When You Present Critical Findings About Your Friend at a Conference…and She’s in the Audience

img_4375Earlier this month I presented a small part of my research at the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Montreal, Canada. The conference took place in the wake of the devastating election results.

The timing of the conference couldn’t have been better. I needed to get out of D.C. and not worry about turning on the T.V. just to hear, repetitively, that Trump will be the next president. The election results felt personal, as it did for so many of us who are marginalized in America and for those who happen to give a damn about social justice and have made a life and career out of it.

Despite heading to Montreal with a flurry of gray clouds over me, I looked forward to meeting up with Elodie—my “research subject” and extraordinary friend. But, I felt nervous about giving my presentation, “The Right Kind of Other: Multicultural Imperialism and Flexible Citizenship in Women’s Olympic Beach Volleyball.”

I was going to talk about Elodie’s relative privilege over other African competitors, who she beat out for a berth to the 2012 Olympics. I had also prepared 13 PowerPoint slides with large pictures of her…in a bikini! This was not the glorious talk she perhaps imagined I’d give one day when I first asked if I could write about her life. The talk was physically and personally revealing of her.

It wasn’t until the final sentence of my talk that I felt, versus knew, the enormity of what I was actually doing. Holding back tears of gratitude, I read aloud:

“I have to thank Elodie, who has graciously allowed me to put under an academic microscope, her complex and beautiful life. Admitting one’s privilege is exceptionally difficult. I am profoundly impressed and humbled by Elodie’s openness to speak about her systemic privilege. I am thankful for and inspired by her difficult reflections and honesty.”

Elodie was in the audience and she sat there listening to my critical observations of her journey to the Olympics. She flew into Montreal to support me. She gave me permission to write about her and her family’s life. She trusted me to tell her story (the good, bad, and complicated).

I’m overwhelmed by her generosity in sharing her life for my academic career.

For a brief moment during the conference I panicked over the risk I was putting our friendship in. And then Elodie suggested we go get foot reflexology massages, eat Chinese food, and watch a movie at some point that weekend. We hadn’t just hung out, the two of us, since my son was born a year and a half ago.

IMG_4376.JPGAs we walked the streets of Montreal, we talked about our fears, hopes, and dreams, just like we had done growing up in downtown Toronto.

It’s intense, doing a dissertation largely based on one of my best friends’ life. It’s a massive and delicate responsibility. And yet, through this experience I’ve been able to have conversations with Elodie I may not have had otherwise. As an added bonus I’m able to share with her the frustrating, arduous, and exciting process of doing academic work, which so few people outside of academia know or appreciate. This experience has been personally and professionally enriching so far.

With 2016 coming to an end, I’m looking forward to phase two of “dissertating”—travel for research in 2017. I’ll be hitting up archives at the British Library in London, England, the Olympic Studies Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, and visiting archives and Elodie’s family in Mauritius. Elodie plans to join me for parts of these travels, so stay tuned!

Writing About My Friend, the Olympian

UntitledThere’s nothing like signing up for a writing course to kick my ass into writing gear. Some people are self-motivated and determined to pump out pages without externally imposed deadlines and accountability.

I’m not that type of person.

I respond well to external pressure and deadlines, especially from an authority figure or someone scores smarter than me.

Before I get to write my book (dissertation), I need to write a proposal and my committee need to approve it. This is a significant milestone in my PhD journey not only because I’ll be that much closer to the end goal, but because I’ll have permission to start my research for a book I’ve been conceptualizing in my head for the past two years. As much as I love(d) taking courses and acquiring knowledge, I’m looking forward to contributing to an intellectual community. (The actually contributing part may still be a few years from now.)

I’m about 95% certain that I want to write a biography about my childhood friend Elodie Li Yuk Lo who is one of the first beach volleyball Olympians to represent Mauritius—a small African island nation. I feel so fortunate to be in an academic setting where I’m encouraged to use my personal experiences, knowledge, and connections to inform my research and writing. It still feels strange to think that personal topics can have a legitimate space in academia. Coming from a science and social science background, I’m still working on rethinking what constitutes “valid” or “authentic” scholarship.

Untitled1As I move forward with this class and program, I hope to use this blog to share my progress with the biography. To give you a little snippet of the vision, below is what I wrote for an in-class writing exercise attempting to explain (in plain language) what my project is about. Here’s an initial stab at describing the grand vision (which will most definitely change and evolve):

About fifty years ago during the Cold War, the International Olympic Committee started making a concerted effort to include and encourage newly independent African nations to participate in the world’s largest sporting event. Several sports governing bodies began introducing new rules to accommodate and encourage diverse entry of athletes from these less developed nations. About half a century later an ethnically Chinese beach volleyball player (Elodie Li Yuk Lo) took advantage of what is now known as the African Continental Trials to represent a tiny African island nation, called Mauritius, in beach volleyball. The book I’m writing examines Elodie’s journey to and participation in the London 2012 Olympics. Through Elodie’s story I explore how some athletes from developing nations struggle to compete and participate in the most elite sporting arena, demonstrating how the Olympics is an inherently unequal playing field. But Elodie’s story is more than her Olympic journey. As an ethnically Chinese woman, a fourth generation Mauritian, and a first generation Canadian, Elodie’s story is also about Asian and African migration in the 20th and 21st centuries, shattering many ideas of what we think we know about Asian or African immigrants in North America. Her story also shows us the politics of representing a nation and continent (where she is a racial minority), and how she navigates her multiple identities on a very public Olympic stage. But at the story’s core, this biography is about an athlete’s arduous journey to the Olympics fraught with roadblocks, close calls, pushing through self-doubt and injuries, media scrutiny, racial politics, lack of resources, and long training hours all culminating into one women’s experience of a lifetime.

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