Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
There’s a story from my days at Yale that I don’t remember ever telling anyone. But then I watched Mr. Kavanaugh make “but I got into Yale” into a moral defense against accusations of criminal wrongdoing. Well, so did I, buddy, so did I. And in my case, I actually had no connections to the university, whereas his grandfather was an alumnus.
In the summer of 2001, the summer after my freshman year, I rented a house just off campus on Lynwood Place with several classmates. Each of us had intended to major in one science or another — physics in my case — and each of us was working that summer in one lab or another.
Summers are when American colleges hold reunions. One Friday night, when I happened to be the only one in our house, the doorbell began to ring incessantly. I went over to the window from which I could see who was at the door. It was a white man in his mid- to late-twenties. And he was visibly drunk. He saw me through the window as I saw him.
“Open up!” he bellowed.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“You go to Yale?”
“Well, I’m an alum,” he said. “I’m here for the reunion.”
“I used to live here. Now let me in.”
“Come on, let me in.”
He began shouting obscenities. “Yale has really gone downhill since I was here,” he said. “Now they let in pathetic Asian nerds like you, not even going out to party on a Friday night.” Words to that effect, as best as I can recall.
Then he unzipped his pants and urinated on my door.
News about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is reminding me of this night. I know nothing about the accusations against him other than what’s public for all to read. But I am familiar with a certain type of Yale men (and women). They are members of the privileged class, and they know it. They are supposed to be able to do just what they want like they own the place, because in a way, they do.
That June evening in 2001 was, in retrospect, one lesson in a long and ongoing curriculum that life has had in store for me. American society, I was beginning to realize, was built around the privilege of the traditional WASP ruling class, even if each individual member of that class was not necessarily W or AS or P — or M.
This may seem obvious to some. But when I was growing up, names like Harvard and Yale and MIT were to my ears, to my parents’ ears, synonyms only for academic excellence, not privilege. To our immigrant and aspirational minds, you went to these famous institutions if you were smart and you worked hard. It was only later that I realized that, in the eyes of most Americans, you went to these institutions if your family was rich.
In fairness — and this was part of the curriculum — both views were correct. I knew some incredibly smart and hardworking people in college as well as some remarkably privileged ones. Such was — and is — the Janus face of not only a place like Yale but of America itself, both a meritocracy and an aristocracy.
The difference is that the working-class or middle-class strivers who worked their way into Yale would never come to a stranger’s house in the middle of the night, drunk, and demand admittance while screaming racial slurs. Never would they piss on the door. Strivers who had to earn their spot anywhere they went would never feel so entitled as that.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."