Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Chuanqi Shen: An Activist

I wasn't too sure what I was expecting before I met David Harris. Perhaps a flamboyant individual with a loud voice and an equally loud opinion, gesticulating wildly as he harangues us to believe in his radical ideologies. You see, I have never met an activist before, and I think of them as an entirely different species who have the tendency to initiate great societal changes. But David Harris seems ... normal. He looked like a kind old man who would smile and wave at you as you take a stroll down the streets, and he spoke softly, in a measured, even gentlemanly tone. Only the wizened, weathered face and that mysterious twinkle in his eyes gave a hint of the hardships and battles he had fought.

If I have to choose a word to describe David Harris, it would be "calm". Throughout the entire conversation, he was never agitated, not even when he talked about events where he was physically assaulted and abused. All his methods of revolt - peaceful return of draft cards, his patient wait for his imminent arrest for being a draft evader (most other evaders fled to Canada), and his leading of hunger strikes, were non-violent, peaceful acts of civil disobedience that exude an impregnable spirit who believed in his convictions strongly enough to understand that they do not need to justified by non-violence.  And all that was done to save people living on the other side of the globe whom he had never met.

Yet, despite his extraordinary deeds, David Harris seemed human. "The hardest part was never standing up to the government. That hardest part was facing your parents, " he said. Despite his idealistic views, his greatest fear was the way his parents would react when they knew their son had gone to jail. It was a natural, ordinary emotion, one that made the idea of an activist more realistic: an individual with the same concerns as you and I, but chose to overcome them in pursuit of the idealistic causes they believe in.

David Harris was sort of the first true activist I have ever met. It's hard to meet one in Singapore, where things tend to be pretty mundane. Elections are not very interesting; a dominant party always wins, and the opposition parties never seemed strong enough to be a viable alternative (thankfully, that seems to be changing in recent years). Strikes and demonstrations are also strictly prohibited by law. Well, we do have a channel where opinions can be voiced; a Speaker's Corner was created in 2000 to allow people to speak freely about any issue, ONLY after they have gotten a police permit to do so. Despite this, I used to think that I'm pretty well versed about the state of things in the world.  When studying the Arab-Israeli conflict in high school, I eagerly followed the latest happenings in the Middle East on the news. When the Jasmine Revolutions broke out, or when there were territorial disputes in the regions, my friends and I would hold long discussions about these issues. Yet, I now realize that these issues have only hit me on an intellectual level; I was in the perspective of a scientist taking a bird's eye view of everything. Of course, I feel for the people, but their experiences were so surreal, so far away and I was to some extent emotionally detached. I wasn't able to turn their experiences into something personal. I hope to change that in my remaining years in Stanford. I hope to find some cause I believe in and can connect to personally, and do something about it. The cause does not have to be so serious that it could get me into jail, but I hope that it is big enough to get me frightened about the consequences. 

No comments: