Transcript

491:

Tribes
Transcript

Originally aired 03.29.2013

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/491

Prologue.

Ira Glass

This guy I know, David Rudis, was talking to me on the phone last week. He wanted me to help out with this Jewish organization that he's part of. David is concerned about the fact that fewer and fewer Jews are joining Jewish organizations and identifying as Jews. He thinks those organizations need to make themselves more relevant to modern Jews.

And I was telling him, that's fine for him, but that is just not my thing. Yes, I'm Jewish, but I don't believe in God. I married a non-Jew. I've been eating bread all this week during Passover. I have plenty of interesting Jews in my life and feel no need to meet any more. Why would I ever join a Jewish organization?

This, of course, led to the brief obligatory discussion of the Holocaust, which is what we Jews always talk about at a point like this in a conversation like this. And David was very insistent that it doesn't matter if I think of myself as a Jew. I just am a Jew.

David Rudis

I think, Ira, you don't even begin to realize how much this identity has affected your life. As an avid listener to your show, there is something profoundly Jewish in the contents of what you're producing, whether you know it or not.

Ira Glass

I'm so surprised to hear you say that you think of the show as a Jewish kind of cultural product, because I don't think of it that way at all.

David Rudis

See, I actually think it is. If you're playing morality plays to get into the hearts and heads of people on a weekly basis, what is more Jewish than that, than telling and interpreting a story? It's in your DNA.

Ira Glass

I suggested to him that telling stories is kind of something that every culture does, not just the Jews. David says sure, but so what?

David Rudis

Literally what you're doing really is profoundly Jewish.

Ira Glass

It was a weird conversation. David thinks that in our big, multicultural world, of course it is just old-fashioned for people to identify strictly with their own ethnic tribe. He told me that he remembered when he first moved to Chicago decades ago, it was standard back then for people to just meet you and ask what are you? Meaning, what neighborhood are you from? What parish? What religion?

It seemed really weird to him at the time. But at that same time as he was saying this he says-- no contradiction here-- he just likes having his own tribe and would like me to come join the herd.

There's a scientist at UCLA named Jared Diamond, who came out recently with this book called The World Until Yesterday that's about how humans lived on this planet until about 10,000 years ago. When everybody lived, literally, in a tribe of a few hundred people, or a small band of a few dozen people. And Jared Diamond writes this thing about life then, about what it means to actually live in a tribe, that I had never heard before that really just stuck with me.

He says that in these societies, because they were so small, you knew everybody. You never encountered strangers. You never ran into them.

Jared Diamond

The idea that you could just wander around and meet someone is utterly impossible in New Guinea. If you ran across a strange person on your land, that could only mean that they were there for some bad reason. They were there to scout out your land for a raid, or to steal a woman, or to steal a pig.

And so if you ran into a strange person in the forest and you couldn't run away from him, you came around a corner and there he was, then the two of you would sit down. And you'd have a long conversation in which each of you names all your relatives, trying to find some relative in common which gives you a reason not to kill each other. And if after two hours you haven't found any relative in common, then one of you starts running or you try to kill the other person.

Ira Glass

Diamond talked to me on the phone from Jakarta. He had just gotten there. Back to electricity and showers after three weeks off the grid in Papua, New Guinea.

I wanted to speak with him, because I wondered what he thought this story meant. Was he saying, OK, this is who we are? This is just built into us to be suspicious and fearful of outsiders? To want to stick to our own tribe?

Jared Diamond

It's going too far to do that. People can be more or less suspicious of strangers, and it depends upon the circumstance.

Ira Glass

And so he says, for instance, the circumstances when humans lived in small traditional societies, there was good reason to fear strangers. As soon as human societies grew bigger, into groups of thousands of people, you'd run into strangers all the time. It was normal. You wouldn't have these same reasons to fear strangers, and so we stopped in lots of places.

Though apropos of my conversation with David Rudis, Jared Diamond said that one of the things that does seem to have been true of traditional small societies 10,000 years ago that is still true today is an obsession with who's in and who's out, and seeing that people stick with the rules.

Jared Diamond

It's whenever there's a group, you have the problem of figuring out who really is a member of your group. And who is just pretending to be a member of the group for advantages. That may be part of the reason why humans have these very complicated cultures, including languages and body mutilation.

If I come into a group and I say, I'm really a long-lost member of your group but I can't speak your language and I haven't tattooed myself. Then it'll immediately be obvious that I'm not a member of your group. So all groups have what are called "expensive" ways of identifying themselves honestly so that you can't just fake it.

Ira Glass

Right. And the reason why it's so universal, is it just because if somebody can sneak in and be part of your group then they're getting access to stuff that's really yours?

Jared Diamond

That's right. The term is "freeloader."

Ira Glass

[INAUDIBLE] he says that that is the actual scientific term. That's the one that anthropologists use-- "freeloader."

Well today on our radio show, we hear very different kinds of groups struggle with this question, who's in and who's out. It's the question which, of course, over history has led to purges, witch hunts, factionalism, the assassination of Trotsky, the Spanish Inquisition. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, right? Well, we probably should. It happens all the time.

Today on our program we have three stories of three groups, including one whose defining characteristic is that they talk very evenly and softly. From WBEZ, Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. I Know I Am, But What Are You?

Ira Glass

Act One, I Know I Am, But What Are You?

This story is about a group arguing over that most basic thing that any group can fight over-- who should be a member. The group is an Indian tribe in California, the Chukchansi, in the middle of the state. Currently about 900 members. One of many small tribes in California, and the dispute has gotten pretty bitter. David Ferry explains just how far they've gone.

