High School Q&A: Ray Hsu

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.

Photo by Joey Armstrong

Photo by Joey Armstrong

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.

KC: Period.

RH: Yeah. So it was inter­est­ing, the moment when he pulled me aside.

Ray Hsu in high school

Ray Hsu in high school

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.

Photo by Joey Armstrong

Photo by Joey Armstrong

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?

RH: Right?

KC: No.

RH: No!  

KC: No, but you won’t.

RH: I think some­thing can begin there, yes. 

For more about Ray Hsu, visit his web­site or fol­low him on Twit­ter. Stay tuned for more High School Q&As on sadmag.ca as we pre­pare to launch our next issue.