Hello and welcome back. When we left our chat last week, Yogesh and I were discussing how much easier it is to learn facts about things that you’re actually interested in…
SH: Personally, I enjoy learning about culture, movies and arts and all that sort of stuff. But sport I don’t care about. And so if and when I have to learn stuff about sport, it’s much harder to make it go in… because I’m not going, “well, what can I learn next? What can I learn next?” I’m just going, “Here we go again…”
YR: Yeah, it is fun. Certainly, it’s interesting. Again, another thing I learned about as an academic was the phenomenon of ‘Interesting-ness’, but just at a commonsensical level, when two things that don’t seem like they’re related turn out to be related, that’s interesting, right? Something goes off in your head, and honestly, it’s inherently pleasurable. Which is not something that is talked about much in this culture because American culture is very anti-intellectual. I sometimes say it takes the attitude that Victorians had toward certain kinds of pleasure, and shifts it to the pleasure of learning.
SH: Ha! Yes, it’s similar in Australia. The amount of attention sport gets in this country… sportspeople are treated like gods and artists and performers and writers and actors are way, way, way, way down the level of priorities. People will have quasi-religious conversations about sport; sportspeople are the gods of our country. And as someone who’s not sporting and is more interested in more intellectual pursuits, it’s just… c’est la vie. That’s the way it is in Australia.
YR: Yeah, I mean, I like many sports, I follow them. I admire people who are good at them. But there was a certain point where I realised that my perspective was always going to be coloured by the fact that I put in the work to become, at one point, among the top 20 in the world, in an activity. And in any sport, if I were among the top 20 in the world, the amount of reinforcement and rewards I’d get from it are entirely different from what I get in the field of quizzing. I mean, first of all, the thing I am good at is literally called “trivia”. And often called “useless knowledge”. And sure, there’s a debate to be had about the extent to which it is useless. But then you compare it to throwing a ball up in the air and having it come down…
SH: I know! I KNOW! “Oh, you’re good at kicking and catching a ball, are you? Here, have a few million dollars…”
YR: Yeah. And now suddenly, the question of what is “trivial” doesn’t really seem all that ambiguous.
SH: (LAUGHING) Indeed, indeed. I’m in a conversation with my friend, and he’s watching the footy on TV out of the corner of his eye, and in the middle of our conversation, he suddenly yells at the screen, because one of the men running around on the grass didn’t catch the ball that the other man running around on the grass kicked to him. And I just think, “Hey, I’m right here! We’re having a conversation!” But the men running around on the grass throwing and kicking the ball to each other overrule absolutely anything else that’s going on.
YR: Yeah. I mean, it’s unavoidable to get sour grapes accusations thrown at me, but it is absolutely the case that like there isn’t anywhere close to the reward of being among the best in the world at quizzing as there would be in sport.
SH: Right. If you’re the 20th best golfer or the 20th best tennis player in the world, you’d be showered with endorsements and riches and all the rest of it.
YR: Right. But I don’t want to stop there, though. Because I don’t want to undersell the negatives that have come into my life as a result of working as hard as I have, to become as good as I have. In terms of people stereotyping you and taking your narrative away from you, starting with the myth that you just have a “photographic memory”. I put a lot of my effort into earning multiple degrees in psychology, including studying the psychology of memory. So I can say, as an academic, that that is not a thing, that’s not a real thing.
YR: But what I can also say, as a person of colour, is that that is inevitably deployed to diminish your achievements. Because to wonder why is someone so curious about the world, so passionate, so able to see connections … it stirs an insecurity in certain people. Especially people who feel that, because they are white and you are Asian, then by definition you are less creative and more robotic than they are.
And this stirs some unpleasant self-reflection in those people, which can easily be cut off by saying, “No, no, no; they’re not more passionate, more creative, more committed to learning than I am. They’re just like robots. They just have a larger memory capacity, like a CPU.” And it diminishes who you are as a person. It causes people to assume you are uncreative, no matter how much you demonstrate otherwise. And I used to think that was the worst of it… until I started facing the literal, racist exclusion that I faced in pub trivia. And the ways in which the people responsible were never held accountable at all.
On my blog, I alluded to repeatedly the experiences that I had with racism, including most notably sitting in a pub in Portland with some friends. A friend had come in from out of town and invited me to join him. Sitting there quietly, just having fun, trying to have a nice evening while answering the questions, playing the quiz.
And the owner of the company got in his car, drove 20 minutes to the centre of Portland, came in, came into our group, and summoned me outside. And informed me that I was banned from playing all of his company’s games. And some of my white friends understood that this man’s report of what happened later would be different from the way he actually behaved. I’ve been through enough of these interactions to know that that’s how it works. And so they came outside and they witnessed everything; they witnessed him not being able to provide a genuine rationale for banning me, they witnessed his stumbling attempts to put together a rationale that ultimately involved just lies. Including also banning a white friend of mine who was a very meek and non-disruptive person. But he insisted that my friend had also done a bunch of stuff to deserve being banned just so that he could dodge the criticism that he was racist. Because he was like “Well if I am racist, why am I also banning this white guy?”
SH: What did he say that he was banning you for?