David Ferry

Here's how bad things have gotten with the Chukchansi. About a year ago they had an election for their tribal government-- it's called the tribal council. Four people won majorities, but the old counsel refused to step down. They disqualified the winners and changed the locks on the tribe's equivalent of City Hall, which is actually a trailer like you'd see on a construction site, but a little bigger.

So two dozen tribal members who wanted the candidates they voted in to actually take office decided to go to City Hall, the trailer, early one morning and occupy the building.

Woman 1

Here we go. Here we go. Here we go. Here we go. Here we go.

David Ferry

This is from video taken by one of the occupiers of the building. It was meant to be a peaceful takeover, although they did break a window to get inside. They made coffee, ordered pizza and walked around the trailer with homemade signs. But loyalists of the incumbents, the counsel that refused to step down, started showing up. They were angry.

Man 1

Easy. Hey, calm down. Calm down.

Man 2

Dude, what about that [INAUDIBLE]?

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Man 2

Get back in there.

Man 1

Calm down, you guys. [BLEEP]

David Ferry

One of the winning candidates who wasn't allowed to take her seat is Dixie Jackson. She was inside the trailer for the occupation. She thought she heard a gunshot at one point.

Dixie Jackson

I said hit it, and I went down and hit the floor. Well then, I couldn't get up because, of course, I got a bad hip and bad knees.

David Ferry

Dixie's in her 70s. Here's Morris Read, another winner, also in his 70s.

Morris Read

Once they broke the windows, they started spraying in that pepper spray. And we started to have a hard time breathing. And then all of a sudden they're throwing in burning logs. I think there was two of them that they threw through the window. And our people get wet rags and papers where we could put over our mouths so we could breathe.

Dixie Jackson

We're not walking out! You were voted out by 150! Walk away! You walk away!

David Ferry

By nighttime, the occupation had turned into a siege. A crowd of 50 people outside cut off the power to the building, and then the water. They shot more pepper spray down into the ventilation system. Dixie and Morris and the other elders crowded into a tiny bathroom in the middle of the trailer for safety.

Someone called the cops and they showed up-- sheriffs from Fresno and Madera County, and the California Highway Patrol. But they couldn't intervene, because this was an internal tribal matter. By morning, 40 people were fist fighting in the parking lot outside the trailer. Local TV crews captured the tail end of it.

Newswoman

In the midst of the madness, one teenager was stabbed and two people were injured.

Man 3

All your people are going to [BLEEP] prison for this, too.

Newswoman

Two people were taken into custody. As for what caused the fighting--

David Ferry

This failed occupation, the election fiasco, it's all about one thing-- something called "disenrollment." That's the word Indians use for kicking someone out of the tribe. They get disenrolled.

For years now, the Chukchansi tribe has been disenrolling its own members-- dozens, sometimes hundreds of people at a time. The tribal members who occupy the trailer, the winners of the election, they wanted to stop the disenrollments-- the people outside didn't. Lots of tribes in California are disenrolling people, but the Chukchansi are sort of a poster tribe for it. Best estimates have the tribe shrinking from about 1,800 people, down to about 900.

So the tribe has cut itself in half, and almost all this has happened since they opened a casino. A big, shiny Casino with a spa, and a hotel, and a high roller club, 10 years ago in 2003.

Male Announcer

At the foot of beautiful Yosemite Valley, there's a sound.

Female Singers

Cha-ching!

David Ferry

This is one of their ads.

Male Announcer

Can you hear it? The sound of winning.

Male Singer

Let me hear that cha-ching!

Male Announcer

Oh yeah, Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino.

Male Singer

The sweet sound of cha-ching!

David Ferry

The math is simple. If they have fewer people in the tribe, each person gets more of the sweet sound of cha-ching-- more profit from the casino. Right now each Chukchansi only gets a few hundred dollars a month in casino profits. A tribal member named Nicki Livingston told me that when her friend Nancy was kicked out a few months ago, she could see it in her payout check.

Nicki Livingston

We got a raise on our per capita check after she got disenrolled.

David Ferry

You got more money per month after your close friend was disenrolled from the tribe?

Nicki Livingston

Yeah. Me and my sisters, my two older sisters and myself, we were together when we heard that news. And we saw it [? legally, ?] saw it on our bank statements, and all three of us cried. It's done off the skin of someone's back.

David Ferry

She says the checks were around $280 per month before Nancy and several dozen other people were kicked out. She says it jumped about $380 a month after. There's another tribe just down the road from the Chukchansi, and its paid tens of thousands of dollars a month to each member. And that's because their tribe only has around 75 people.

Chukchansi officials usually deny that disenrollment has anything to do with casino money. They say all they're doing is correcting the membership rolls. Getting rid of the people who don't belong in the tribe. But Reggie Lewis, the tribal chairman who refused to step down when he was voted out of office, said to me, sure money has something to do with disenrollments, but why shouldn't it?

Reggie Lewis

We don't have that much to share. We've got tribal members who are living in gutted out trailers with no sanitary facilities, without power. And then we have people who are trying to take advantage of being a tribal member when they're not entitled to be in.

[MUFFLED SOUNDS]

David Ferry

This is the sound of my producer putting the microphone away as we're talking to a Chukchansi woman who'd agreed to be interviewed, but was so worried about repercussions that she kept going off the record or going silent. By the time I got to her, I was used to this. So many Chukchansi refused to talk, or agreed but then backed out saying that they were too scared. I asked this woman, who didn't want her name used, what people are scared of.

Woman 2

In my opinion, most of them are afraid because they either have members, loved ones or themselves that are employed.

David Ferry

How many people do you think you know who've been fired from the casino?

What's happening in the silence after my question is she's pointing at the microphone and shaking her head no. This woman had already been disenrolled, and she still didn't want to talk. She has family members who work at the casino. And like everyone else we met like that, she took it as a given, rightly or wrongly, that they might be fired if she spoke out.

