Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

The elephant in the room is orange. I will refrain from starting an election spiel – mostly because I am speechless. However, I’d like to be annoying and say that I saw this coming. It’s partly why I made an effort to visit as many different parts of the US as possible this year. Perhaps it’s all too telling that I ended up going to some of the most liberal places possible – Portland, SF, etc. And even my visits to conservative states brought me to places like Austin and Atlanta. The one trip that might have been useful – a trip to Ohio – didn’t happen. All this is to say that it requires a huge effort to understand America. And this America – 50% of which I don’t understand – has spoken.

This book is nonfiction, but it’s much more appropriate to directly quote it since no one trusts processed information anymore.

1) “Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.”

This explains a lot.

2) “‘There is nothing lower than the poor stealing from the poor.'” – Mamaw

The rich stealing from the poor is probably worse and happens more often (constantly).

3) “Papaw was a Democrat because that party protected the working people.”

It’s all a paradox. Did poor people vote no to their subsidy programs? Or did not-that-poor people get tired of seeing poor people live on government help? Or do poor people not want help? Maybe this doesn’t matter at all. I’m genuinely confused.

4) “‘Never be like these f___king losers who think the deck is stacked against them.'” – Mamaw

Throughout the book, Vance comes back to this idea that people like him don’t blame themselves for anything. It’s other people’s fault. It’s the government’s fault. They think that their choices no longer  have consequences. They think they have no control over their own lives. That is a honestly a scary thought. Once someone believes this, then everything is in play. How did so many people in this self-made country come to believe this?

5) “‘The truth is that the Japanese are our friends now. If we end up fighting any of those countries, it’ll be the goddamned Chinese.'” – Papaw

I really want to understand how the US forgave Japan. Other countries certainly haven’t done the same.

6) “‘Mamaw, does God love us?'” – JD

How do people reconcile faith with all the terrible things that happen? Added to the list of mysteries to solve.

7) “He taught me that lack of knowledge and lack of intelligence were not the same.”

This became very apparent to me at MIT.

8) “The constant moving and fighting, the seemingly endless carousel of new people I had to meet, learn to love, and then forget – this, and not my subpar public school, was the real barrier to opportunity.”

Thankful that I grew up in the environment I did.

9) “The irony is that for poor people like us, an education at Notre Dame is both cheaper and finer.”

I wonder how many potential applicants know this – that the best schools are actually cheaper because of financial aid. I know it’s not always the case, but it is for a lot of people. Financial aid is probably the single nonliving thing that has had the biggest impact on my life.

10) “At Yale Law School, I felt like my spaceship had crashed in Oz. People would say with a straight face that a surgeon mother and engineer father were middle-class.”

Yes, this is real.

I had a lot of feelings while and after reading this autobiography. The strongest was the feeling that I’ve been so lucky. It’s something that has been on my mind after coming back to Asia. Even when I’m in world class cities like Hong Kong and Singapore – which are arguably objectively better, I can’t help but think that America, despite all of its problems, is the greatest place in the world.

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