Let’s talk about class — not like we don’t have enough to think about, considering the state of the world now. But still, indulge me as I share my experience at Stanford shaped through the lens of class. It is strange to think that members of the senior class, such as myself, are mere days away from what ought to be the liberating moment of one’s life, ready to venture out and leave our mark on the world. Yet here we are, stuck like birds in cages, stuck in the anxiety-wracking motions of wading through classes while wondering, what could possibly be worse than this?
For me, returning home provided me with the sobering ground truth of my reality. At Stanford, my family’s financial woes could be compartmentalized through phone calls where I could conveniently ask to be left alone to study for an upcoming exam (which may or may not exist); returning home, I was back living in the same one room that I shared with my mom and both my brothers, confronted with a hefty pile of bills that only seemed to grow with each passing day.
Here, I could still invoke the same mantra of Ihaveworktodo-pleaseleavemealone to avoid unpleasant conversation, but now such invocations only postpone the work to the night or the next day. Here, I am confronted with the reality that while I spent a month raising funds for a GoFundMe to help staunch the ever-compounding debts, the sizable sum I raised was still only a tiny fraction of what it would take to pay off the full debt. Here, I am conflicted, because my investment apps tell me that I’m making record returns, and yet I am at the same time applying for unemployment on my mother’s behalf even when before the pandemic we were already a hair’s breadth above the poverty line. This tension between these two sides of modern life, perhaps, is the core of my experience.
It sounds terribly cliche to say this, but I feel like I only truly became aware of my class identity after watching Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite.” Watching the main character Ki-woo cling to his aspirations of social mobility, I could not help but feel that Bong had somehow managed to write the perfect story for me to project myself into. In my first viewing, I saw things from the frame of both of us doing whatever it took to lift ourselves and our families up; for me, any reservations about the kind of work I do, or whether it is personally enjoyable to me, must be sidelined until the time where I can say that I have pulled my mother fully out of debt. Yet, the main thought that stuck in my head after this initial watch was the quote “she’s not nice and rich — she’s nice because she’s rich.”
The more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself that it was true. Growing up poor, I had to self-regulate my behavior from a very young age. Do not ask for anything unless you truly, truly need it. Gifts are only for the closest of friends. By default, others’ time is more valuable than yours. Don’t waste your time crying — all life is suffering, so get used to it. Here, I took for comparison one of the nicest people I know, someone I’ll call Dana — what made Dana so different from me, despite us having such similar backgrounds and our mothers working essentially the same job? From where I stood, how did they seem so much more universally optimistic?
“Money is an iron. Those creases all get smoothed out,” says Ki-taek, Ki-woo’s father, at one point. I think that was the quote that led me to realize the fundamental difference. If you have never heard your mother moan in agony from muscle cramps from working 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., it is less difficult to be optimistic for the future. If you have never wondered whether you will have to start another GoFundMe because you are unsure whether your mother’s mind or body will give out first, it is less difficult to be optimistic for the future. Most of my life, a key part of my relationship with my mother has been that of a personal secretary — managing most of the family bill payments and translating legal paperwork. Perhaps, if we had more time for leisure, we could visit the national parks or travel abroad or play board games together; yet, here we are: me worrying about her worrying about money.
Some days later, I was able to watch the film a second time. This time, I put aside projecting myself as the aspirational Ki-woo, focusing instead on the class divide as seen in the movie. It was disturbingly close to my own experience. The father of the wealthy Park household, Park, has a single rule guiding his interactions with his servants — do not cross the line from professional into personal. While such a rule generally cuts both ways, it is unidirectional here. The Kim family is to go out of their way to serve the Parks’ every whim, heads bent low even as the Parks deride their stink of poverty in private. In one scene, Ki-taek, is in essence told to know his place after questioning Park’s lack of closeness to own his family. What I (and several video essays I watched afterwards) derived from this was that the true rule is as follows: You may never cause me to self-reflect on my own position, but I am free to do as such with you. In essence, know your place.
This lined up almost perfectly with my own experience — one day, while with Dana, they told me something to the effect of “I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate that you aren’t outspoken about your FLI identity, unlike our mutual friend Kate.” The statement was said so casually that I relegated it to the back of my mind for the following months, only to dig it up now. I realized now — this was much as a rule here at Stanford as it was in the movie. You must never discomfort your more wealthy peers by bringing up your own material circumstances, though you must bear them doing the same thing. Indeed, less than a day after Dana told me this, they casually mentioned at dinner how their family would be spending the entirety of the upcoming break on a luxury cruise.
I often wonder why such experiences happen to me so often — while eating some traditional food brought from home after a break, I was approached by an acquaintance who remarked, “Wow! That food is so curious! It reminds me of the food that our housekeeper sometimes brings us.” On another occasion, while discussing with a former classmate thoughts on social and economic policy, they mentioned, “Well, if the poor are happy and poor, then I don’t see any reason to try and change things.” In class discussions on the role of tech in fighting poverty and creating social change, I honestly can no longer tell whether my peers, in advocating for change, are true believers or merely paying lip service to the idea to properly assume the roles of ideal Stanford students and upstanding citizens.
FLI students, such as myself, often ask ourselves “Do I fit in here?” just as Ki-woo does. For us, Stanford lies somewhere between the Stanford advertised at Admit Weekend and the tale of Ki-woo, learning to quietly take what you need to socially advance while keeping your head low. In high school, I dreamt of the opportunity that Stanford could provide me, just as my parents dreamt of the American Dream decades before. Yet, we both found that the reality was quite different from the utopia that we had imagined. In a somewhat fitting turn of events, a well-off relative of mine showed me a hilltop house that they had recently bought in Beverly Hills. Standing in that empty house, I thought to myself, “One day, I will be able to buy this.”
Contact James Thieu at jthieu ‘at’ stanford.edu.
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