The tribal council appoints the people who oversee the casino. There aren't a lot of jobs in this part of California. And the tribal council's very powerful-- in the community, and in the casino.

Disenrollment could mean serious financial hardship. When you're part of the tribe, you get a bunch of services. So on top of losing the monthly casino payout, people who are disenrolled also lose subsidies for child care and housing. Older members lose more-- a $300 monthly food stipend and extra cash to cover utilities. So no surprise there's now this culture of paranoia in the tribe. The anti-disenrollment folks are sure that some people who seem to be on their side are really spies for the other side.

I was talking to Morris Reed and Dixie Jackson, the ones who were elected to the tribal council but never seated. They're the ones who hid in the trailer choking on pepper spray. And Dixie said that at one point they tried to get tribal members to sign a petition supporting them, calling for an end to disenrollment. She said it went nowhere.

Dixie Jackson

Even our own family says that they don't want to sign. Because then their names will be on the list that we support you, and therefore we will be subject to retaliation.

David Ferry

Dixie said one of her daughters had been fired from the casino two weeks earlier. She suspected it was retaliation against her family for occupying the trailer and opposing the tribal council. A casino spokesman told me the firing was not political.

As Dixie was telling me about all this, the phone rang. We were sitting around Morris's kitchen table. Morris answered it, and it was actually for Dixie.

Morris Reed

Yes, she is. Do you want to talk to her? Somebody wants to talk to you.

Dixie Jackson

Yes? Yes.

David Ferry

Dixie didn't talk long. It was about another daughter who still worked at the casino.

Dixie Jackson

They walked the other one out today.

David Ferry

Wait.

Dixie Jackson

Just now.

David Ferry

Wait.

Woman 3

Wait, what?

Dixie Jackson

They walked my daughter, the other daughter that was director of floor games.

Morris Reed

OK, yes.

Dixie Jackson

They walked her out just now.

David Ferry

Your daughter was just fired?

Dixie Jackson

Uh huh.

David Ferry

The casino said this firing was also unrelated to the family's politics.

Bryan Galt saw how the disenrollments got started, and he's one of the few who saw it from the inside. He worked in the Chukchansi Enrollment Office, the office that decides who's a member and who's not. Back in 2003, when the casino first opened, the enrollment office was really just a room, he says, with six file cabinets and a computer. But it was where the tribe stored all of its documents on everybody's ancestry. Before the casino was built, you just needed a birth certificate and some proof that you're a lineal descendant of a Chukchansi.

Bryan Galt

I don't think you can imagine a more messed up filing system. Because it had been years of just people just shoving stuff in the files.

David Ferry

You were there though. Was the enrollment committee about letting people in, or was it about kicking people out?

Bryan Galt

Well initially it was to help straighten out the records because they in such disarray. And then the casino opened, and then it started to become a head hunting expedition. Find out how people can be disenrolled.

David Ferry

Bryan says that mandate came from the top, the tribal council, but he didn't agree with it.

Bryan Galt

My committee, we refused to take action against anyone who was already enrolled because we didn't think it was fair. You're going to what-- tell 80-year-old ladies that they're going to have to go to the National Archive and find information that no one had ever told them they needed for the last 15 years? They're enrolled-- just leave it at that.

So we argued for the next two years about this. Have you ever seen a Jerry Springer episode? You'd go to monthly meetings, and that's how it was.

There was no Dances With Wolves type mentality. I hate that movie for that reason. They show the wise old tribal chief, you know, that's all I have to say, and everyone's polite to each other through the whole meeting. And I'm like, I don't know what meeting those guys are at, but I've never been to one of those.

David Ferry

This is a small tribe, remember. Everyone knows everybody else. And everyone thinks they know who's pushing to disenroll people.

There's a family called the Wyatts, and there's another called the Ramirezes. The Ramirezes actually filed a lawsuit last year, arguing that they are the only legitimate members of the tribe-- just their family. The case was thrown out. I reached out to members of both families, but no one agreed to speak on tape.

One person who's supported disenrollment for years is Reggie Lewis. He's the tribal leader you heard from earlier who refused to step down after the election. He says the disenrollments are necessary because of the weird history of the tribe. The Federal government disbanded them in 1958, along with lots of other California tribes. And when they started up again in the 1980s, he says they were in a rush. That they didn't really know what they were doing.

Reggie Lewis

For a long time, our tribe was looked that as kind of a joke as far as membership. Because they were saying oh yeah, the Chukchansi tribe, that's a country club. You can go up and join. They just knew that they could get in.

David Ferry

And so he says they had to make a lot of hard choices. He told me he even voted to disenroll his own cousins-- he had to.

Reggie Lewis

They are my cousins, but they didn't have any Chukchansi in them. For years they thought that they were Chukchansi. We thought they were Chukchansi. When the research was done, we find out that no, they were not even Indians. They were white people.

David Ferry

The fact is, even tribes that aren't disenrolling people have a hard time figuring out how to decide who's in the tribe. What's important-- blood line? DNA? Language? Land ownership?

In California, tribes were hunted down and forced to disband. To abandon their land and their language. There was lots of intermarriage. Records were lost. It's a mess.

So the Chukchansi settled on a set of arcane rules based on land ownership and ancestry to determine who could stay in their tribe. If your family had Chukchansi ancestry but no one got a land grant from the Federal government long ago, you were given a one-year deadline to get in your paperwork. If you didn't make the deadline or the extension, you were disenrolled. If you're one of the luckier families that was deeded land, for you there's no deadline. But your ancestry gets combed over and scrutinized for any hint of non-Chukchansiness.

