Helicopters circled overhead, the sound of their blades penetrating into my kitchen, sending me and my Siamese cat into a tailspin of terror. Protesters outside chanted in unison an indistinguishable cacophony of anti-Trump slogans, my heart rate skyrocketing as I considered whether to join them in the park, run in the other direction to the nearest bakery and stuff my face with a red velvet cupcake, or bury my head in my hands and sob. It was the day after the presidential election and I was still trying to process what the hell had just happened to me, my fellow Angelenos, Californians, and Americans. Could this really be true? Could reality TV star Donald Trump really be my new president? Could the xenophobic-racist-sexist-nasty-as-a-nacho-cheese-burp rhetoric that slipped out of his mouth really have just been given the stamp of approval by the nation?
The night before, as election results started rolling in, I found myself at my local Long Beach Farmers’ Market, buying organic greens and talking to my neighbors about potentially horrific outcomes. “Trump might win,” my bohemian-sings-in-a-folk-band-artist friend Monica said as we lounged under her Gypsies of Bohemia henna art tent.
“I think it could be ok,” I reassured her. “We’re only seeing the returns from the Bible Belt and the Midwest right now.” She went back to drawing henna designs, and I went home with my radical ayurvedic yogi girl friend Rosa to eat salmon and kale while we watched the rest of the returns roll in. With Pennsylvania hanging and set to determine the final outcome, we knew what was in store for us. “We’re doomed,” Rosa said.
“Yup,” I agreed. As Pennsylvania turned red on my MacBook screen in the next few moments, we tried to accept our fate, not without visceral lashings-out in sheer panic, however. “Oh no!” I cried. “I’m everything radical Trump supporters hate: I’m a woman. I’m Asian. I’m an artist. I’m… I’m… I’m yoga pants!” Referencing the intolerant posters of radical Trump ralliers in the lead-up to the election that literally denounced yoga pants, tears started rolling down my cheeks.
Rosa left my house that night on her bicycle, texting me when she got home. “You should go outside and get some fresh air,” she urged. “It helped clear my head a lot.” I would go outside for a walk to try to do just that, but it wouldn’t help much. The next several months passed by largely in a blur of shock, horror, denial, and fatigue at Trump and all the chaos he had stirred up in our nation and beyond.
Six months later, I found myself on an SAS flight to Stockholm, mostly to see my sexy Swedish boyfriend but also to attend a design conference in Amsterdam called “What Design Can Do,” a two-day event that aimed to bring together professionals in various design fields under the banner of global climate change action. On day one of the conference, designers, intellectuals, and experts of fields from law to finance to media came together to discuss this increasingly important issue.
In a workshop with IKEA’s head of design, we created ideas for democratic homes, where energy was regenerative and the pushing and pulling of drawers could fuel an LED plant grower-filled kitchen that produced fresh herbs and veggies. In a session on local food movements, Brazilian chef and restaurateur Rodrigo Oliveira discussed his restaurant’s inclination toward local Brazilian-sourced food highlighting the country’s unique topography, how that won him a Michelin star, and how other restaurants might look to recreate his model. In a session on corporations and finance, we discussed pension and investment funds, how they’re responsible for a significant portion of climate change, and how we as investors can make empowered financial decisions that are also attentive to the environment.
All in all, I was absolutely blown away at the level of discourse my European counterparts were bringing to the table throughout the conference. They seamlessly integrated intellectual dialogue on design and social matters in a way that was incredibly rare in America, where the design world tends to be more closely linked with commerce. My European colleagues were easily able to engage in cross-disciplinary interaction as academics, artists, activists, or all of the above. And perhaps most importantly, my European friends had what I believe to be the right perspective on President Trump, mocking him throughout the two-day event for his explicit denial that climate change is a real thing.
This was the freshest breath of air I’d inhaled in about a year, from the venomous presidential campaign trail to the panic attack-inducing election night, on to the anxiety-filled inauguration period. Dutch, German, English, or Swedish, my pan-European colleagues were informed, cosmopolitan, awake, and aware, perhaps best evidenced in the seemingly simplest of interactions.
