really persistent- he talked a lot of us into it. I finally decided it was a good deal, and that's how I got my masters degree in electrical engineering. (Which, actually, is a really good thing for me. As it turns out, there's a big difference between "I have a degree in electrical engineering" and "I have a degree in electrical engineering and my thesis was on this one specific aspect of robotics" in a job interview.)

And let me tell you about when I started studying Chinese. So I'm like, hey I'm going on this mission trip to China, so I should learn how to say some things I guess. But my entire life I had heard people saying "I tried to study this foreign language, but... it turns out my brain just can't learn languages." A LOT of Americans say stuff like that. As if speaking two languages is so unbelievable and superhuman, us mere mortals can't expect we can actually do it. (Oddly, though, I never heard anyone say we shouldn't expect immigrants to learn English because "maybe some of them just can't learn languages.")

So I started studying Chinese, with the belief that maybe no matter how hard I study, I won't ever be able to speak Chinese, because white people just can't, it's way too hard. I heard people say that if you're not exposed to the sounds of a different language as a baby, then you just can't learn it. What a bunch of nonsense.

However, I did know one white missionary who was able to speak Chinese. He was the proof that it could be possible.

And even when I started learning how to say a few sentences, I didn't try to learn the characters, because wow how can anyone learn all those? I actually was skeptical over whether Chinese people really do read and write in Chinese characters- it just seemed so impossible. (Umm, they do.) I didn't even try at first- I thought "well I'll just be illiterate." Surely white people can't really learn to read Chinese characters.

And then I started taking an actual Chinese class in college and guess what, when we learned vocabulary words, we learned to write them in Chinese characters because OBVIOUSLY that's part of what it means to learn a vocabulary word. There was no talk of "but maybe it's too hard and impossible to actually learn to write Chinese." The professor expected us to read and write. Because, OBVIOUSLY.

So please don't go around telling people "Chinese is the hardest language in the world", or that it's unfathomably astounding that someone can speak two languages, or that it's very common that people "just can't" no matter how hard they try, or any crap like that. I really believe that these myths stop a lot of Americans from even trying to learn a second language, even though they totally do have the ability. Yes, it's hard- but it's not so hard that it's pointless to even try.

And by the way, I now speak Chinese fluently, can read and write Chinese characters, and I'm still as white as ever.

It's all about your beliefs and expectations about whether or not you're able to do something, internalized from society and role models in your life before you even try to do the thing.

Of course I worked hard. Of course I have the natural ability to excel in math and engineering. But that's not enough. I also needed adults and role models in my life to tell me which direction I should work hard in. I needed people who said "you're good at this, how about you take this opportunity, I bet you would really like it." And fortunately I had those people in my life. I'm not aware of any parents or teachers who didn't encourage me because I'm a girl. But now I see many places where that could have happened, and probably does happen for other girls. (Or really any demographic that's not "expected" to be good at math and science.) I can now see how there were so many ideas I internalized about what's "normal" and what sorts of things I would or would not be involved in, about my identity, really. I always knew that I was the type of person who would go to college. But I didn't think I was the type of person who would get involved in contest math until my parents explicitly pointed out to me "hey you enjoyed doing that one contest, how about you do more?" It's not about talent alone- I see so many ways that sexism, racism, and other forms of bigotry can influence kids, make them internalize messages about what they should or shouldn't try.

One more thing I will say: Back in middle school and high school, I often heard adults make comments about how it's great that I like math because "we need more girls in math" or "isn't it nice to see a girl winning the math award." And I hated it because for me, there wasn't any sexism that discouraged me from succeeding in math and science class (at least in grades K-12, where all the grading is objective). It felt like they were saying I had overcome something internal, as if femininity was an obstacle I had to defeat in order to be a math genius, instead of just "I am a math genius and being an girl really has nothing to do with it." Really, if you want to bring gender into it, it's not about what I did, it's about what society didn't do. Society often discourages girls from pursuing math and science, but in my case, society did no such thing (at least at that age). Good for you, society!

When kids are that young, they're not really able to question and reject the expectations that society puts on them. If there is sexism or other prejudice that tries to hold them back, they won't recognize it as incorrect and fight against it unless an adult in their life tells them they should. How can a kid know that "people of this certain demographic don't do this certain thing" is a factually incorrect statement? They're not born with an innate understanding of reality; they're learning everything from scratch based on what adults teach them. So don't go and tell the girl "it's great you're doing this because we need more girls in math"- no, tell that to the parents and the teachers. Tell them good job not being sexist, good job recognizing students' natural talent and encouraging them in that direction. When kids are that young, they're not the ones overcoming sexism. They're just doing what their parents and teachers expect and encourage them to do. (Or at least, this was my experience- if yours was different, go ahead and leave a comment.)

It takes more than just skill and hard work. Kids also need access to education and opportunities. But it's more than that too. They need people to tell them "you are good at this, therefore you are totally the kind of person who should choose to take this opportunity, it will be really good for you." Otherwise they might believe the stereotypes and not even realize they have the ability to excel.