Irene Cordero

This is the letter I got right here.

David Ferry

This is Irene Cordero. She got a letter recently from the tribe telling her she was disenrolled because her grandfather Jack Roan had in some official documents said he was Chukchansi and in some others said he was Pohonichi. Irene says what's the problem? He was both. But the tribe kicked her out along with about 70 members of her family, including her mother Ruby.

Irene Cordero

She's the oldest Chukchansi there is now. Last one passed away last week, I think.

David Ferry

We couldn't confirm that Irene's mother was the oldest Chukchansi. We also couldn't find a Chukchansi that was older.

Irene Cordero

She'll be 90 in January.

David Ferry

And she's a native speaker of the language?

Irene Cordero

Uh huh.

David Ferry

How many native speakers are there around?

Irene Cordero

About two.

David Ferry

There are actually more like six.

Disenrollment letters all end with a line saying the tribal council's decisions are final and not appeal-able to any state or federal court. There's nowhere to go to say but wait, this woman speaks Chukchansi. Doesn't that count somehow? Irene can't take this to the US courts or the Bureau of Indian Affairs and expect any help, because each tribe operates like it's own separate country. And for the Chukchansi, the tribal council's the final authority.

A few months after the tribe disenrolled Irene's mother Ruby, one of the last remaining native speakers, they gave a million dollars to a local university for the study and revitalization of the Chukchansi language.

Man 4

Honorable tribal council, the enrollment committee's prepared to present evidence as to why the respondents are not eligible for membership.

David Ferry

This is a recording of a disenrollment hearing. It's actually Bryan Galt's disenrollment hearing. He's the guy who worked in the enrollment office and fought against the new mandate to kick people out. He ended up defending his own membership in the tribe in 2006, three years after the casino opened.

These hearings are closed to the public, and to the rest of the tribe, too. Bryan recorded this secretly and then posted it online. What's most striking is how much time is devoted to asserting and reasserting that this whole process is legal, and it's being done according to the tribe's constitution and its ordinances. Everyone's just following the rules.

But anyone who is sitting there about to be disenrolled knows that the tribe, as its own sovereign nation of about 900 people, can change those rules at any time. So that there wouldn't be hearings to disenroll someone like Bryan, who in fact has Chukchansi ancestry. Which the tribe acknowledges during the hearing to kick him out.

Man 4

For his great great grandmother Mary Galt. From the committee I'd like to indicate that Mary Galt is of Chukchansi Indian blood, four quarters.

David Ferry

So not only does he have a full-blooded Chukchansi relative, Bryan's family actually got land from the Federal government more than a century ago. But the problem is, the council decides it's the wrong kind of land. So in the end, the thing that does him in is the he just didn't get his paperwork in by the deadline.

Man 4

October 22, 1988, through April 3, 1990. Therefore, the enrollment committee requests that James Bryan Galt is not eligible for membership pursuant to the tribe's constitution, and therefore requests that he be disenrolled.

David Ferry

The same day Bryan found out he'd been disenrolled, he lost his job as a beverage manager and web director for the casino. The casino spokesman told me the firing had nothing to do with his disenrollment.

Tribes across the country are watching these mass disenrollments by the Chukchansi and others, and they're just flabbergasted. Here's David Wilkins. He's a Lumbee Indian, and a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota.

David Wilkins

I get shocked every time I read any Country Today and see that another tribe, usually it's out of California, that has decided that they're going to disenroll another 22 families.

David Ferry

Wilkins is one of the few people who studies disenrollment.

David Wilkins

Disenrollment is occurring now in some 17 states. It's occurring in at least 30 tribes in California. I can't find a definitive number on how many native individuals have formally been disenrolled.

I see figures ranging 4,000 to 6,000. But it's difficult to find accurate data because, like I say, tribal governments are not going to be forthcoming with this information. The Bureau of Indian Affairs refuses to share this information because they say that it's a tribal internal matter. And so as a scholar, as a researcher, I'm frustrated and embittered because I can't find the accurate data to get the word out about what we're doing to ourselves.

David Ferry

Wilkins told me other tribes are watching the Chukchansi and others disenroll their members with no consequences and so they're trying it, too. And he said something that I'd heard from a lot of Indians. We were almost wiped out by other people. And why are we now whittling ourselves away through disenrollments?

David Wilkins

And this is what I find most frustrating when I have to say that we really are involved in depopulating ourselves. And at this point we can't blame the Federal government, we can't blame the state that we're in. We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and try and explain this to ourselves.

David Ferry

With the Chukchansi, a lot of the tribe's members thought disenrollment was OK as long as it was happening to other people. They never thought it would happen to them, so they didn't stand up against it. Even the current opponents of disenrollment, the four people elected to the tribal council who never got a chance to take their seat, they used to sit on the council years ago. And when they did, they presided over hundreds of disenrollments themselves.

At this point, no one feels safe. Even Reggie Lewis, the tribal chairman who refused to give up his seat in the election. Even he can imagine a future council trying to kick him out.

Reggie Lewis

The reason will be whatever they want to say, because they will be the ultimate say so. It doesn't matter what is right or what is wrong. I have the documentation to show that I am from this area. I have established a special relationship with people that are in the Wyatt and Ramirez family.

David Ferry

He's talking about the two families in the tribe that folks say are staunch supporters of disenrollment-- the Wyatts and the Ramirezes.

Reggie Lewis

I cut timber for 40 years and I got Mike Ramirez jobs. I worked with Mike. His father used to come up and get drunk with my father. I went over and had beers with his father and my father.

His sister was married to one of my cousins. And they lived right next door to me on my allotment on top of the hill here in Coarsegold. And so I know that I have established close ties with these guys over the years. And if they want to say that I'm not a member and they want to kick me out, that's on them.

