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In the Age of Cynicism

At 9:45pm Tuesday night, an old friend from my hometown called me from London, where he has been living for the past several years. Since he expatriated himself our communication has been confined to annual visits in Berkeley during the holidays, occasional emails and every-now-and-then spontaneous chats on Facebook. But I made him promise to call me directly from his mobile if Barack Obama won. Our post-personal forms of communication would not suffice for such a moment. I needed to hear is voice—another assurance that this would be real, not virtual.

Fifteen minutes before our show was to go live, I saw the +44 number on my cell phone, but I couldn’t bring myself to pick up. I was not ready. It had taken me most of the election cycle to let hope sink in; it was going to take at least Virginia and Indiana, if not the entire electoral map, to believe.

I felt emotionally jet-lagged. I found it difficult, if not impossible, to digest the news of an Obama victory with hours still left in the day. Taking this news in was going to be the emotional and mental equivalent of trying to eat dinner at seven in the morning, or to wake up for work when it’s still dark (I realize this is not an abnormal experience for many, but for those of us who work in entertainment, this is a highly disorienting and unsettling task). My only experiences as a voter in presidential election so far had been filled with frustration, disillusionment and a sense of betrayal. I had also grown to expect to stay up all night, or all month, waiting for results.

About an hour later, at 11pm, Jon Stewart called the election for Obama. But our show is a comedy show, so I turned to my computer and went to CNN, CBS, ABC, MSNBC, FOX and all my favorite blogs, and sure enough, within minutes, they were calling the election for Obama too.

I still couldn’t exhale. These were just projected wins, the polls in the west coast were still open and it would take forever to count all the ballots. What if in some freak turn of events, California went for John McCain?! I was not about to get comfortable only to have the rug ripped out from under me.

I grew up in the generation of cynicism. I was born a week before President Ronald Regan was sworn into the White House. Recent history taught me that glory doesn’t last. My parents’ heroes, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X had all been assassinated. I watched Los Angeles Police officers beat Rodney King and saw racism re-emerge as riots broke out throughout the country. I observed so many of the civil rights that my parents’ generation had fought for—such as Affirmative Action, immigrant rights and educational equality—get taken away. By the time I was a senior in high school, all my advanced classes were filled with only white (and some Asian) students, and the University of California in Berkeley which had been the epicenter of diversity in higher education, had banned affirmative action.

My parents, along with about half of my friends’ parents, had divorced by the time I started first grade. Even in California I was faced with roadblocks because I was of mixed race. As a young actress, casting directors and my acting coaches told me I was very talented, but that I should not invest hope into a career in acting because, as my acting teacher put it, “there are no mixed-race sitcom families.”

My experience growing up in the wake of great leaders and Free Speech showed me that hope was delusional and processed only by insulated radicals who made it their business to estrange the general population rather than find a way to include it. I was living in a Berkeley bubble of skepticism and disillusionment. To hope and to believe was something for wash-up hippies and religious fanatics.

Shortly after 11pm last night, I heard a familiar voice emerge from din of the after-show chatter in our office. It was McCain [ap.google.com]:

Thank you. Thank you, my friends. Thank you for coming here on this beautiful Arizona evening.

My friends, we have — we have come to the end of a long journey. The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly.

A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Senator Barack Obama to congratulate him.
(BOOING)

Please.

I gathered around one of our dozens of televisions in the office with a small crowd comprised of comedy writers and producers and world-famous comedians, all of whom had spent the past 21 months/eight years cracking jokes at the hypocrisy, irony and foolishness of the political game. But for the first time ever, we all watched McCain’s speech in silence. Some of us cried.

At that moment, before midnight on Election Day, my thoughts and feelings were genuine, authentic, and raw. I believed.

Only a few times in my life had I felt such a powerful, sudden onset of a brand-new emotional experience: pride at my Bat Mitzvah, grief when my grandmother died three months later and true love when I fell in love for the first time three years after that. But all these experiences had been contained to my past of more than a decade ago.

At twenty-seven years old, for the first time in my life, I couldh hope and I could believe.

The experience was not an easy one for me emotionally, however. Walking through the dark, three-in-the-morning streets of Manhattan’s meatpacking district on the way home from our Indecision after party, I didn’t quite know how to place my feelings. I was using a muscle I had never used before as I attempted to process the world around me. Strangers on the street cheered; we smiled and yelled out “Obama” to one another as crossed paths. “Obama” would not just be the name of our next president, it was becoming a universal greeting, like a handshake or bow, that signaled that we are looking out for one another and we are heading into the future together.

I felt to sleep at four in the morning applying my newfound hope to thoughts about changes I want to make in my personal life and in my community. If we can do it, I thought, than I can too.

–Jamie Wong