Plain sight

Jan. 18, 2023, 12:05 a.m.

On Jan. 10, 1862, California governor-elect Leland Stanford arrived at his inauguration in a rowboat. As fate would have it, the deadly Great Flood of 1862 — which swept through Oregon, Nevada and the Golden State, leaving staggering amounts of rain and snow in its wake — had eclipsed Stanford’s political ascendency, forcing him to adopt a new mode of transportation. In his address, Stanford, though not the most extemporaneous speaker, did manage to convey sincerity as a leader while dropping a not-so-subtle hint as to his concern regarding the forthcoming “tides of immigration, meeting upon the shores of the Pacific.”

By the end of his two-year term as governor, Stanford had become known for cutting the state debt in half and for his advocacy in forest conservation. But ultimately, Stanford earned the greatest acclaim as an industrialist, acquiring control of the Southern Pacific Railroad and the western portion of North America’s first transcontinental railroad. On May 10, 1869, with a ceremonial spike made from 17.6-karat gold, Stanford drove the last piece of metal into the ground to complete that transcontinental railroad, joining the Central Pacific Railroad with the Union Pacific Railroad. It is still the second-largest railroad in the U.S. to this day.

Stanford’s golden spike laying horizontally. There is text inscribed in it.
Stanford’s spike is on display at the Cantor Arts Center. (Photo: William T. Garrett Foundry)

But the people who drove in the rest of the spikes have a story, too. Their story paints a picture, less of flattery and more of complication. And the rabbit hole of contradiction begins to reveal itself at the acknowledgment that the vast majority of the laborers for Stanford’s railroad projects were, in fact, “tides” of Chinese immigrants.

In the final years of Stanford’s life and his service in the U.S. Senate, an ambivalent President Chester A. Arthur signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which declared that “the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same is hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or … to remain within the United States.”

This law was the Bureau of Immigration’s to enforce; by the early 20th century, the U.S. had a formal system in place for determining which individuals were to be excluded and which were to pass, as well as what exceptions there could be. As part of the system, the Bureau of Immigration set out to establish a new facility in California for isolating Chinese immigrants, so as to avoid the spread of foreign disease and prevent the escape of these immigrants into American society.

By 1910, the Angel Island Immigration Station at San Francisco Bay had opened its doors. Angel Island processed immigrants, most often those coming from China, for several decades, eventually earning its sunny epithet “Ellis Island of the West.” However, the hundreds of thousands of people who were processed — that is, detained and interrogated — had a different way of describing the place: with poetry.

Along the pale, cracking wood of Angel Island’s barracks, etched symbols from that time are still visible today. Since the California Department of Parks and Recreation took possession of the island and made it a State Park, 220 Chinese poems have been identified, along with a number of other inscriptions in English, Russian, Japanese and Korean.

Panorama of Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay from the year 1915.
Panorama of Angel Island cc. 1915. (Photo: J.D. GIVENS/Library of Congress)

Subject to medical examinations, harsh living conditions and separation from family, detainees trudged from one day to the next, in pain and uncertainty. Their poems unflinchingly strip away the euphemisms from Angel Island’s history. Though the poems are untitled and authors unknown, it’s believed that the poems were largely written by young Chinese men from ages 14 to 18 living in the detention barracks, according to the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. These detainees had some formal education and likely had rosier prior expectations of how the New World would be.

Imprisoned in the wooden building day after day,
My freedom withheld; how can I bear to talk about it?
I look to see who is happy, but they only sit quietly.
I am anxious and depressed and cannot fall asleep.
The days are long and the bottle constantly empty; my sad mood, even so, is not dispelled.
Nights are long and the pillow cold; who can pity my loneliness?
After experiencing such loneliness and sorrow,
Why not just return home and learn to plow the fields?

Poem 43

In the original Taishanese:


Poem 43

There is no way to get into that man’s mind now, but I am left scratching my head for the lack of words to approximate the emotional state that I gather from his writing. Is there a word for … not distressed, necessarily, but that feeling of being cosmically far away from peace or joy? Forlorn is the word that comes to mind at first, which evokes for me the internal sense of being left behind to rot in vain, typically by a person or entity that I once knew.

Something is still missing.

Well before the English poet W.H. Auden became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1946, he wrote a poem that is all too tantalizing not to mention in relation to Angel Island. One could take the liberty of imagining him in the years up until then, likening Angel Island to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s oil painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” Indeed, Auden wrote a poem called “Musée des Beaux Arts” about Bruegel’s painting in December 1938, about 23 months before the station in San Francisco Bay was returned to the U.S. Army for use as an internment camp in World War II.

