Caucusing

Over the weekend, I participated in the Washington State Democrat Caucus to elect a candidate for the 2017 US presidency. As I’ve never lived in a state where caucusing was the norm, it was a completely new experience for me. And I must admit, afterwards, the sentiment and fervor have really stayed with me.

For those who are unfamiliar, caucusing is an alternative to primaries, the other way of electing a party candidate. In primaries, voters cast ballots for their candidate, similar to the general election. The procedure is quick, lasting as long as it takes to stand in line waiting for a machine or mail in an absentee ballot. Caucusing, on the other hand, is a very involved and lively process. At the precinct level (one can think of a precinct as a small subdivision of a district or county, although none of the borders align), neighbors and friends gather to debate their candidate, vote to allocate their share of delegates, who are elected amongst themselves to represent them at the county and state levels, and eventually, at the democratic national convention.

At 10 in the morning on Saturday, I biked down to the Montlake Elementary School, where my precinct, along with a dozen or so others, held its caucus. I signed in, filled out a registration form, and marked down my candidate of choice. From there, I packed myself into a trailer classroom with more than a hundred other voters. We introduced ourselves to each other while we waited. I was sitting across the table from a woman who happened to also be a PhD student, who worked in the building down the street from mine. Next to me was a couple animatedly discussing their need of roof repairs following a recent windstorm. Eventually, the rumble of conversation died down, and we were instructed to split into our precincts and begin the actual caucusing procedure.

Because of the large turnout, several precincts spilled out into the sports field. Our precinct gathered into a circle, divided into our respective camps: Hillary and Bernie. The most valuable voters, the undecided, stayed in the middle. Our precinct had three delegates to allocate, and those undecided swing voters were pivotal to the allocation of the third delegate. Over the next hour, we made our case, talked pros and cons, gave examples in support and in defense of our candidate. There were moments of calm and moments of passion. At one point, a woman from the other side threw a barbed insult and tempers seemed to flare, but civility and arbitration prevailed. The main arguments on the Hillary side seemed to be that she was the practical candidate. Even though many in her camp did not love her politics, they felt that she would be the better representative for the party in the general election. On the Bernie side, we united behind his progressive ideals and consistent policies, arguing that even if he seems the longshot, a vote for him sends a message. Back and forth the arguments flew, taking turns, rising and ebbing, until one by one, we made our commitments.

I think the most meaningful moment of the morning for me was when one of Hillary’s supporters stood out to speak. Instead of making a case for Hillary or against Bernie, she talked about the right to vote, or rather, the lack of the right not to vote. “People died for your right to vote,” she said, pointedly, “people die for the right.” And in a country where so many people take that right for granted, where so many people, whether out of nonchalance or laziness, never show up to elections, general or local, that felt like an awakening.

On that Saturday morning, it actually felt like the system works. My voice held weight; my vote was not just a name on a piece of paper. And even though I’m still convinced that the politics in this country are broken, it seems that people in the community genuinely want to and believe that we can fix it.

There they’ll stay

Legality is fuzzily defined in China. It’s how I imagine things were here in the States in the earlier parts of the twentieth century, when instead of having clear divisive cans and cannots, whether or not something could be done depended on how much money one was willing to spend. I never complained. I took advantage of the system when I was there, working semi-legally, paying taxi drivers to take me places I wasn’t supposed to be, handing off sums for after-hours head CTs. Conveniences.

Most of the time, nothing happens, not even when the police are in vicinity watching with amused eyes. They themselves are likely on the beneficiary end of this long chain of conveniences. Yet, once in a while, probably due to Party pressure, or some local leader acting to show his power, the authorities like to make a demonstration, an example, out of some unlucky fool who had pushed the boundaries too many times to escape a bad draw.

Street food vending is for the large part, unregulated. I mean, who in their right mind complains about the availability of delicious food at all hours of the day, and night, around every neighborhood and street corner? Although I’ve never seen an on-duty officer eating at one of these spots, I’m sure every last one has slurped and sweated away long nights under those same steamy canopies. Since there’s no discussion on whether these stands are beneficial, the question becomes whether they are legal. Probably not, at least not the meals-on-wheels or fully-lined-bed-sheet-ready-to-swing-over-the-shoulders-as-soon-as-the-smell-of-law-enforcement-hits variety. Once in a while though, a quick getaway is impossible, and the entire herd watches as a dozen or so officers (where do they all appear from?) sloppily break down the whole affair. It’s a medium-paced destruction of salvaged construction material, plywood, aluminum siding, maybe a glossy signage or two, and the purveyor(s), usually a sad-looking middle-aged couple with ruddy cheeks and rough hands. They are never confrontational; the risk comes with the territory, and there’s an unspoken knowledge that they will be back to it again in no time.

