Notes on Affirmation

SFFA v. Harvard and the quest for acceptance

Thomas Dai
Illustration by Joules Garcia

I sometimes think about this trip I took to White Plains, New York, during my senior year of college. A Harvard classmate of mine had recruited a few other Asian stu­dents she knew to spend a day talking to Asian teens about apply­ing to college. For our troubles we’d each be paid four hundred dollars plus expenses. A few days before the event, I received an email inviting me to an information session for the “Global Elites Network Xpeed Learning Academy” of which I was now a tem­porary representative. The email contained some rather grandiose promises. Enrolling in the “Academy” would help children become “3x-faster-brained people” than their parents. Students would be trained to learn twenty thousand new words in the span of a single summer. They’d ace the SAT by the time they were twelve.

My classmate had a family friend, let’s call him Chang, who had arranged the whole thing. Chang, a graduate of Tsinghua University (referred to on his LinkedIn profile as “the MIT of China”), had gone big for this event, renting out a ballroom at a Crowne Plaza hotel off Interstate 287. When our minivan full of Asian Harvard students arrived in White Plains, Chang greeted us with an armful of colorful fliers he then asked us to tape up around the ballroom. On the fliers were some of Chang’s favorite affirma­tions: “Execute your great dream!” and “Unlock the genius within!”

One girl and her skeptical mother showed up to the event. Chang stood on stage and said he knew better than the Princeton Review how to get Asian kids into Harvard. He’d prepared slides to that effect—fifty-seven of them, which he now presented to the nearly empty ballroom we’d papered with his sayings. Two hori­zontal lines benchmarking student competency streaked across a graph on the first slide—a red one at 20% progress and a green one at 80%. The green line was labeled “Good,” the red line “Suck.” Imaginary student trajectories had been plotted onto this grid, with the beneficiaries of Chang’s “Xpeed method” breaching the threshold for “Good” at a much faster clip than those on the more “Normal” learning curve.

Last year, 61,220 people applied for admission to Harvard College. Only 3.2 percent of that number got in. What about this situation seems conducive to fairness of any description?

I can’t describe that experience as anything other than a bizarre caricature of the Asian American dream and its obsession with elite education—an obsession I understood all too well, having dedicated much of my life to its pursuit. Chang might have orga­nized this circus, but my classmates and I were its draw. My fel­low “Global Elite” representatives and I hailed from Tennessee and New Jersey, Boston and Boulder. The place we had in common—Harvard—was where Chang’s one potential client wanted to go. The young girl and her mother never took off their coats, but they remained pinned to their seats, as if even the obvious charlatanism on display might offer some scant insight into getting them what they wanted. They asked us what high schools we’d gone to, what additional tutoring we’d sought out, and whether boot camp–style programs such as this one would look good on an Ivy League appli­cation. The simple answer was no, it would not.

shortly after that day in White Plains, my time among the elect officially ended. I graduated from Harvard in 2014, on my twenty-second birthday, prompting my father to joke that my degree in “Organismic and Evolutionary Biology” would be the last birthday gift I would ever see from him (he and my mother, with some finan­cial aid from Harvard, had paid for my entire education). My parents sat in a tented courtyard with the other parents, eating their catered lunches and photographing my every move. In one picture, I am standing outside my dorm with a finialed gate at my back, clutching my diploma like the precious gift receipt that it is. Beside me stand three of my friends: all Asian like me, all clutching the same receipt.

A few months after my graduation, a group calling itself Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) filed suit against Harvard, alleging that the school’s race-conscious admissions policies—broadly known as “affirmative action”—discriminated against Asian Americans while giving undue preference to other minorities. SFFA compared Harvard’s treatment of Asian applicants to the school’s notori­ous Jewish quotas of the 1920s, when Harvard used intentionally vague metrics such as “character and fitness” to suppress Jewish enrollment at the school. This “Hebrew problem,” to quote former Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell, had now yellowed into an “Asian problem,” one that spurious assessments of “character”—today’s “personality ratings”—might again be used to solve. Unlike in the 1920s, today’s discriminatory practices supposedly stemmed from the school’s efforts to create a more racially diverse class. SFFA’s brief against Harvard boiled down to a claim of reverse rac­ism, of being so woke on behalf of African American, Latinx, and Native American students (coded always as undeserving) that these schools had hung a bunch of Asian kids (coded always as smart and hardworking) out to dry.