David Ferry

Meanwhile at the casino, things aren't looking too good. Another tribe is planning to build a competing casino just 30 miles down the road. And Reggie Lewis told me the Chukchansi casino is still $250 million in debt from its construction.

About a year and a half ago, it missed a payment on that debt. He says they might miss another this month. He told me that if they do miss that payment, members of the tribe might not get their payouts or benefits.

The tribe has gone through all this heartache. It's on track to disenroll the majority of its members. If the point was to generate a higher payout for everyone who remained, that might not be panning out.

Ira Glass

David Ferry in Oakland. Coming up-- whispering, it's not just for libraries anymore. That's in a minute. From Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme. Bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Tribes. Stories of people who believe they are part of these big groups that may or may not necessarily want them. We've arrived at Act 2 of our program.

Act Two. A Tribe Called Rest.

Ira Glass

Act Two, A Tribe Called Rest.

You know, sometimes it can be easy to believe that you are in a tribe of one-- alone there by yourself. Andrea Seigel tells this story about finding out that she is undeniably not alone.

Andrea Seigel

In the fourth grade, I had this one friend Mindy. She was OK to hang out with and all. But what was really great about her was that she would always want to see whatever stuff I had in my room. If I sat her down in front of my shell collection, she would delicately go through it one shell at a time. She'd murmur to herself what she liked about each shell, and I'd get this tingling throughout my skull.

I know how weird that sounds. But it was like starbursts in my head. Starbursts that open on the crown and then sparkle down at the nape like this warm, glittering water rushing under your scalp.

I'd seek this feeling out, starting when I was seven. I'd go to the library so I could sit in a big, quiet room, and listen to pages being turned. There was a boring librarian who everyone in fifth grade hated. But I loved her, because when she would read us stories in her soft voice, she'd turn my head into a snow globe.

I was an anxious kid. I worried about getting homework finished, even back when homework didn't count for anything. But while I was getting this tingling in my head, my anxiety just magically fell away. And afterward, I'd actually feel kind of good for a half hour.

Then I found this public access lady on TV who used to show you how to stencil flowers on a wall. She gave me the tingling. I'd also get it watching the late, great Bob Ross teach how to paint mountains on PBS.

Bob Ross

So we have black, blue, crimson, little bit of brown. Now then, barely touch the canvas.

Andrea Seigel

So there's Bob Ross. And I'm eight and sitting on the carpet in the den, watching him delicately mix paint colors in close up. And I am going into a trance. My jaw kind of goes slack. My eyes are probably a little glassy. And my head is a globe.

Bob Ross

Take a little blue and white here-- just mix it together. And once again, flap our little tiny roll of paint.

Andrea Seigel

So as I grew up, I never told my parents about this. Never talked to anybody. I assumed the tingling was an almost pervy way I was miswired. I felt ashamed about it, and all I understood was that I didn't want anyone to know.

It became even more extreme as an adult. As a kid I was only allowed to watch a certain amount of television. But once I was old enough to own my own TV, I would stay up until 4:00 AM watching home shopping network night after night. Soft-spoken women talked about the jewelry in very detailed, intricate, precious ways, and I loved it. People were confused about why I watched so much home shopping, because I never bought anything.

But the starbursts worked as well as an adult as they had as a kid. They calm my anxiety. And calming is important, because I'm still an anxious person. In fact, I'm way worse as an adult-- there's a lot more to be anxious about.

And I still never told anyone about what was going on inside my head, not even my boyfriend Brent. We've been together for years. We have a kid together. We tell each other everything. I've told him some really horrible, embarrassing things about myself, but I didn't tell him this. Like, I would never turn to him during dinner and ask, so when the fork just delicately pinged against the knife, did you get tingles throughout your brain, too?

A few years ago, I started seeking out this stuff on YouTube. I began with makeup tutorials, because I love to hear the tapping of a brush on a Mac pigment bottle, or the clicking up of an eyeliner pencil. That's how I moved on to this woman named Senada, who does something called haul videos, that's H-A-U-L, which are just her talking about what she bought on a shopping trip. These kind of videos are actually really popular-- there are tons of them.

Senada

Hi, everyone. Welcome back to my channel. Today I wanted to show you what I got from the Versace for H&M. So as you can see I have--

Andrea Seigel

So I was up to watching two or three hours a day. And I know this is all starting to sound like porn and someone's obsession with porn. But it's not porn, even if it does operate a little bit like porn. All the searching for videos, trying to find exactly the right moment or performer, developing very specific tastes and preferences.

I wanted someone speaking in lightly accented English. And I wanted them talking to me about jewelry, slowly and deliberately. And preferably, it's tacky or cheap jewelry that isn't being treated as if it's tacky and cheap. And just like porn, the effect wears off after a while. You have to find new videos.

Finally one night over the recent holidays, I was suddenly out of videos. I'd exhausted all my usual haul favorites. Despairing, I typed jewelry collection into the search box. Nothing I hadn't seen already.

That was when I had an idea. I'd noticed a number of the haulers on YouTube who had accented English had trouble with the spelling of jewelry. I typed in jewelry again, this time with two Ls.

YouTube returned a video at the top of the search entitled ASMR, Old Jewelry Collection, Show and Tell Whisperer. It was made by YouTuber called--

Thewaterwhispers Ilse

TheWaterwhispers Ilse.

Andrea Seigel

That was TheWaterwhispers Ilse. On the screen, a woman smiled and waved and then she began.

Thewaterwhispers Ilse

Hey guys, today I'm at my grandpa's house and I'm going to share something personal with you guys. It's kind of a show and tell video, because I'm going to show you the jewelry-- I always struggle with that word.