“Musée des Beaux Arts” is a meditation on the suffering, or even the demise, of individuals that can unfold before the world’s very eyes without causing any stun or uproar. Auden concludes it with this gripping eight-line stanza:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

His tone and word choice seem shockingly formal and detached for a painting that depicts a fallen boy and his “forsaken cry.”

I can appreciate the sense of pragmatism. More than once last quarter, I saw a student completely wipe out in a bicycle crash. Usually it would happen between 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Each time, the student was probably hurtling from one class to another and momentarily lost control. Instead of stopping to help any of them, I looked the other way and kept walking. I had to get to class, too.

So I left Icarus behind, over and over, as the world kept spinning on its axis, more or less unencumbered by friction, regardless of what anyone had to say about it. And another day passed by, merely as a consequence of conservation of angular momentum.

College can be an environment for controlled failure, experimentation and even tremendous growth under the right circumstances. But it is so easy to be swept from one moment to the next by the quarter system’s incessant arrow of time, which almost has a linear momentum of its own, and end up deprived of internal satisfaction from day-to-day activities, left only with a sense of atomization or alienation.

Just days ago, I saw a swarm of people huddled outside NVIDIA Auditorium. At first, I thought that the University was using the Jen-Hsun Huang Engineering Center as a public venue, but instead it turned out every person in the crowd was a CS 224N student. Yes, there are 733 students enrolled in the course.

Eventually, we filtered into the building when class commenced at 4:30 p.m. The seats had filled up immediately, and there were students huddled in the back of the lecture hall and overflowing out both doors. One empty seat remained, hidden away in the back of the hall, and I asked if it was open. The young man in the seat next to it said it was.

I sat down next to him. He introduced himself, and then I routinely introduced myself in return. A few moments of silence elapsed before I said, “Jay? Were you in MATH 51 in fall 2020?” He said that he was, and I told him that on the very first day of freshman year, the first class of the day was MATH 51. “You and I were put into the same breakout room that day, about 15 minutes into class,” I said.

From his shock, I reckon now that he did not remember me. It is a sober inference, as 2020 is not a year I look back on with a smile. Often I wish that I could trade away the capability to feel the days suddenly rush back into my consciousness at such a granular, torturous level of detail. Yet what I found most unsettling was that I recognized this near-stranger more than I recognized the person I was on Sept. 14, 2020 — a freshman who remembered names, cared to learn about other students’ lives and dreamed big — before retreating so far into himself.

The clock struck 5:50, and I mechanically departed the building and carried on with my day. Subjectively, that interaction with Jay was as an inverse of my perspective into Breughel’s painting: I noticed him and remembered him, despite never being prompted as such. Or had we crossed paths several times before, and I simply failed to notice any prompt until now? Upon reflection on my college journey thus far, the question gives me all the more appreciation for how time allows silence to begin its life in insignificance but then achieve a rhetoric of its own down the road.

Without proper nourishment, connection and support, the college experience can sink into a place of isolation, loneliness and disillusionment. Before we know it, obligations will snap into motion, and that lunch or coffee you were going to have with a friend will get delayed, again and again. You might see someone you know in lecture during the first few weeks, and then slowly more and more seats will become empty.

Something has to give, you say, but that does not mean there is no room to deliberate over how to reconcile one’s constraints and responsibilities as a college student with one’s heart and soul as a human being. It is a complex introspection that varies dramatically from one individual to the next. It is not a problem that someone else can solve for you, because everyone aside from yourself reserves some capacity to flee your lived experience.

As abandonment can propagate through space, so it can propagate through time. Poem 43 is moving, but it is also many decades old. At the time that Poem 43 was written, the inscriptions in the walls might have been described differently — tenderly, crudely or otherwise — if at all. Fundamentally, Poem 43 is a shout into the void. The author’s plight could not have been considered a disaster; as with Icarus, there was no one who could be bothered to notice.

But through following the winding sequence of loosely related events from Stanford’s life heretofore as I have, I hope my observations may at least serve to construct a helpful analogy for noticing how the devastation of thousands of families can arise from small, compounding acts of insularity or indifference, and how the ripple effects can silently last for centuries.

Tragedy so often does not interrupt the status quo but rather occurs alongside the quotidian details of life, in a rich narrative lost to time. Stanford students, per my experience, tend to go to great lengths to hide their struggles, which makes it even easier for such students to be overlooked — especially in broad daylight.

Let this year be one to uncover the eyes and recognize that which is easiest not to see.

Matthew Turk ’24 is a Data Director for The Stanford Daily and is majoring in computer science with a minor in mathematics. He has previously served as a desk editor in News, managing editor of The Grind and Chief Technology Officer. This past summer, he was a Software Engineering Intern at Apple. His novels, An Invincible Summer (2021) and Baba Yaga (2022), are in stores. Ask Matthew about astrophysics, football and the automotive industry. Contact him at mturk ‘at’

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