Days of Sorrow, Days of Lead: 1. Russia invades Ukraine

Fragment of a Shirt, Ukraine, last quarter of the 18th century. Cotton, silk, linen. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Edward S. Harkness in memory of her mother, Elizabeth Greenman Stillman, 1931. 2009.300.2714

Today is February 25, 2022. It is a dreary day in New York. I woke up at 5:30 this morning to check the news, watching rockets—or missiles? I do not know my weapons—arc over the skies in Kyiv. Lots of people are drawing parallels between Taiwan and Ukraine. I can see why. At the same time, each one is its own specific situation, and drawing easy equivalencies does neither favors. At the same time, I do believe that, as a Taiwanese American (whose entire extended family, minus one or two other members, still lives in Taiwan), I can understand something of what it feels like to be Ukrainian right now. Why so many volunteered to stay and fight.

There are, on a personal level, no good choices. On one side — to stay — lies war, and suffering, and death. On the other side — to leave — means living a life in exile.

I’ve lived with these specters all my life. War and exile.

When my grandfather left Shanghai in 1949 with Chiang Kai-Shek, he left with almost nothing. Just the clothes on my back, he used to say. He did not know, not then, that he wouldn’t see his native Zhejiang until decades later, when he was already an old man. He came to Taiwan and made another life. He was a survivor. But survival had a cost.

In my family, one grandfather served Chiang Kai-Shek. The other served Hirohito. Both paid dearly for some powerful man’s dreams, manias, and whims. After the Second World War, both hoped for a future where future generations could — and would —make a different kind of life.

*

We are still living with — and reviving — old ghosts.

There are those among us —Putin, Xi —who wish to revisit sad old imperialistic dreams. Who want to subjugate independent states and establish colonial relations. Putin demonstrates that he is willing to force his own country — and people — to pay a steep cost in order to pursue those dreams.

*

But. I am an eternal optimist. Perhaps my background conditioned me for that. I believe in Ukraine. I believe in Ukrainians. They are fighting. They are holding on.

I believe in our shared capacity to dream—and create—a world free from autocracy, and — rather than list out abstractions like “peace” and “prosperity” (which all carry a vaguely unsavory tinge, anyway, of sloganeering and other, creepier things) — I will say, instead, this — Putin wants to extinguish a society that is open, that is oriented towards freedom and diversity and self expression—a society that is not servile and constricted, tamed for exploitation. But such fires, once lit, are impossible to put out. Brute force alone cannot do it. Neither can a closed and oppressive authoritarian government.

*

I don’t know how else to say it: Fuck Putin and fuck the autocrats.

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