Andrea Seigel

I was like, what the hell is this? I kept watching.

Thewaterwhispers Ilse

I'm going to show you the jewelry of my grandma. She passed away in 2008. And she was actually, together with Bob Ross, one of the first people who gave me ASMR when I was a kid.

Andrea Seigel

I was stunned. I mean, I was loving this video. But also, one, I was shocked by the Bob Ross mention. And two, I was worried that something was wrong with this Ilsa, because I thought ASMR sounded like a medical condition. I instantly assumed that "M" stood for mute, and that Ilsa was some kind of partial mute who could only whisper.

So I googled ASMR, which led me knowyourmeme.com. And an entry for ASMR that reads, "Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response is a term used to describe a sensory experience characterized by a tingling sensation in the head and scalp which can be triggered by sounds like whispering or brushing, and visual stimulus like painting or drawing." It continued. "On YouTube, the phenomenon inspired the creation of whisperer videos, in which people attempt to trigger the viewer's ASMR by speaking in a soft voice and making various sounds with inanimate objects."

At this point I started saying, oh my God! Oh my God! And Brent on the other couch grew worried and asked what? What?

I clicked on a second link, which took me to an article titled ASMR, the good feeling no one can explain. The author writes, from what I understand from conversations with ASMRs, it's a tingle in your brain. A kind of pleasurable headache that can creep down your spine.

I became about as excited as I've ever been, even flapping my hands. I clicked on TheWaterwhispers Ilse's website. At the top it said, for me, ASMR is not just a feeling, it's a lifestyle. And that sounds so incredibly lame, but what's hilarious is that it actually is a lifestyle-- it totally is. It's my lifestyle.

I had no idea that I was into ASMR, but for the past decade I've been dedicating an hour of my day to this. And I wasn't alone. That was incredible, learning that I wasn't alone. In an instant, I went from believing I was miswired to suddenly feeling like I was part of a special group of people with amazing sensitivities.

Not that science has confirmed that anything special's really going on. I haven't been able to find any published studies. There is a professor at Dartmouth who's overseeing a couple students. And they're going to put people with ASMR into an MRI tube and watch what happens in their brains while they're having head tingles. They hope to have results in the next month.

That night I discovered ASMR, with my official-sounding acronym in hand, I came out and explained my head tingles to Brent. His eyes went wide. And when I played him the first few seconds of Ilse's jewelry video, he started laughing and said, you're loving that? Brent finds the whole thing hilarious. He had always just thought I was strange for watching hours of such boring stuff, but here I had an actual thing.

But the best part of knowing it's called ASMR, I found tons more videos. There are ASMR stars like Maria, a.k.a. GentleWhispering, with 77,000 subscribers, who does the most compelling napkin folding video I've ever seen. Then there's up and comers like Equine Cutie with close to 7,000 subscribers. She rehabilitates horses and her whisper voice sounds like she's always got a hard candy in her mouth-- except she doesn't.

Equine Cutie

The clicky noises that you hear, honestly, that's just what happens when I whisper. Sorry if you don't really like it. I can't really do anything about it.

Andrea Seigel

Viewers make online requests to their favorite video-making whisperers to do the things that trigger their head tingles. Everyone's needs are different. It's like an interactive choose your own adventure. But the whole story is about marbles clinking.

TheWaterwhispers Ilse keeps a running public list of her fan's requests. Some of the pending ones include water bottle not filled completely with beads in it and move it around. Pick something up with tweezers and tell facts about it.

Could you do an unboxing video of a box of bon bons, and cut the bon bons in half to see what flavor they are? Role play-- sending a viewer on a mission as a spy. Role play-- be a doctor and diagnose a cold.

Almost every ASMR YouTuber makes role play videos in which they conduct fake customer service or spa or dermatology sessions. These videos are about someone being almost comically gentle with you.

Mol

Hi there. Welcome to our spa. My name is Mol and I'm going to be taking care of you today, OK?

Andrea Seigel

I know, I know-- these videos sound sexy. They are arguably sexy. Whispering sounds like pillow talk. The role plays feel pretty intimate.

And often the whisperers will just film their torso, because they're showing you the toiletry basket they prepared for guests or doing origami. And framing hands and arms also means a lot of closeups of chests. You see the problem. Under the videos, which are overwhelmingly done by women, the comments that go on for days are a mixed bag of blissed out ASMR supporters, and guys who see this as softcore softcore porn.

The smutty responses are very frustrating to the whisperers. And take my word for it, there's nothing sexual about the feeling itself because it's actually the opposite of arousal. The starbursts produce a thorough calm that is almost stoner-like.

It seems worth mentioning, given where I'm speaking to you from right now, that public radio is also a trigger for lots of people. Recently, someone posted to a discussion group on Reddit, quote, "I almost crashed my car when I accidentally fell into an ASMR trance dream in an interview on All Things Considered the other day. I had to change the channel. Radiolab will often trigger for me, too. I actually get tingles from the opening theme."

Someone replied, quote, "Oh, man, I get overly excited when Garrison Keillor comes in. Prairie Home Companion is one of my favorite ASMR experiences."

All this whisperer obsession has led to a lot of discussion in my home about whether I have a problem.

Andrea Seigel

Do you overall feel that I'm watching too many videos?

Brent Seigel

Yeah. I mean, I think you should mix it up with another hobby that you enjoy. There have been days where I caught you watching hours of whispering about people doing role plays of their childhood and stuff. And I think, I don't think I want to be in a position where I felt like I needed to watch these for hours.

Andrea Seigel

Yeah, but you spend a ton of time on internet. Just more time surfing the internet than I do watching videos. So does that concern you about yourself?