SFFA was co-founded by the legal activist Edward Blum, who is white. Since 2014, Blum has appealed his case against Harvard up the legal pipeline, bypassing the rulings of two lower courts in order to arrive, with the calculated inevitability of an alumni fund­raising call, at the U.S. Supreme Court, where a decision is now pending. Given the court’s conservative bent, affirmative action’s days appear to be numbered.

i rolled my eyes, hard, upon first reading of Blum’s suit and the contingent of Asian Americans—mostly of Chinese descent like me, it seemed—who supported his case. “Is this really the hill we want to die on?” I asked my friend Daniel. “As if not getting into Harvard is our main grievance in life?” Daniel and I grew up together in the suburbs of Knoxville, Tennessee. In high school, we developed a kind of loving antinomy with each other—he the solidly built science nerd reading Atlas Shrugged in AP Economics; I the wispy gay kid with a notebook full of poems. For the admissions officers who would later read our college applications, though, we likely checked all the same boxes: the same public high school, similar test scores, similar grades in similar classes, the same race (“Asian,” with “China” specifying background), the same income bracket, the same approximate, second-gen immigrant story. Daniel went to Princeton, and after that, medical school at Penn.

“That’s easy for us to say,” said Daniel. His idea was that we had both already drunk from this chalice; the Asians hovering in the wings of Blum’s case had not. The two of us could qualify and even strategically forget our Ivy League degrees as much as we wanted, but neither of us was naïve enough to think that those degrees had not benefited us, much less principled enough to forgo those ben­efits. We understood, if only from the other side, the contours of those litigious Asians’ grievance.

Perhaps this is why those other Asians, the ones who back Blum’s suit, have taken up permanent residence in my head. I feel called upon to defend them but also to apologize on their behalf. I feel like I understand where they’re coming from, the direction their ambitions point. What I can’t understand is why they keep reaching so earnestly for something made unattainable by design—something I conveniently already possess—or why they obsess so much over “fairness,” as if nixing affirmative action would result in that elusive equal playing field for all. I know the issue is more complicated than who gets in and who doesn’t—not only for Asians but for all the minorities who must run themselves through the pepper mill of admissions in a society built on racial hierarchy—but I sometimes find it useful to render the fat out of the discussion. Last year, 61,220 people applied for admission to Harvard College. Only 3.2 percent of that number got in. What about this situation seems conducive to fairness of any description?

In all likelihood, those other Asians aren’t much interested in helping the body politic reimagine fairness in the college admis­sions arena; they’re asking the court to ban affirmative action for practical reasons, because they know that their or their children’s chances of getting into a top-ranked college, law school, or medical program will increase as a result.

As for those Asians who support affirmative action—the “guilty liberal ones,” as one of my friends calls us—we must contend with our own paradoxical positions. To support affirmative action is, in some sense, to act against our own interests as Asian peo­ple who enjoy the enhanced cultural capital that accrues from the merest association with these spaces. I find it cringy to frame pro–affirmative action Asians in this way, as martyrs for multicultural harmony at Ivy League institutions (after all, none of us are actu­ally dying on these hills). And yet something should be said about the intricate self-negation Asians in this country must practice in order to plant their feet on the side of “diversity.”


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By supporting affirmative action, a policy that views many of us as racially null, are we not evacuating ourselves of our Asian heritage and back­ground in order to adopt the same stance of useless solicitude long ago perfected by white progressives?

