“Burning Man? You’re going to Burning Man?” my sister asked over the phone. I was halfway to the Black Rock Desert with a bunch of engineers, and though I insisted I would be safe, my sister remained nervous. With expectations shaped by media, I entered the event wary of hippies, drugs, and thrill seekers. Despite these preconceptions, I wanted to experience for myself what drew thousands of people to weeklong avant-garde festival.
My curiosity has long been a guiding force in my life. As a child, I explored anything that piqued my interests through books. Being one of the few Asians in the neighborhood I grew up in, I naturally wanted to understand racial dynamics, what influenced the actions of communities. Through reading I began to realize how studying these dynamics can reveal subtle insight, and this steered my interests towards the abstract. In college, I gravitated towards biology to better understand the physical world and learned the fundamentals of the scientific method. Working in research laboratories sharpened my ability to make observations and interpret the “big picture” from large collections of data, and I became interested in law because I saw it as an opportunity to continue working on my intellectual skills in analyzing and dissecting abstract phenomenon.
Inevitably, when I came to Burning Man I was eager to interpret the underlying themes that would emerge from transforming 500 acres of barren land into an entire city virtually overnight. But as I quickly learned from walking amongst 70,000 diverse individuals, each person I met revealed unexpected circumstances that I never could have predicted. Instead of exploring the large, intricate art buildings accompanied by LED lights, digital displays, and other technical work, I spent every second charmed by the personal stories of strangers. On one evening, I sat with a group of 60-year old women and listened attentively to their stories about their work, family, successes and regrets. On another day, I helped a blind woman navigate through the community by linking arms with her, all the while sharing unique perspectives between us. My chance encounters transformed what was initially a purely intellectual pursuit into an emotional one.
When I came back home, everyone had an opinion about Burning Man. My stories were sometimes greeted with dismissive attitudes; a friend questioned it being nothing more than a rave in the middle of a desert under the pretense of “freedom.” Others thought it symbolized Silicon Valley and exemplified the virtues of startup culture. While these conversations tended to emphasize the community at large, my mind was still preoccupied with the individual stories of the people I met. Trying to fit all these stories in a box of general analysis would have overlooked all the distinct ways each person has altered me. I realized focusing on the underlying themes can obscure how individual people engage their particular set of circumstances.
Consequently, my experience has shifted my views of the law and activism. I still relish the training a lawyer receives in analyzing and breaking down complex, abstract systems, but now I’m also deeply attracted to the lawyer’s role in studying and understanding how the law affects individuals. Before I mainly viewed legal work as a way to satisfy my intellectual curiosity and study the “big picture” and solve general societal problems, but now I equally value the opportunity to explore individual stories with an open mind and gain the tools necessary to aid people in particular ways that I cannot anticipate with a general glance. A few years have passed since I left the desert; however, the lesson I learned from Burning Man still resonates brightly in me and will continue to guide my purpose and direction in effecting change, case by case.