Brent Seigel

Yes, it does. I don't know why we're making this about me all of a sudden.

Andrea Seigel

He thinks his rigorous internet reading is more worthwhile than my ASMR, because he's gathering information that makes him a more interesting person to talk to, like at a party. But he says my watching is just zombie-ish.

Brent Seigel

So it does annoy me that hours and hours a day watching these videos. It seems like we could take some of that time and use it doing my stuff, you know?

Andrea Seigel

But in my defense, we do do his stuff. The other night I agreed to watch The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2, Brent's choice. And I used it as an opportunity to try to educate Brent about the power of ASMR. I pointed out to him when Bella becomes a vampire she suddenly notices every minuscule thing around her, every tiny sound. I said that's the state-- superhuman laser, better than a normal person.

Bella

I'm never going to get enough of this. We don't get tired. We don't have to rest or catch our breath or eat.

Andrea Seigel

Brent doesn't buy this. He doesn't understand.

Ira Glass

Andrea Seigel, she's a novelist with several books, including Like the Red Panda.

Act Three. I Am Curious Yellow.

Ira Glass

Act Three, I Am Curious Yellow.

I originally heard a version of this next story on the public radio show Snap Judgment. It's about a guy who wants in on a group he definitely was not born into and, at the outset anyway, seems very unlikely to be accepted by. This story is told by this filmmaker named Debbie Lum. Here she is.

Debbie Lum

You know, it's hard to grow up in America as an Asian woman and not encounter some Caucasian, usually Caucasian man, who has this sort of unusual attraction for Asian women. There's terms for it, like "rice king," or "yellow fever." In my life I've been hit on by so many men who would sort of stare a little bit too long. Then they kind of come up and try to speak to you in the Asian language that you don't speak.

I was really tired of being objectified. And I thought hey, wouldn't it be a great idea to just turn the tables and point the camera in their direction? I decided to make the documentary Seeking Asian Female.

So I went onto Craigslist, and websites like AsianFriendFinder.com, which they specialize in introducing Western men to Asian women. And I started asking the men who post ads there if they would talk to me for my film. I just wanted to understand why.

Man 4

It's their hair. It's the long, black hair that's really eye-catching.

Man 5

It's the whole mysterious kind of look.

Man 6

I think they give more consideration to how the man feels than sometimes themselves.

Man 7

Yeah, they are kind of subtle and kind of quiet.

Debbie Lum

But Steven, in particular, had this kind of unfiltered quality about him. And he'd say things like, 'You know, I was probably originally looking for a slave when I first started." And I'm quoting him. And he would kind of laugh about that.

Steven

The idyllic servant girl who cooks these beautiful meals. And you think gee, would it be like that?

Debbie Lum

Of course, as an individual, I felt a little bit disturbed. But as a filmmaker, he was quite fascinating. So then I started filming him.

Steven

She looks so Chinese.

Debbie Lum

What does that mean?

Steven

You can't look any more Chinese.

Debbie Lum

What does that mean, she looks so Chinese?

Steven

You look really Chinese, too.

Debbie Lum

He really wasn't marriage material for any woman. He didn't have a lot of money. He didn't own a house. He didn't even own a car. Yet he had such an extreme undying commitment to finding Asian women, I thought he was just sort of living in a fantasy.

He showed me all of these files that he kept-- mail order catalogs. There were just pictures of hundreds of young Asian women.

Steven

These are different girls that I've written to. They're all just so beautiful.

Debbie Lum

I almost felt sorry for Steven. Any woman that he became an online pen pal with, he basically asked them to marry him. And these women that he was dating online, they knew that he was this prey that they could take advantage of. He would just send them money. I could see that actually the yellow fever was hurting Steven more than it was hurting the women that he was pursuing.

I've been watching him search for many years and I thought that he was never going to find anyone. And then I got this call from him, and he said would you like to film my wedding? I found somebody in China who's going to marry me.

I couldn't believe it. When he told me he was getting married to Sandy, I was really afraid she would fit that stereotype of being a gold digger, a dragon lady. I had this really bad feeling that this was just going to get really ugly.

So the first time I met Sandy was when she walked off the plane at San Francisco International Airport and landed in America for the first time.

Steven

This is Sandy.

Sandy

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Debbie Lum

She seemed really sweet. She seemed really innocent. I was thinking, how is this possible? She's 30, he's 60.

And then I find out, she barely knew any English and Steven didn't speak any Chinese. All of a sudden I'm thinking, oh my gosh, this poor young woman. She has no idea what's happening. And I felt this overwhelming need to protect her.

The first thing that Sandy did was that she took over the kitchen. And she just started scrubbing and cleaning. He loved it, obviously. He was in heaven. She would cook these elaborate Chinese meals for him. She told Steven, I knew you weren't rich, but I didn't know you were poor.

Sandy

People say your husband have a house? Have a car? No, no house and no car, no money.

Debbie Lum

Sandy came from Huangshan in Anhui province. Anhui province is one of the poorest regions in China, and she grew up as a tea farmer. Then she migrated to Shenzhen, China. She found her way out of the factory floor and eventually became the executive secretary at a fashion company.

Sandy

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Translator

Everybody says it doesn't make sense. You should try to find a younger guy. And why would you choose him? I felt like we had so many similar interests and hobbies. And he's just so special, he's really not like anyone else.

In China, it's not like I could ever marry someone rich. I've never wanted to marry for money. I think you marry the same kind of person that you are. It's better to be realistic, right?

Debbie Lum

They would pull out their iPhones and use Google Translator and type in sentences to each other. He would be telling jokes, and she would be laughing at them. There was this chemistry that I hadn't really even factored into the equation.

