Make I Here
I have a sense of humor, I tell myself once again, huddling in the Bike Shed, handlebars digging into my spine as I try to duck flying spittle. The Bike Shed is a literal bike shed that was capitalized because it is also an inside joke.
To tech people, "bikeshedding" is a verb. To bikeshed is to belabor one’s point over trivial, borderline inconsequential things, such as whether void functions must always return nothing – or the fact that our AI product has failed a test because of me – but given that our launch date is less than a month away, this doesn’t qualify as inconsequential. The reason for our crammed emergency meeting is this: my teammates cannot agree on whether the AI’s failure is, in fact, a true failure. They are arguing about this instead of accepting the outcome and working to fix it. Or if not fix – because there is no failure, then at least improve.
'What if Edwina just has no sense of humor?' someone asks. I look up. That someone is Darren, the project tech lead – of course, it is. He scorns my presence, which may or may not have to do with the fact that I’m the only woman on the team.
'Sorry,' I say, as I push past him to exit the void function that is our meeting. No one pays me any attention. If any of them perceive there even is a problem, then I am its cause, not part of the solution.
I am waiting in "Hela" for my manager. He’s late again for our one-on-one meeting, which he stylizes as 1:1 on calendar invites. 1:1, as if we were equals – as if our values, our worth, were interchangeable, the same.
Hela lies along the east side of our open plan floor, because she is a villain. The eastern rooms are all named after comic book villains, facing off those on the west, which are named after superheroes. The room directly opposite Hela is "Storm". Great care has been taken to ensure gender and racial diversity, but they have overlooked one angle: the East/West dichotomy. I am Asian. I noticed where the bad guys are.
'So, what happened in there?' my manager says as he sits down, boyish face flushed. At last, someone is asking for my side of the story, instead of just endlessly dissecting the AI’s perspective.
'AInstein failed the test,' I say. With engineers, you always start with bite-sized facts. Get them to agree with you on the basics.
Except, of course, we were just bikeshedding about whether the statement: AInstein failed the test is true. My manager frowns.
'AInstein couldn’t make you laugh,' he rephrased.
'Yes, that’s right.'
'That’s bad news, very bad.'
'How can we convince clients to buy an AI that tells jokes, if our product can’t even make our own employees laugh?'
I stay silent.
'I keep saying our Glassdoor ratings are so high because we eat our own dogfood. But now this. What went wrong?'
'Log inspection suggests that AInstein detected I’m a woman, and tried to calibrate its jokes to fit that detection. Unfortunately, we have not trained AIstein on much data that would make it successful in that area, and it did not pick up on my reaction expressing disapproval. I took a look at the code. It should be a quick … ' I trail off when I see his expression.
'Why are you looking through code? That’s not your job,' he says.
'Well, this is really low-hanging fruit, and I have basic coding skills. I thought I could contribute—'
'Your job is to test things. You’re a QA analyst, not an engineer.'
'Yes, I know.' My heart sinks. I won’t be able to bring up my green card sponsorship request today – and if not now, when?
'Do you think it might have something to do with the fact that you’re Asian? Like, foreign Asian, not Asian American?' he asks.
I blink. These days, that is what I do when I sense anger rattling inside me.
He doesn’t say the word "inscrutable", but it vibrates between us like a hard disk drive whirring to life. I blink so much that the borders of my contact lenses harden and cut.
Back in my Wall Street studio, I slide my Important Documents folder from a desk drawer. I pinch my passport gingerly and open it to the page with a visa affixed. Near the bottom, close to one corner of my unsmiling face, is the name of my company.
I blink at the Expiration Date. It is datemonthyear all squeezed together without spaces separating them, presumably so I cannot magic-marker JUN into JULY. The date sits in the middle of a muted pastel drawing of the U.S. capitol building, and I blink and blink and blink at it.
If I don’t ask my manager for a green card soon, it will be too late to beat the Expiration Date. Or if I do ask, and he says no, then, then the outcome will be the same – a branch switch with nothing but fall-throughs. The outcome being: I will lose my job and have to leave the country, or become an illegal immigrant.
My phone lights up as my mother calls, from Asia. The East, where the villains live. I ignore the call. I shouldn’t have told her that I’d be asking for a green card today. She’s rooting for my failure and I’m not ready to grant it to her. But as well as not wanting to admit defeat. I don’t have a single good answer in response to her (reasonable) questions about why I so desperately want to stay on in America. Is my job rewarding? Do I love it? Am I taking advantage of all the things New York has to offer, or am I just working seven days a week? Is there someone I’m seeing? No, not like that – someone I’m serious about? What does America have that my country does not?
