August in Howard

Per August 1st, me and Nike –my dear Arryman friend- started volunteering at Howard Area Community Center (HACC), a neighborhood-based food depository. In the past, I’ve done voluntary works for children, but never catered for adults. This experience is a completely new one with anxiousness lurking in every corners. Despite worrying whether my English is good enough, and whether my attitude fits or not, I figure voluntary work might be a good chance to engage in a more extensive and intensive environment with native English speakers. Hence, I agreed to this idea after spending a couple of days sitting on it.

Out from Howard Station to N Paulina st, where HACC is located.

Martha, HACC’s volunteer supervisor, assigned both me and Nike to the “in-take” post. As an in-taker, our task is pretty simple. Every “Food Pantry” day -which are Mondays and Thursdays- I have to sit in front of the computer for two hours and welcome HACC’s clients, which are mainly homeless and underprivileged members of the Howard area community. This step is considered vital for the whole food distribution system mainly because we’re the ones responsible in deciding whether a client is eligible for food distribution or not. There are a couple of things that I and Nike have to consider before giving somebody the green light: whether a client is in their thirty-days distribution window or not (come to early, and a client may be rejected!), whether they bring all required documents to claim their food or not, and whether they act according to the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) or not.


HACC’s Staff and Volunteers Working together. 

While checking the clients in, and matching their IDs to the Center’s database, I usually slip a bit of conversation starters to know them a tiny bit better; “how’s your day going?”, “is it hot outside?”, “you seem tired, take a quick breather first”, or a simple “hi”. The response varies, it may range from “Hi how are you”, “good thanks”, or even just plain silence. After several tries with different clients, I figure, my initial-customer-care-smile doesn’t always work which ultimately adds more to my pool of anxiousness. Although most of the times all I got was poker faces, there are also people who greets me from afar and just keep on smiling.  S, for example, got in the in-take room with a one-two step dance move, and hands wide open while saying “how you doin’ young fella? What a wonderful day this is, we’re blessed. There are many things to smile about. Wow.”. For people who are open to conversations, I usually take more time to appreciate their friendliness and share stories with them. I enjoy speaking to them, as they embraced me as their own.

Through years of observation in the area, Martha was able to concur that the different response given by clients are mainly due to the different experience they had to deal with in daily basis. One must be aware that most of HACC’s clients are highly exposed to poverty and domestic violence. Some might even had it worse than others; I’ve met with a jobless client who have 10 children, a client who just got evicted with no place to stay for the night, drug and alcohol addicts, etc. Martha was convinced that a client who has been suffering a lot might have a bigger chance of giving bitter response compared to those who had a relatively lax week. Yet, this might not always be the case, because I’ve also met with a client who just got his ID and documents mugged, but can still smile and give positive response.

View of Howard Area surroundings

Whatever the client’s response is, be it painful silence or warm greetings, I am fortunate to get a glimpse of their live. Their response might not fully express their personality, but it tells stories of everyday struggles and joy of living in Howard. From an outsider’s perspective, Howard might not be much due to its lack of infrastructure –some even consider it to be a “no go” area- but for those living in the area, Howard might be a living organism with its own sociocultural dynamics.

As I reflect back to the client’s stories, I realized that I’ve gained a lot from them while it should’ve been the whole way around. Aside from regaining my joy of meeting new people, I also enjoy being thrown out of my comfort zone. On top of it all, I learned to be more appreciative towards small-scattered details in the first part of my US journey. The people at Howard might have little to survive on, yet they still managed to be thankful. Hence, who am I –rather who are we- to not be so?

On American Writers

Sit down. Inhale. Exhale.
       – Gwendolyn Brooks, “To the Young Who Want to Die”

“I’m planning to bring you to the American Writers Museum in Chicago,” said Beth Morrissey, the Assistant Director of Arryman Scholars Initiative. “YES, PLEASE!” I might sound a little bit over-enthusiastic. For someone who knows about the U.S. from afar, some U.S. writers have a significant influence on me. I read Moby Dick, a classic novel by Herman Melville, in my junior high school, but I had no idea about how to read it besides enjoying its great sea adventure and the battle of life-and-death with the white whale (it slightly reminds me of Jonah’s story in the Bible). A few years later, when I became more advanced on reading English book, I found that the novel actually gives an experience; a part of me was floating with the ship, crossing the sea facing the mighty giant that pull me to be intimate with it. Beth’s offer to me and my dear friend, Ara, to go to the museum, recalls my memory about the time I was able to appreciate English, particularly the U.S. literature

The American Writers Museum is located on the downtown of Chicago, on the busy Michigan street where the babel towers eclipse the summer sky. It is not a big, wide museum, but I could sense an intimate feeling. After paying the ticket, we went to a gallery room of children’s literature, and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are was there along with Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat and E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. What a lovely first impression.

Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are

Near the children gallery, we saw a big map of the U.S.A projecting a visual profile of writers across the country. “Nation of Writers” so it says, and on its right side is the central content of this museum: an alley of 100 writers from the era of 1600s, writers across periods, their forms of writing (political speech, folklore, autobiography, memoir, food writing), powerful quotes, and, what I really appreciate, some literary comments toward the text. The museum does not only introduce or expose the historical fact of American writers—who are they, where they live, what they write—but also provides us a brief way of reading their works, closely and critically.

Across the wall of writers is the shelf of surprises where you can see another set of authors and their words. When you open each shelf, you will see a writing explanation about the author and sometimes a video, a sound, or a smell (believe me, the garlic smell in one of the shelves is unforgettable). At the end of the alley, there is another visual projection, namely word waterfall, exposing quotes in motion by using a lightning effect. It is definitely pretty and moving, like a dance; the words dance, playing around, sharing images, and take a pause on something powerful like George Carlin’s “That’s why they call it American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

The Word Waterfall

After that, we continued to the reader corner and writer corner where both have interactive activities for the visitors. On the reader corner, the visitors can make a list of their favorite books (my first choice was Zora N. Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God) and on the writer corner, we can write something using the typewriter and put it on the wall with other visitor’s writing. I did romanticize the idea of putting random words in certain place, so I did my own: started with an almost-sad rant, but then ended up with the reversed version of Dr. Seuss’ “green eggs and ham” because I was hungry (I wrote it “green ham and egg.” Silly me).

Silly poem

Ara also enjoyed his time typing a letter, and after the visit, Beth said, “It was really cool.” Couldn’t agree more with her. We think that the museum is well-curated; we do not see white-male authors only, but also great numbers of women and colored authors. I am very content reading Zora N. Hurston’s profile right in the middle of other white-male authors like T. S. Eliot and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is indeed a chronological consideration, but it still conveys a strong message about the significance of long-abandoned voices in the U.S. history. We hope the museum could expand the list of writers, because I think, personally, Ursula K. Le Guin should be on the list as well.

Finally, Chicago is a dynamic city and it has a really strong (local) history of literature and influential authors—among others Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, and Saul Bellow—whose writings are powerful, beyond time and space, reaching their own people’s heart and inspiring many to read, to write, to struggle.