Bystanders pass by with a lingering gaze or two. This is commonplace. When I was in Beijing last month, I witnessed such an event, yet another familiar sight to add to my brimming case of nostalgia. But it was when I pulled out my phone (blasted smart phones with camera capabilities) to take a picture when I realized that maybe this wasn’t just some ordinary event, deemed perfectly acceptable for the masses to see. The advent of pocket-sized film and photo technology in recent years has led to unpopular and potentially damaging social critique headlines the likes of “Two-year old Girl Ran Over By Van and Ignored By 18 Bystanders,” “Chinese Politician’s Son Dies in Ferrari Sex Orgy Crash,” and so forth. No official wants to become the next Li Gang, or whoever has taken the place of that meme in recent years (I haven’t kept up). Maybe it was reactionary then, as I whipped out my phone and snapped a few fuzzy stills, that the officer in charge who had been standing to the side would notice, trudge up to me, and ask me what I thought I was doing. There was an honest burst of fear as I quickly lowered and dropped my phone back in my pocket. Anxieties followed in waves. Would he take my phone? Would he require that I remove all evidence or smash it if I refused or even hesitated? Would he take my name, ask for my identification only to learn that I was not a Chinese citizen? Would I be black-listed from the country? A bit extreme, that last one, but as he stood there and told me not to forget who I am, who my heart belongs to (China.), I could feel myself getting cold. “Don’t forget,” he said before turning away from me.

Election day

Political discussions tend to bring out strong emotions in people, regardless of how much an individual proclaims to not care. As removed as we often are from the actual processes of bill writing and enforcing, these are decisions that affect people’s lives in very real ways. It is important to not write these discussions off as just another card in a political agenda, and think about their long term consequences to the community at large. Because after all, what is more representative of a nation than the way it treats its citizens and the priorities of its citizens.

Just a few more hours left to go in Maryland. There are as always a number of important questions on the ballot this year: the state Dream Act, same sex marriage, casino expansions… if anything, this is a time to reflect upon our individual power to affect change.

Diaoyutai

Anti-Japanese sentiments in China are strong these days. Recent developments were long time coming, the result of the buildup of years and years of resentment, layered over a tempestuous history, spurred on as younger generations grow increasingly frustrated with the complacency of their elders and the political leaders who represent them. Some of the mob actions are borderline barbarous and contemptuous, but only confirm the hostility that still runs rampant since the end of the war.

The latest battle over Diaoyutai/Senkaku certainly looks to be a political maneuver; the location and potential for resources are a great draw for all parties involved. However, the reasons behind China’s actions may be more domestic in nature. Recent “weak” displays in foreign policy leave the Chinese leadership in an uncomfortable situation, desperate to prove to the restless masses that they are not still struggling to find their footing on the international playground. There is a lot of concern that China does not command respect from her peers, that she has not displayed the same sort of presence that her gigantic population, economy, and bed of resources ought to. Internally, the party still struggles with inconsistency, corruption, and the like, truths which cannot be veiled simply by economic success in numbers.

Ultimately, there is still something to prove. Enough dissidence shake people in their Feiyue boots, and a broiling tide of discontent struggles beneath the curtain of censorship and state media. Picking a fight in the East China Sea seems a logical outlet, a way to redirect the flames, especially when the enemy is a well-known and equally well-hated one. This was going to be a domestic success before it even started.

Still, the act cannot shake the appearance of comedy. Like an overgrown schoolyard bully who picks a fight because his new physical prowess grants him the right, China is obligated to flex her muscles, but immature for fulfilling the stereotype. And why is the US playing such a provocative part in all this? Stoking the fire for yet another confrontation only feeds our characterization as a warmonger, and goes nowhere in changing the ugly, ugly Sino-Japanese reality that the US played a large part in building.