“It’s an ambivalent gift to owe one’s elevation into a system of privilege to the denigration of others like oneself,” observes the writer Wesley Yang in one of his screeds against affirmative action. Yang and I almost certainly disagree on the level of “denigration” experienced by all the Asians rejected by Harvard, but I think we might concur that the greater, quasi-spiritual problem here is one of affirmation, the ambivalent gifts of access and self-worth bestowed by these policies and institutions. I am sick of chasing the approbation of people I don’t know, whose judgment I don’t always trust. At the same time, I cannot ignore that the internal ledger on which I add and subtract value—to myself and to others—was given to me by institutions like Harvard and, before that, by the desire to enter such a place. Try as I might, I’ve found it diffi­cult to unlearn the habits of mind instilled by these years of model minority striving—all of the anodyne traits and postures that Yang associates with boring middlebrow Asianness. This is why SFFA’s case against Harvard continues to niggle at me: it both outlines and skewers the only kind of Asian I know how to be.

ACCORDING TO THE DICTIONARY, affirmation means “The assertion or reinforcement of the value of (one’s) life.” The value of one’s life is of course impossible to quantify, but that hasn’t stopped me and most of the Asians I know from trying.

By “Asians I know” I am referring to Asian Americans whose families immigrated to this country in the wake of the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which essentially nullified longstanding quotas, as well as outright bans, on immigration from many Asian countries. I’m also referring to Asian Americans primarily of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Indian descent who grew up in upper-middle-class or high-income households and have neither felt the scarcity of dispossession nor the serenity of fitting in. These Asians tend to fall into a paradigm the critic Rey Chow has called the “Protestant Ethnic”—a riff on Max Weber’s notion of the “Protestant work ethic,” which he employed to desecularize capitalism’s incitement to work and produce value, relating that drive to Protestantism’s notion of spiritual “calling.” Chow contends that capitalism hits differently for nonwhite Americans, calling on us to protest the conditions of our oppression in order to access our own dubious states of grace. These protests against racism and discrimination, however warranted, she argues, are ultimately subordinated to a calculus of personal gain that turns ethnicity itself into a profit-generating commodity. In Chow’s strikingly unrosy view, “to be ethnic is to protest—but perhaps less for actual emancipation of any kind than for the benefits of worldwide visibility, currency, and circulation.”

How do you know what kind of person you are—good? bad? entirely mediocre?—unless someone else, preferably someone with prestigious credentials, tells you?

I’ve lived most of my life inside these double binds, never sure how to distinguish what I do in service to myself, my well-being, and my “identity” from what I do to garner the admiration of oth­ers. This is surely a problem many of us have, to varying degrees of severity and self-consciousness. How do you know what kind of person you are—good? bad? entirely mediocre?—unless someone else, preferably someone with prestigious credentials, tells you?

After college, I shelved my biology degree and tried to be a writer instead. I did this by moving to Arizona and enrolling in a creative writing program. During my two years in Tucson, I suc­cessfully subscribed to many narratives. One of these narratives told me I was in noble rebellion against an older part of me—that most Chinese of parts, which thrived on affirmation. I’d come to believe that writing didn’t need positive feedback to be good or important. The best writers didn’t even need an identity, and if they had to have one, it ought to be universal, unmarked. To write was to access and somehow channel a pure interiority that none­theless connected a writer to the world around them. Now that I’ve been at this for a bit, I wonder what it says about me and my pros­pects that I cannot seem to write except with affirmation in mind, that my initial on-ramp to the writing life was the acquisition of the “terminal degree” of an MFA, or that all I feel inspired to write about, at the end of the day, is my identities—the queer, Chinese, Protestant Ethnic me.

After Arizona, I repeated the cycle. I put away my creative writing master’s degree and enrolled in a doctoral program out East. Today, when people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a Ph.D. student in Brown University’s American Studies Department, and when they ask me what that means, I tell them I write, I read, and I apply to things to support my writing and my reading. It’s the applying part that can feel like an actual, onerous job. I’m constantly submitting myself and my achievements to some new fellowship or grant com­mittee, a self-promotional process that feels vaguely cannibalistic, like here is this part of me, please eat it, and then please regurgitate it back to me with some pearl inside the bolus, a jewel I will dig out and paste onto my CV.