'It’s just better here,' I’d mumbled eventually, without providing an ounce of supporting evidence.
Once, at a night market in my country, I’d seen a shirt being sold with the kind of misspellings that wasn’t uncommon on pieces of clothing that went for less than one USD per piece. On the shirt were these words, in this formation:
IF I CAN MAKE I THERE
I CAN MAKE IF ANYWHERE
I’D RATHER BE
I bought the shirt.
The phone gives up and I wonder again whether this is retribution, in the sense my mother believes. To her, human lives function pretty much as software does – given a set of input, one can reliably expect a corresponding set of output. Input: You are a cold-hearted murderer. Output: You go to the section of the Court of Hell reserved for murderers, where your head and arms are hacked off by demons. Input: You are a virtuous person, especially when it comes to respecting your elders. Output: You reincarnate as a rich man.
I don’t know the specific output given the input of lying to one’s parents regarding how well life in a foreign country is going, and refusing to move back home despite their repeated pleas, even when offered one’s childhood bedroom rent-free. But I suspect it isn’t entirely pleasant. Reincarnation as a durian perhaps? Feared and hated by some, beloved by others. That seems about right – not too harsh, not too lenient. I don’t really believe in my mother’s "mysticism" (a word I use that she hates.) Yet sometimes I wonder if her belief system extends to me by virtue of network connection, like how Cambridge Analytica was able to steal my data because just one of my 285 Facebook "friends" foolishly clicked over their rights of access. So, it may be that I am subject to karmic reincarnation because of my mother.
Another way her system of beliefs resembles software: it is math-like in its accounting. Say you spend the first decades of your life as thieving scum, filching what’s not yours at every opportunity. But in your forties, you meet a nun and discover religion. You become the most pious of people. You donate all your money to charity, and go around the neighborhood helping everyone – patching roofs and retrieving lost ducks, and so forth. At the end of your life, your deeds are tallied, the good stacked against the theft, and you come out ahead in the ‘good’ column. Then you are all set. A decent fate awaits you in your next life. Something like a co-founder of a startup that has a good run before it folds.
This is the joke AInstein told me, the one that failed to make me laugh, or even smile. I was in the hot seat because as the QA analyst, I hadn’t technically worked on a single line of its code, and so qualified as an objective subject in their books. I’m certain they would never have thought to trial AInstein on a woman otherwise.
'Why do brides always wear white?'
Its LED mouth twinkled in time to the robo-voice emitted by its helmet-head.
'Why?' I asked dutifully, aware that all of my teammates’ eyes were on me.
'Because the dishwasher should match the stove and the fridge.'
As the person who’d had to test my their buggy code – essentially clean up after them –I’d known AInstein was sloppy. But even I was shocked. I gasped, feedback that should have stopped the AI in its tracks and triggered it to switch tacks, maybe go for a vanilla road-crossing chicken joke.
No such thing happened. When AInstein gamely followed up with a joke about a dirty bus station and a lobster with breast implants, my eyes bugged out so much someone finally pulled its plug.
What happened was straightforward – to me, at least. AInstein is irrevocably sexist. An all-male team coded it, and until today, it was tested on an all-male sample. Plus so many people believe that women aren’t funny, there’s just not as much material out there by women and/or for women. So, that’s what happened.
But, not to my teammates. They think that I’m frigid, that I never laugh anyway. The takeaway of the Bike Shed meeting: they are simply marking my session as an "edge case" that is "outside the scope" for their first release. AInstein will be launched as is, on schedule.
I wonder what my ledger looks like, karma-wise. I imagine it to be squarely in the black before my move to America. On the debit side, some minor things like punching my baby brother in the stomach, or nicking a rose apple from my neighbour’s tree. On the credit side, my volunteer work collecting books for those who couldn’t afford them, and the charge I led at my first job when I found out all the girls were paid less than the boys. It was a part-time job on the sales floor of a local department store, and most employees were teenagers like me. But still. That had to have wiped out a rose apple or ten, right?
Yet somehow in America I became meek. At my job interviews, I contorted myself to fit my interviewers’ projected ideas of Asian woman excellence: polite, good-natured, a "team player", which is code for following orders and not making other people uncomfortable. I did it to make my parents proud. I wanted to make American money and send some home. Because getting an American job seemed like a victory, back then.
And it worked. When the job offer came in, they made a huge fuss. My mother sent a care package containing, besides the customary packets of herbal blends, a lapel pin in the shape of a rose (her 80s idea of workplace etiquette), and a handwritten note: 'I am so happy for you. You must have given a lot of money to beggars in your past life!'
