Among his many other accomplishments, Ray Hsu is a published poet and a lecturer at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia. He takes the tools of capitalism to move “us” beyond its current dominant forms and to redistribute power, searching for poetic form in the entrepreneurial world. In anticipation of our upcoming issue, SAD Mag’s Katherine Chan interviewed Hsu about starving for art, hypothetical time travel, and of course, our current favorite topic: high school.
KC: So Ray,
RH: What up, Katherine?
KC: Which memory sticks out the most from your high school years?
RH: I remember once, my drama teacher pulled me aside and said, “Hey Ray, I know you find all of this, as in high school, really boring, but I just want you to know that by the time you get to university, things are gonna be a lot better.” That struck me as a really powerful acknowledgement of how boring he realized all of this was. That struck me as piercing the illusion that all of this was worth anything.
KC: Why did he say that to you?
RH: You know? I’m not sure. Maybe because he saw something in me that he recognized? I mean, I remember when another one of my drama teachers pulled me aside and asked me, “Hey Ray, I know you’re really creative, but would you be willing to starve for your art?” And I thought about it for a second, and I said, “No. No, I wouldn’t be.” He seemed really disappointed, and I got the feeling that he was looking for a certain answer. And I’m—I’m still not willing to starve for my art. I don’t think that anyone should have to starve for their art. I don’t think that anyone should have to starve.
RH: Yeah. So it was interesting, the moment when he pulled me aside.
KC: Say, one day, you time travelled back to high school. What would be the one thing that you would do that you never did?
RH: I remember one day when I was in school, looking into the mirror and thinking about how ugly I was. I remember thinking, I wonder what things will be like in the future. Looking back on it, I feel as if I could see my former self, my younger self, on the other side of that mirror, and I wish I could say to that Ray, don’t worry, everything is going to be okay.
KC: I can’t believe you felt that way. Were you going through something specifically, or it was just…
RH: It was just life. It was just the feeling that I didn’t know what my role was in the grand scheme of things.
KC: I understand that. That’s nice.
RH: There used to be this insurance or investment company, maybe they’re still around, called Freedom 55. They used to have these commercials that played on TV all the time, in which it shows some young version of a person, and then an older version of the same person, presumably 55 years old. The younger version person is all swamped with stuff, and meets the older version of them, who seems really well taken care of, financially well off, etc. The younger version asks, “What happens to us?” The older version says, “Don’t worry, everything is okay. So-and-so has happened and this person has gone and done that, and everything’s okay.” The younger version asks, “How did that happen?” And the older version says, “Well, we went with Freedom 55.” So, basically, that captured my imagination as a kid. If I could meet the older version of myself, I really wondered what the older version of myself would say. I was super obsessed with this idea of, not quite time travel, but something like this.
KC: So, if you could change one thing about the high school that you went to, or high schools in general, in any aspect, what would it be?
RH: More awesomeness.
KC: What does that mean, Ray?
RH: Well, okay. I remember one time when I was brought in, as a writer, to a high school and the English teacher convenes the class. We all meet in the library. So, imagine around the perimeter of the library room, [are] all these students and they’re all looking at me from their chairs, and I’m standing up and I’m like, “What is the awesomest thing that we could be doing right now?” They’re like, “Uh…what? What do you mean?” I’m like, “Anything. Seriously, anything.” And I can’t remember if they said something like, “In here, right now?” And I was like, “Or whatever, anywhere.” One person goes, “Well, we would be outside having ice cream.” Then everybody laughs. And I say, “Okay, why don’t we do that?” And they laugh again but are like, “What are you talking about?” I’m like, “No, seriously, what’s keeping us from doing the thing that we’d rather be doing than sitting here listening to me?” And they all look at the teacher. The teacher’s like “Uh…” and apparently there was this really good ice cream place down the street, and it was sunny outside. There was, in my mind, nothing keeping us in that room in high school, other than the fact that there was some sort of magical, conceptual electrical fence that’s surrounding the place, that it’s like, even if you took away the fence, people wouldn’t leave, because they believed that the fence was there. You know, this is the panopticon. You know, or you think you know, that there’s a guard watching, and somebody’s gonna come down on you, but the guard may not even be there.
KC: But realistically, logistically, how would you increase awesomeness? Like in that situation you just talked about? That would have to be changing something really fundamental. The reaction from the students—they have the agency to look at the teacher, and they feel like they have to abide to something, like you said exactly, an invisible fence. So to change that would be to get rid of that invisible fence. What would be even one step towards doing that in reality?
RH: I think so much of that depends on the position that one occupies relative to the institution, relative to that fence. The very idea of what counts as a student carves them off from the rest of whatever they are. So, as a teacher, I can be attentive to that. As a student, I can do all sorts of tactical things. Now, this is all Michel de Certeau kind of stuff, where it’s like, when I was a student going through high school, I would do weird ass shit all the time, because for me, so much of what I was doing was pointless and what I was being asked to do was pointless, to a point where I would put in 160% into my presentations, because that was the only way that I could infuse anything about my educational experience with meaning. It didn’t seem like a lot of people around me cared, except for maybe my friends, with whom I was working on this project. Meanwhile, there was someone that I knew, a friend of mine, when she was going through high school, during the first few years she did the barest minimum, because she didn’t see the point in what she was being asked to do, and teachers hated her. And then, she realized, Oh wait a second, in order to get to university, which is where I wanna go, at this certain grade I need to start producing high grades and all that kind of stuff. And then, she switched into high gear. She started doing all these things necessary to produce high grades, and teachers hated her for that! Because it was clear that she was just, basically, working the system. When she felt it didn’t matter, she didn’t do anything, or did the minimum. When it mattered, she started working accordingly, and that requires a level of understanding of the educational system as an economic system, in which there’s a return on investment on effort, and you invest proportionally to the kind of return that you wanna get. And when things don’t count, you don’t invest, because that would be an expenditure of resources that is simply not rational. The way she went through things was, one might say, the opposite way of how I went through things. Where I put in 160%, it was excessive. It was not rationalizable, except for the fact that I wanted meaning. For her, the system didn’t contain the possibility of meaning.
KC: Do you think that teachers have an almost demanding expectation of their students being ignorant of how the system works?
RH: I think that teachers can be delusional, insofar as they are invested in having meaning, over and above being able to examine what it is that the educational system might be. And I think that that can be parallel in students, as well. It’s kind of like if one is a teacher and one states one’s identity as a teacher, there’s so much that’s reinforcing about one’s identity as a teacher. Kind of like all the platitudes around teachers being heroes, like firefighters, you know? The people around me are perpetuating exactly that: the nobility of teaching. And that, I think, obscures or perpetuates the delusion. It’s the fact that in order to do one’s job as a teacher, one might have to identify in this illusory way. I know I’m sounding rather Marxist, like the mystification—
KC: Mystification of teachers?
RH: Sure, it’s ideological. It’s kind of like one must believe in something in order to even articulate it. Why might teachers be invested in their own nobility? It’s kind of like one might be told what one is doing is noble and therefore is extracted more labour than is compensated, financially speaking. Let’s compare this to artists, or any job in which it’s immensely desirable, because there’s this aura around it. So, wait as second, you’re a teacher, right? You love what you’re doing, right? So we can pay you less and you would still be doing it, right? You’re an artist—
KC: You would starve for your art, right?
KC: No, but you won’t.
RH: I think something can begin there, yes.