I am not an unconfident, wanting person, and yet I seem con­stitutionally incapable of feeling like I’m “done,” like I’ve “made it.” In my mind, I can never be done; I can never have made it. This state of always deferred actualization, of fetishizing my own largely metaphysical lack, feels connected to that part of me which is also all of me: the Asian man in the oak-paneled seminar room, clearing his throat and meekly raising his hand, trying, at long last, to speak honestly about his race.

one annoying thing about affirmation is that you can’t make your­self stop wanting it by telling yourself it’s bad, much like I can’t stop thinking about the Supreme Court case just by telling myself “it’s complicated.”

My friends and I, the Asians I know, we’ve all spoken separately and together about this case, so much so that I could recite our conversations point by point. In this imagined room of biased non-experts, my friend “L” (investment banker, Harvard AB) will say that race-based affirmative action is much more justifiable to her than the long “second look” schools like Harvard give to leg­acies and the children of donors. Our mutual friend “M” (corpo­rate lawyer, former Fulbright Scholar, Harvard AB) agrees while gently remarking that a race-neutral approach that weighed socio­economic class over ethnicity would be preferable, as it would cast “disadvantage” in a more easily quantifiable light. Then “E” (Harvard AB, MA in Public Humanities from Brown) will point out that race and class are inextricably linked in America and that affirmative action in the form of G.I. Bills, New Deal programs, and racially stratified housing loans were all okay when most of the recipients were white. My old friend Daniel will push back a little at this, asking to what extent our concern for other racial minori­ties gets paid back in kind, at which point “J” (Harvard AB, UC Berkeley JD) will bring up a recent think piece by “that Korean guy who writes for the Times” arguing that we should refocus our energies on the education system as a whole, especially community colleges. Forget Harvard! Let’s try and do more for more people! M largely agrees with this but tosses in the caveat that Harvard’s name recognition and bottomless pockets make it a bellwether in the education space, so any ruling that affects it will affect the system as a whole. At which point “B” (Harvard AB, Oxford MSc, Stanford MD Ph.D.) will say she’s getting tired and has rounds in the morning but will point out that we shouldn’t so quickly discount the opinions of our parents’ friends who post politically incorrect content on WeChat, because education can still feel like a zero-sum game to these people, or the only remaining means they have of relating to their Americanized offspring for whom they’ve already sacrificed so much. Everyone will fall silent at this, and then I (Harvard AB, University of Arizona MFA, Ph.D.-in-progress at Brown) will ask what we’d like to order for dinner, and someone will flourish their American Express card as everyone else Venmos, and I will wonder, as I often do, if this is so much a problem for us as a talking point masquerading as one.

back when i was a high school student in suburban Tennessee, I didn’t feel so conflicted about affirmation in any of its forms. The legality of race-based affirmative action had just been validated by another court case, 2003’s Grutter v. Bollinger, though it wasn’t like I was paying attention at the time. I was busy chasing accolades, wearing myself down like the always-pointy lead inside of my mechanical pencil. The details of this process are surely familiar enough to be superfluous. I went to a good school in a safe town where 90 percent of the residents were white. I made straight A’s and tested above average in every subject. I ran four seasons of cross-country to signal that I was more than just an Asian nerd, put myself up for leadership positions, and volunteered at the local library. All my friends did the same things.

At the root of my own grade-grubbing was this part-real, part-phantasmal story of transcendence via academics that for me approximated a kind of mandate. My mother had grown up poor in Mao’s China, the eldest child of two uneducated factory workers. In the late seventies, right after the reinstatement of the college entrance exam, my mother took the gaokao and scored her way into college. She would study chemistry at one of China’s top universi­ties, where she would also meet my father. Together, they moved overseas for their doctorates.