Steven

Sometimes I'll come home and she'll be hiding behind the refrigerator. Or one time she was hiding in the closet and she lets me look around. She'll be in there smiling, and it's funny. It's funny. The day is full of little things like that. That's easy to share.

Debbie Lum

And then I got a call. And it was Steven saying you have to help me, we've had a major misunderstanding. And so I show up at their apartment. Sandy had found all these pictures that Steven had collected of all the Asian women from before. And she was really upset about the presents he had sent to his ex-girlfriends in China and she just went ballistic.

Sandy

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Translator

In China, if you break up with someone you can't still be friends. She asked him to buy all these things for her. Chinese people can't casually accept precious gifts from other people. It's stupid.

Debbie Lum

Oh my gosh, these are genuine feelings that she has for him. Sandy was really hurt. So I'm hearing them fight, and they're not communicating. It was really hard to watch them struggle, so I began translating.

Sandy

[SPEAKING CHINESE].

Debbie Lum

OK, Steven, why is it that you still have pictures of Molly?

Steven

It took a while to fade away, but I'm way over it.

Debbie Lum

Let me translate. [SPEAKING CHINESE].

Sandy

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Debbie Lum

She said that's what you say, but how do I know that your heart feels that way for real?

Steven

I can only prove my love day by day.

Debbie Lum

Oh my gosh, I can't translate that.

At the end of the scene, I realized wait a minute, they've kind of made up. And how much of that was because I was translating? This is not what you're supposed to do as a documentary filmmaker. It was supposed to be about them. But I was becoming a character in the story.

When Sandy arrived in America, she came in on the K-1 Fiance Visa. And the way that works is you have 90 days to decide whether or not the person that you're engaged to is the person that you really want to marry. And if you don't marry that person, you have to go home.

Eventually they asked me to translate more and more. As I was translating them, I really started not just translating, but realized that I was mediating and kind of becoming their marriage counselor.

Steven

Help me. When she gets mad, she doesn't communicate. So I just have to guess what she's mad about.

Debbie Lum

It got pretty crazy. I'd get these late night phone calls from them. Any time they had a conflict they would call me.

As they really got to know each other, the reality hit. Her real-life personality came out, and she was no longer this figment of his imagination, or this ideal woman. She demanded that he step up to the plate and clean the house as well.

Sandy

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Steven

What? Speak in English. We got to do that first before everything else?

Sandy

No, only listen. Clean house first.

Steven

This is how I'm supposed to deal with it? You dump it in here?

Sandy

I'm sorry.

[CRASH]

Steven

That's how you dumped it. That's how you give it to me.

[CRYING]

Sandy

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Translator

This is my life and the man I chose. It's too late to go home now, I'll lose face. If I go home, I won't-- it's impossible.

You see, in China everyone will talk behind my back. I won't be able to lift my head in public. So now I can only move forward, I can't look back.

Debbie Lum

It's really clear what you're getting out of this relationship, I think. What do you think she gets out of it?

Steven

A chance at a new life, a new world? Oh, god.

Debbie Lum

So right when Sandy was really having some doubts about getting married, Steven turned to me and he just came out and thanked me. And he said, if it hadn't been for you, Sandy would've gone back to China by now. She told him that.

I absolutely questioned whether I had done the right thing at that moment. Would she not perhaps be better off if she'd stayed in China or just went home? Shenzhen is this thriving metropolis. And she'd be living in her own culture where she could have a home, have friends, and have her life.

Marriage Officiant

Marriage should not be entered into lightly, but with certainty, mutual respect, and a sense of reverence that does not preclude humor or--

Debbie Lum

Here they are, about to get married, and there's all these unanswered questions.

Steven

With this ring, I thee wed and offer as a symbol of our true love.

Marriage Officiant

I now pronounce you husband and wife.

Debbie Lum

Did I do the right thing? Many times I wanted to just tell her it doesn't matter. Just to pick her up and take her back to China.

But that that's also making an assumption that I know the right thing for her. It's so easy to go to this place where Sandy was a victim, but that doesn't give her enough credit. She was somebody who knew how to take care of herself, and knew exactly what was the right thing for her.

And after the wedding, I was relieved to see that Steven really progressed. I watched him clean up his act slowly. He worked really hard to try to win the heart of this young Chinese woman. He actually did the housework and cleaned the kitchen.

Steven

At first I went into this search thinking the traditional stereotype of getting someone to stay home, do the housework, clean, take care of me, that kind of thing. But that's not very growth oriented.

Sandy

Oh! Oh my gosh! Everything looks good, clean. Oh! Thank you.

Steven

That's what I like.

Sandy

Oh, gosh!

Debbie Lum

The crazy thing is, I'm not bothered by Steven's yellow fever in the same way I was before. You know, originally he was just this guy I wanted to expose. I never imagined that I would see a couple like Steven and Sandy, and actually be rooting for them to make it.

Ira Glass

Debbie Lum, talking about her film Seeking Asian Female which is available online. Just Google it, a companion video series about dating and race. And Yellow Fever will launch in a week at theyrealsobeautiful.com. You can hear Snap Judgment, where that story came from, on many public radio stations. Or get their podcast for free at snapjudgment.org. Stephanie Foo produced this story for them.

[MUSIC - "YOU GOT WHAT YOU WANTED" BY IKE & TINA TURNER]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Miki Meek and myself with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike.

Our senior producer's Julie Snyder. Production help from Thea [? Bennen, ?] Seth Lind is our operations director, Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our administrative assistant. Music help today from Damien Graef from Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. He stopped by the office to show me his brand new dance moves.

Dixie Jackson

I said hit it, and I went down and hit the floor. Well then, I couldn't get up because, of course, I've got a bad hip and bad knees.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.