At the close of the conference, I attended a vegetarian dinner held at a Dutch modern restaurant by the beautiful Amsterdam canals. As I chomped on fresh asparagus, a sophisticated and striking young Dutch graphic designer, Loes, began chatting with me, our conversation quickly flowing into China territory. “I find it interesting that China wasn’t really mentioned at all at this conference,” Loes noted, pouring herself some more tempranillo, “especially since Europe is essentially becoming a museum piece.”
“I guess it is, isn’t it?” I agreed.
“We should really be engaging with them on the subject,” she added. As our conversation continued, Loes amused me, a long-time China watcher and anthropologist of the region, with her more-than-adequate knowledge on China and the country’s place in the grander geopolitical picture. This young woman, no official China expert of any sort but a graphic designer by profession, possessed just as much information on the subject of China as actual China specialists I’ve met in the field of international relations. Furthermore, that we could so smoothly slide into dialogue with one another in the interest of knowledge-sharing and truth-finding was refreshing. All too often in America, healthy debate fell off a cliff into a space of defensiveness, fiery opinion enforcement, and stonewalling. Elegant, attuned, refined, artistic, and intelligent, Loes was symbolic of the larger European scenario I encountered on my trip. While this points to class, education, and socioeconomic stratification differences between Europe and America, I couldn’t help but feel we Americans appeared selfish, bloated, ignorant, uninformed, and just flat out stupid from where I was standing. There with Loes, we were absolutely living up to our negative stereotypes.
As conversation with Loes wrapped up with the close of dinner, she and I made our way over to the restaurant’s dance floor. Chef Oliveira handed us a glass of Brazilian cachaca and with that, we drank, we laughed, and we danced the night away. I walked home along the Amsterdam canals in the early morning with a belly full of alcohol, a mind full of ideas, and a heart full of inspiration.
A week later, after a whirlwind tour through Berlin and its wicked street art scene, I boarded a flight back to L.A. My trip was over, but two weeks in Europe had changed me. Whether as a designer, an academic, or just as a human being, I’d been deeply moved by my European colleagues. They were having the conversations I wanted to have. They were thinking progressively, discussing rationally, and acting accordingly. I didn’t want to overgeneralize an entire continent of people. I didn’t want to make a select group of urban professionals I interacted with representative of a vast group of highly diverse people. But these were the conclusions I had to walk away with based on my individual experience of the region. As I sat on that airplane flying over the Atlantic, I determined that I wanted to bring this European spirit back with me to America, most especially all that I’d absorbed related to climate change. And it was feasible as a Californian. Putting on my headphones, I fell fast asleep on that comforting thought.
Ten hours later, as my plane landed at LAX, the bright California sun beaming through our oval windows, I turned my iPhone off airplane mode and scanned through Google for the news. “President Trump Leaves Paris Climate Agreement” the headlines screamed at me. Seriously?! I thought to myself. Like a bucket of ice cold water to the face, the message was clear: Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in enlightened Europe anymore.
Defeated, I rolled my suitcase out to my Uber, arrived home shortly after, and fell into a deep jet-lagged hibernation. Waking up a few days later, I did what any good red-blooded American should do after a meaningful experience: I went to Disneyland.
With yogi Rosa and dominatrix Diana at my side, we teacupped, we Splash Mountained, and we Peter Panned. In-between, we talked about Black Lives Matter, about California’s role as the renegade state in the Trump era, and about China’s effect on Los Angeles real estate prices. Conversation, while at once discouraging, was also encouraging. Why? Because it was happening. Just like it was happening in Europe, it was happening here among three California women. And so in that moment, I felt there was hope for the future. Trump’s negative influence would roll forward, but we women would continue to assert ourselves and our opinions. California would forge ahead in its defiance. Governor Jerry Brown would meet directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss climate change controls. And global designer-anthropologists like myself would do what we could to stay engaged with important social-political-environmental subjects while practicing our crafts.
Designer and thinker Bruce Mau said at the close of the “What Design Can Do” conference that “We cannot afford the luxury of cynicism.” No truer words were spoken in regards to the critical importance of dialogue and action in our times. Stonewalling gets us nowhere; healthy communication gets us everywhere. Sorry, America, but there’s no red velvet cupcake in the the world to ease our pain. Our only hope is to openly discuss, pull ourselves up by our cowboy bootstraps, and go to work.