What did this sketch of a story, its telling and retelling, confer? In short, everything. It told me where I came from, and it narrated the chain of events that made me possible: all that Asiatic persever­ance leavened by international migration. It instilled in me a view of what a good life was (right here and now, in America) and what a bad life might be (back there, in China). Most important, it gave a perceptible shape to attainment: a one-generation ascent out of near nothingness, an ascent I could never recreate or match even if I tried. The thing is, I wanted—I needed—to try. My parents had tunneled through space and transpacific time to reach our berth in the States. At the very least, I could make it from Tennessee to Cambridge.

Increased exposure to other Asians did not raise my own racial consciousness. It did, however, teach me how non-Asians tended to view us.

But this is where the phantasmal part of the story comes in: my Ivy League aspirations never cut as deep as I might have implied they did. I wanted what most teenagers in my town, Asian or not, wanted: recognition, applause. The whole immigrant mentality thing—the psychic burdens it implied—was just an ornate way to package my own entirely pedestrian aims, like a rococo lampshade perched on a tungsten bulb. It wasn’t that my parents didn’t buy into the migrant’s famous mentality of diligence and thrift—they certainly did—but they rarely imposed that thinking onto me. The gulf between our circumstances was clear; indeed, it was the fruit of their struggle. Growing up, I resented my parents for not affirm­ing me enough, for not noticing the countless hours I sank into my schoolwork and extracurricular activities, all to one day achieve something that would impress them and elevate me. I never con­sidered that they had no interest in being my taskmasters. Not once did they tell me I had to get into Harvard or some similar institution—they never told me I had to do anything—and yet I found a way to believe that this was what they wanted. I enlisted their Chinese voices to ventriloquize my all-too-American dreams.

during my freshman year, I often called home from the highest floor of my dorm. As my mom talked to me about her life, I’d lis­ten to the garbled speech of the landings below: doors closing, a weirdly regular rhythm of toilets flushing, people loudly practicing their Italian. “Fine,” I’d say when Mom asked how I was doing.

I had this impression that my parents couldn’t understand what Harvard was all about, which is silly, because going to Harvard, in practical terms, merely meant staying up very late in my dorm, downing limpid shots of vodka, and listening to my roommates’ Neutral Milk Hotel covers. What seemed incommunicable was the aura of the place—the proximity I now felt to once-hidden wave­lengths of wealth and power, of acclaim or its potential. My two roommates and I lived on the fourth floor of a towering gothic building, in a three-room suite occupied almost a century earlier by the writer John Dos Passos. I had never read any of Dos Passos’s novels, but now I went to bed each night inside the same semi-hallowed walls that had contained a semi-famous writer, with the same northward view of Harvard Yard. By the end of fall semester, my roommates and I had taken to calling our room “the JDP.”

It was inside the JDP that I once heard someone say that Asians didn’t suffer discrimination in America, not any more, at least. This person posed his thesis not to me in particular but to all of the attendees of a party thrown to spite our proctor, a nebbishy Chinese guy who lived above us with his turtle. I had no interest in rebut­ting this person’s comment, possibly because I secretly concurred with his logic. Going to Harvard had significantly expanded the sample size of the Asian people I knew. I had Asian classmates who were legacies; Asian classmates who’d been recruited from international boarding schools to play squash; Asian classmates my friends and I referred to as “LG Princess” (supposedly an heir to a Korean fortune) and “Xi Jinping’s daughter” (heir to a Chinese political dynasty). The Asian students I befriended and eventually lived with all participated in activities relevant to their ethnicity. L became the president of the school’s Chinese Student Association, a cultural organization known for its raucous parties whose members sometimes sported red pinnies with “Got Rice?” emblazoned on their fronts. M tutored for a public service group called Chinatown Afterschool. I ran a campus fashion show called “Identities” whose main purpose was to send a hyperdiverse array of beautiful Harvard students teetering down a runway.

