Originally posted on Medium.
This is Mayfair Street in Northeast Philly.
It looks like any other street in the city, with little row houses packed together like sardines. Not unlike the Philadelphia row house I spent the first year of my life in after my parents immigrated from China to the States.
But if you squint at the vines crawling on the wire fences, you’ll see that there are bitter melons hanging off the vines, not just purple morning glories.
Yesterday morning I woke up way too early and hesitantly joined my sister and her friends to Get Out the Vote in Pennsylvania, a “battleground” state. Anyone who knows me knows that I hate approaching strangers, least of all to ask them to do something.
The day started off slow, with the sun beating down on a unusually warm November day. Most people were at work, and once a little boy peeped through the blinds — only to bolt the door shut.
Halfway down the street, I knocked on a door and an older Asian gentleman answered.
When I began my spiel, he gestured with his hands. Expected to be waved away again, I began to back off.
But when I leaned closer, I realized what he was saying was no to English, not no to me. Unfortunately, he began speaking in Cantonese, a language I don’t know a word of. As a last ditch effort, I tried to ask him if he’d voted in my third-grade proficiency Mandarin.
Mr. Lee* (whose name I learned at the polls) told me people had been knocking and calling all week, but not a single person spoke a word he could understand. He tried to vote this morning, but it was too confusing.
He went home.
Did I know who he wanted to vote for, I asked? He did.
“The Woman,” he said.
Reluctant to abandon my check sheet of addresses and names, I called the voting hotline. Did they have translators at the polling station nearby? No one who spoke Chinese, no. I could, however, help interpret for a voter, and accompany them to the polls.
Ten minutes later, we walk together to Creighton Elementary School. Along the way, he tells me a little bit about his life. It’s isolating to not speak English here, but he’s too old to learn. Mr. Lee casts his first ballot, and we both get an “I Voted” sticker, me for the ride.
On our walk back to Mayfair Street, I ask him if any of his friends need help too. He calls some friends he can think of, but most of them are at work at this time of day.
A young woman in a Cal t-shirt runs past and he shouts her name and they start chatting faster than I can understand for a few minutes. Excitedly, she turns to me, and then runs down the street. “Let me just grab my ID!” she says in Mandarin.
Together, I go with her again to the polls — but unlike with Mr. Lee, there’s no time for small talk. Hurry, we have to walk fast, she says. She works 8am to 8pm so there’s no time for her to vote, but she managed to get someone to cover her shift just now. I add another sticker to my shirt, to the smile of the polling volunteer.
In more than three hours of walking and knocking and trying to come up with a universal language with the people I meet, I’m able to help three voters make the long journey just a few blocks away.
For a scientist who is used to observing human behavior through “big” data, three seems like a defeatingly small number. But in terms of human lives, it is infinite.
Yesterday I was reminded that despite all the observations we can do from 3,000 feet, it’s important to get on our feet. Not only to be reminded of what’s at the heart of it all, but because many issues are impossible to comprehend without knocking on the doors of strangers.
By meeting potential voters like Mr. Lee, I realized that there was a real shortage of interpreters in Philly, especially for Asian Americans. Later, I learned that this has been a contested issue in many districts since the 2014 midterm elections.
Although Election Day was only a single date in the calendar, I have spent the past two years analyzing, speculating, and writing about the elections during my Master’s degree. Yet I rarely discussed politics outside of my circle of friends and colleagues.
If data science is about the art of drawing patterns from numbers, there is a stronger and more difficult art in drawing the human stories out of data. Although the introvert in me wishes to disagree, there is no way to write a story without looking at another human being in the eye.
In times of disappointment, when it seems so hard to move the needle forward, find solace and meaning in the words of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. She reminds me of my purpose:
“To pursue the human project — which is to remain human and to block the dehumanization of others.”
* Name has been changed for privacy.