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Help Me Find Kindness in the Cruelest Places on Earth (Podcast Relaunch)
From dog meat farms to prisons, kindness can be found everywhere. And it has the power to create change.
Prisons in the United States, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world, have been described as “death-making institutions.” Suicide, homicide, and drug-overdoses are all on the rise. And some of the most prominent prisons in the nation, such as Rikers Island in New York, have been exposed in the last year for shocking instances of violence, e.g., inmates being ordered by gang leaders to engage in gladiator-style fights, while prison officers watch.
That’s why it might be surprising to hear that, even as I face prosecution and potential imprisonment in the next month, I’m optimistic about my prospects for finding kindness.
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Listen to the first episode of Everybody *Wayne Hsiung* Tonight!, with Priya Sawhney, Ronnie Rose, Dean Wyrzykowski and Chloe Leffakis, as we discuss our plans for the relaunched podcast as I go to trial – including ways to get you involved.
The reason for my optimism is that, even in the cruelest places on earth, kindness finds a way to break through.
I’ve seen this in the cruel places I know best: slaughterhouses and factory farms. I’ve been to turkey farms where thousands of living beings are trampling one another in a desperate struggle for food and space. I’ve been to pig farms that resemble dystopian cities, with hundreds of acres filled with feces, disease, and the decomposing corpses of the dead. And I’ve been to dog meat facilities in China, where puppies live their entire lives on concrete, with the screams of dying dogs echoing off the walls.
But here is the remarkable thing: in places of cruelty, kindness shines even more brightly. My little guy, Oliver, is a demonstration of this. When I met him in April of 2016, at a dog meat farm in China, he was weeks away from being killed – one of the thousands of victims of the Yulin Dog Meat Festival. Having lived his entire life in a concrete pen, he knew only harshness. He slept on cold, hard floors. He ate gruel for sustenance (at least when the other dogs did not scare him away from the food). He didn’t understand what it meant for something to be “soft.”
And yet, from the moment he saw me, he was able to overcome all this and offer me kindness and even love. The video footage from that first meeting, in which Oliver jumps up and kisses me on the hand, speaks for itself.
Most of the dogs in the dog meat trade are morose and fearful. And Oliver had an element of this. When I picked him up for the first time, he froze and began uncontrollably urinating out of fear. He bit me as viciously as he could – but, bless his gentle soul, was not even able to break skin. When he finally realized that I was holding him to help him, though, he settled down in my arms.
“Everybody loves you,” I said to him at the time. I’ve repeated those words thousands of times.
After saying those words, we could hardly leave him behind. So within one day, he and his two brothers were whisked out of the farm. They felt softness for the first time in their lives.
Oliver’s kindness did not just change his life, though. His story was featured on national television when our investigation was broadcast on ABC News. Millions of Americans learned about the horrors of the dog meat trade through his eyes. And that coverage likely played a small role in the Chinese government’s ultimate decision to end the classification of dogs as livestock.
Oliver is just one example, though, of the kindness that one can find even in places of cruelty. I have seen mother pigs, whose nipples have been shredded beyond recognition from the factory-style pace of reproduction, turning their bodies to allow their babies to nurse – even as they shudder in pain from every nibble on their breast. I have seen baby cows licking each others’ faces, through the bars of a wooden cage, when they hear their neighbor’s distressed cries. And a New York Times columnist once shared a powerful account of kindness in the common goose:
While one of our geese was sitting on her eggs, her gander would go out foraging for food and if he found some delicacy, he would rush back to give it to his mate. Sometimes I would offer males a dish of corn to fatten them up but it was impossible, for they would take it all home to their true loves.
Once a month or so, we would slaughter the geese. When I was 10 years old, my job was to lock the geese in the barn and then rush and grab one. Then I would take it out and hold it by its wings on the chopping block while my Dad or someone else swung the ax.
The 150 geese knew that something dreadful was happening and would cower in a far corner of the barn, and run away in terror as I approached. Then I would grab one and carry it away as it screeched and struggled in my arms.
Very often, one goose would bravely step away from the panicked flock and walk tremulously toward me. It would be the mate of the one I had caught, male or female, and it would step right up to me, protesting pitifully. It would be frightened out of its wits, but still determined to stand with and comfort its lover.
These stories have taught me an important lesson. Kindness is not just possible in places of cruelty. It is at its most powerful.
One of those places, where I have seen the power of kindness, is in a place of human incarceration: the Sonoma County Main Adult Detention Facility, i.e., the Sonoma County jail.
When I was arrested for the first time in Sonoma County, California, after hundreds of us occupied one of the largest factory farms in the state, every interaction I had with the police seemed cruel. From the handcuffs that were so tight that my hands were turning red and blue, to being forced into a jail cell with still-wet diarrhea stains on the bed and walls – the apparent result of the prior inmate, who was mentally disturbed – the message of the jail was clear: “The world is cruel. And so are we.”