Increased exposure to other Asians did not raise my own racial consciousness. It did, however, teach me how non-Asians tended to view us. To have an Asian-looking face at Harvard suggested that you had made it here on your own merit. At the same time, you weren’t white, which meant there was the Anglo backdrop, the “Final Clubs,” the J. Press-supplied, Take Ivy-inspired drag of it all, and then there was you, making scallion pancakes with your friends in the basement, dressed to go out in midnight slacks and a faux biker jacket. Somehow, you contained both: the myth of pure potential undiluted by “bias” and the equally potent myth of your difference.

Every stereotype is supposed to be a trap, a cage of persona the individual “I” must wriggle free from. This process of meta­phorical liberation gets dicey if the stereotype you’re attached to is a positive one, because conforming to such a stereotype, letting it trap you, can also feel good. It can feel, that is, like affirmation. The scholar Leslie Bow terms this dynamic “racist love,” a phrase that encapsulates for me affirmation’s double-edged nature. For many Asian Americans, as Bow argues, “the slur can be indistinguish­able from the compliment.” We are not just dutiful, well-behaved, or competent; we are too dutiful, too well-behaved, too competent, and these otherwise desirable traits can, in certain situations, turn into stigmata.

last october, right before SFFA v. Harvard was argued in our nation’s highest court, I went back to my alma mater to attend an open-mic session organized by a student group known as the Affirmative Action Coalition. The event took place on a rainy after­noon outside the Harvard Science Center. One by one, Harvard undergrads, mostly Asian, took the mic and spoke. Someone said they refused to be deployed as a “tool of white supremacy.” Someone else juxtaposed the collectivist ethos often imputed to Asian soci­eties against the evils of Western individualism, insisting that we needed to embrace our cultural roots in the name of cross-racial coalition. A young woman, self-identifying as Uyghur, presented herself as evidence that Asians at Harvard were not a monolith. “From the slopes of the Himalaya, to the sands of the Gobi, to the sparkling Pacific, we’re different!” she called to a chorus of yeses. One of the few Black students at the event kept her remarks suc­cinct: “I don’t really give a fuck about being an affirmative action admit. It says more about our system than it does about me.”

The word diversity came up in almost every speech. I stood a little removed from the circle, listening and trying to tamp down my own cynicism. I had been one of these students not so long ago, and when I was that person, I’d often mistaken diversity for justice, as if one simply begat the other. But these students weren’t dumb. They seemed to get the subtleties of the term or were figuring out the nuances as they went. Either way, they’d picked both a cause and a side, which is more than I can say for the student I used to be. That student was walking past right now, reincarnated as a young Asian man passing through the Science Center’s revolving doors with a paper sleeve of fries in his hand. Upon noticing the crowd, he stopped and asked me what we were meeting about. I told him it was about affirmative action, the case to be argued the next week. He said “oh,” and walked off to class.

here’s the rub, as I see it. We want affirmation but dislike the people we become to get it. We doubt it when it’s real and clutch it closest when it’s fake. We despise the arcane game of pulleys and levers that’s been devised for obtaining it and yet are perpet­ually that game’s players. Affirmation: what I give away daily to friends and students but feel uncomfortable lavishing upon myself. Affirmation: the words that exhort us to keep going, keep working, keep telling the score. Affirmation: the snake that eats its own tail until all that’s left is its mouth.

Next year, if all goes according to plan, I will receive my last degree from my final Ivy League institution. I will also go back to Harvard for my ten-year reunion, where we will all size each other up and assess what the previous decade has wrought. What am I to do but keep going? The defeatist’s answer, but also that of the practical optimist—the kind of Asian I want to be. Maybe it’s those of us without the luxury of pretending we’re inside the fold who’re best equipped to wean ourselves off this system’s ambiva­lent gifts. And maybe it’s those of us who keep fantasizing we’ll be included that have the most trouble changing the mathematics of our valuation.