This only made it so much harder when, barely a month in, I was ready to flip a desk and rage quit. The first week, Darren casually told me that men are generally smarter than women. When I objected, he stressed in general, and told me not to take things so personally; he could tell that I was smart at least. The second week someone typed ‘strip club’ in answer to a Slack poll for team outing venues. When I complained, Darren asked why I joined a company whose selling point was jokes if I couldn’t take one.
Other things on my ledger’s debit side: how I said nothing when the team decided to have AInstein ingest (IP-free) jokes from reddit threads, even though I knew full well we would be stuffing our product full of crass misogyny. How I took notes, bought lunches, and made restaurant reservations, despite none of those things being in my job description, stopping just short of coffee runs. How I filed no complaint after the UX designer pushed me against a wall and leaned in for a kiss, even after I said I had a boyfriend. How I lied about the boyfriend.
But I couldn’t quit. How could I, when my parents had been so overjoyed? It would be admitting defeat. Just eighteen months, I told myself. That was how long I originally had before my visa expired. I would tough it out, work my way up, and at the end of those months, I would be successful. I’d have enough to buy my parents an air-conditioning unit for their stuffy house, for one, and who knew what else awaited me.
That was how I came to see bending backwards to tolerate abuse as winning. So perhaps I’m just as superstitious as my mother, after all, because wasn’t I banking on the swallowing of daily injustices to bring eventual reward?
Except, I no longer have any idea what the reward is supposed to be.
'How do you make an octopus laugh?'
'With ten tickles!'
I’ve been thinking a lot about this joke. The first time I heard it, I was trembling in a corner of an urgent care clinic, blood stains dotting my calf. I was nine, and I’d fallen off my bike onto a sharp rock. My mother knelt in front of me, trying to catch my eye. Behind her, a doctor was getting very impatient. He’d been waiting for me to decide whether I wanted stitches for the gash on my leg, but I was too scared to make up a mind.
'Can’t you just decide for her?' the doctor demanded, talking to my mother
Instead of answering him, my mother told me another joke. It involved a cow. I wish I could remember that one too.
Maybe a sexist joke-slinging AI isn’t such a big deal. Who would buy such a product? Lonely people, I suppose. Old folks who live alone. Parents whose children have fled the nest. The newly divorced. Incels, who laugh and laugh, but also get angrier and angrier.
It’s fourteen minutes past noon. The office is empty. Everyone’s already at the new wings place. One good thing about an open floor: I can see them coming from a block away.
Darren’s monitor blinks to life as my hand touches his mouse. I navigate to AInstein’s GitHub page and sign in. When the password keychain manager pops up, I click ‘Yes’.
Now, I can’t help myself. I go to Settings > Danger Zone, and stare at the ‘Delete this repository’ button, but I know full well that there are countless versions of AIstein on the other computers. Deleting the repo won’t slow them down.
The thing about jokes is, the good ones are supposed to open your eyes to something that you hadn’t noticed before, making you laugh in surprise. Sometimes the surprise is delightful. Sometimes it’s a rude shock.
People also laugh when they don’t know what to do. Sometimes they even laugh when the pain is too much.
As I turn my eyes away from the delete button, I realise I am crying. I’m sorry, I mumble. Some people cry, too, when they don’t know what to do. Not me. I know exactly what to do. I pull up Darren’s Emacs and find the coded in exemptions for when AInstein detects children, or ‘non-adult users’. In such scenarios, it’s been programmed to adhere to a small pool of pre-vetted, age-appropriate jokes, mostly of the knock-knock variety.
I toggle the default setting to turn off parental control and push the change under Darren’s name, titling the commit message something innocuous like "convert tabs to spaces". I have him approve his own change in the code review UI (as tech lead, he has the power to do so.) I merge the change, and wait.
It might be as late as my next life before I find out whether I’ve done the right thing. Some children are going to be confused although, let’s face it, most of them have probably already heard all there is to hear these days. It’s the parents who will be outraged. They will be the ones to tear AInstein down, ridding the world of a sexist piece of crap. I am certain that counts for something. Who knows, it might even be enough to atone for all that I’ve done in this strange country, helping men have their "innocent" fun. At the end of the day, if I can make I here, I can make if anywhere – and, in this at least, I finally feel I have succeeded.
Alone in the empty office, I laugh out loud.
Make I Here is excerpted from our latest print issue – Somesuch Stories #4, which is now on sale at Barnes and Noble stores across the US, and available in UK/EU/AUS shops via AntenneBooks with worldwide digital subscriptions offered by Newsstand.
Poet and author YZ Chin's debut short story collection Though I Get Home received the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize. Her next chapbook In Passing will be published by Anomalous Press in 2019.
Photograph by YZ Chin