Many of the inmates had let this message sink in. When I first walked into the common area, a large inmate, with a dark beard, immediately approached me to explain the rules.
“Black people use those bathrooms. Latinos use those. And white people use those.”
“Which do I fit into?” I asked.
“Not my problem.”
He walked away. I wondered if I’d face worse punishment for breaking the racial rules of the cell block, or for defecating in a corner of the common room.
But there was an inmate, a large Mexican man who was in jail for domestic violence, who saw that I was confused and approached.
“Hey man, you can use our bathrooms. You count as Latino, or Other,” he said. “I’m Gabriel. Who are you?”
“I’m Wayne. Thanks for the tip.”
“What are you in for? We don’t see many people like you.”
“I don’t think there are many Chinese people in Sonoma county. And believe it or not, I’m in here for trying to save some starving birds.”
Gabriel’s eyes lit up at this. And after I told him the entire story, he decided to make it his personal mission to ensure my life in prison was not that bad. He showed me all the recreational areas, and explained how to play the games the inmates were playing, including a hilarious game involving a rubber ball being bounced against a wall. He introduced me to an inmate who was trying to start a prayer group, after he learned that I was interested in meditation. He even asked the officers about getting me vegan food.
“I worked at Petaluma Poultry before. I’m glad you stood up to them,” he said. He shared that his job, which involved removing organs from the chicken, would leave his arms and hands weak, and his entire body and being covered in a chemical smell when he came home to his kids. Even though he had gone through a number of jobs he considered terrible – including digging ditches and cleaning toilets – the life of a slaughterhouse worker was the worst.
Over the next few days, I returned Gabriel’s act of kindness by offering him – and other inmates – some legal advice. I could not represent them, of course. I was an inmate in jail, and not a practicing lawyer. But Gabriel put me in touch with other inmates that were struggling with their legal defense. I would explain what felt to me like small details of the law – for example, that they have a right to new counsel if their current lawyer is unresponsive – that seemed life changing for inmates who had no hope.
Jail started to feel like a kinder place. And when I left the jail a few days later, after a judge ruled that we should be released on our own recognizance without bail, it was bittersweet.
“Good luck, my friend,” Gabriel said. “If there’s justice, you’ll never be back.”
“And neither will you. You’ll bounce back from your mistakes,” I said. “And everybody loves you, man.”
Both of us started getting teary-eyed. Even in this cruel place, we had found kindness.
Prisons and factory farms are the last places we’d expect to find kindness. But if I can find kindness even in those places of cruelty, then it can be found everywhere.
And I expect to continue finding kindness, even if I’m incarcerated in a Utah state prison in October.
The relaunch of the podcast will prove this. The stories we tell are still going to be about me, even if they are read on this podcast by Priya from handwritten letters I send from jail. One week, I might be trying to resolve a difficult conflict between two inmates. The next week, I might be trying to help someone move to a plant-based diet. I’ll send you these stories, and they’ll be published on Tuesdays (along with commentary from Priya and others) every week.
But – and this is the important part – the stories are also going to be about you. The asterisks in the new title of the podcast – Everybody *Wayne Hsiung* Tonight! – are intentional. The asterisk is the symbol in code for the wildcard, or as Google puts it: “a symbol used to replace or represent one or more characters.” And if we want to find kindness everywhere, we can’t just tell stories about me. The kindness that changed me, and the world around me, was not just my kindness. It was Oliver’s kindness. It was Gabriel’s kindness. It was the kindness of so many others not named in this blog. We need a community of people committed to building a kinder world to make the world a better place for you, and me, and everyone. We need to tell stories… about you.
And the new podcast, along with this blog, will be a tool for us to do that. Here’s how:
The stories I’ve shared in this blog show that kindness is the greatest superpower in human history. (If you don’t believe me, bear with me. I have another blog planned on this subject.) But it’s a power that must be exercised to be strong. As I try to exercise that power, in prison or while facing prosecution, we hope that you will exercise it, too. We’ll have simple weekly acts of kindness every week that I’ll be doing, and that we hope you can do, too. They’ll all be things that everyone can do.
After you do them, we’ll ask you to send a note about how it went. And we’ll discuss those stories on the podcast and blog, so we can all strengthen our commitment to kindness.
Here’s the link to sign up, and get added to a WhatsApp group focused on these weekly acts of kindness. We’ll get started before trial, and keep it rolling post trial no matter what happens!
And here’s a survey, to give your feedback on what weekly act of kindness you’d like to start with.
Thanks for your support. Thanks for reading. And thanks, most importantly, for being kind.
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