There is certainly something of me in the reams of classes taken and grades received, but it’s not the part of me I want to flourish.

my mother didn’t believe me when I told her I’d gotten into Harvard. “Forward me the email,” she demanded. “Are you sure that it’s real?”

I was standing on the seat of a friend’s ATV, trying to bolster my flip phone’s spotty reception. My friends and I had decided to go off-grid for the week, camping in a wooded gulch on the North Carolina border. Our intention had been to live in the present and not think about our collegiate futures, but when Decision Day came, we all stopped feigning indifference. After a mad dash up a literal mountain in search of the nearest Wi-Fi, we came to the door of a log cabin owned by two retirees. Bemused, the retirees let us in and plugged in their Y2K-era dial-up so that each of us could check our emails. Most of us received bad news on that day. Not me. I read only the email’s first line, “I am delighted to inform you…” before going back down the mountain to drink.

The sense of attainment I felt right then—it was real, but it didn’t sustain me as long as I expected. What would I say if I could speak honestly, now, to that girl in White Plains or to that young man outside the Harvard Science Center? I’d tell them it’s okay to keep looking for validation from without, but that affirmation in its deepest sense is much more than a singular moment of bene­diction, a compliment paid or honorary degree. I’d tell them about the friends who were with me on the day I got in, the friends who drank to my achievement and their disappointment, neither of which was as life-changing as it seemed.

What we think of as affirmation might be the constant seeking that self-actualization demands.

I’d also tell them it’s just college, and eventually it ends. The year after I graduated from Harvard, I finally got around to reading a book by Dos Passos. In The 42nd Parallel, the author describes his narrator sitting alone in the same room my roommates and I dubbed the JDP, “looking out into the twilights of the pleasantest four years” of his life. I too can recall sitting in that room looking out at campus, chipping away at some problem set as an acquaintance dropped by to shoot the breeze. Dos Passos captures the hermeti­cism of those years: “four years under the ethercone breathe deep gently now that’s the way be a good boy one two three four five six get A’s in some courses but don’t be a grind be interested in litera­ture but remain a gentleman don’t be seen with Jews or Socialists.” Something changes by the end of the narrator’s reflections on Harvard, though it’s the person and not the place that’s in flux. He has grown tired of that aerie without air. He feels as cold as “a cup of tea forgotten between an incenseburner and a volume of Oscar Wilde,” as if he might go mad “listening to the streetcarwheels screech grinding in a rattle of loose trucks round Harvard Square.” I didn’t go mad, but I too wanted out at some point. Because of bore­dom and restlessness and the fear I was losing touch. Because the “pressure outside sustained the vacuum within.” Because I didn’t feel like myself anymore, despite all the affirmations.

i won’t fault you for believing that the kind of affirmation I’ve been describing, the affirmation I’m still after, might not even exist. There are certain feelings defined more by their impossibility than their indulgence. What we think of as affirmation might be the constant seeking that self-actualization demands. Having never felt it, I do not know how to give it up.

My favorite dictionary entry for affirm is an archaic one: “to establish firmly; to fix, make secure.” Acting affirmatively in some­one’s interest doesn’t mean catapulting them skyward. It’s hold­ing them down and giving them space; it’s granting to them an unfurling sense of security and permanence. Getting into and later going to Harvard did make me very happy at times, but my admis­sion did not affirm me in that way. What has affirmed me—among so many other uncountable boons—were those friends who were with me the day I was accepted, arms flung around my shoulders as we walked back down the mountain, already planning future visits while calculating how much booze was left in the camper. Some blurry vision of “success” had come into view up there on the mountain, but it was the walk back down that affirmed me, that put the ground back beneath my feet.

Thomas Dai is working on his Ph.D. in American Studies at Brown University. His first book, a collection of essays exploring travel, place, and identity, is forthcoming from W. W. Norton.
Originally published:
June 12, 2023


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