Coming to Terms

It may be that I’m coming from the traditional Asian family. In such a context, there are only a few career paths worth taking. Doctor, lawyer, engineer – anything that can be labelled and understood as smart and difficult to achieve. Or anything that makes money. I am decidedly none of these. I would say that I ended up label-less, in a field difficult to explain to my mother. I shrink the job description to a few words. Despite the universities and degrees, the cost and travel, it’s not as glamorous as she’d hoped. She can’t explain it in a word to her friends, to my aunts or my uncles. All she has to show are the names of various institutions, places where they’ve never been, but only hear about in the news. Huge organizations where working there doesn’t mean much unless you can say that you actually do something apart from the ever-nebulous, analyze.

Anything that has a label would be better. Or else, anything else would be better.

“His degree will essentially be in Neuroscience. That’s not what he does, but that’s what will be written on his degree in any case.”

(This last comment goes unheeded. Neuroscience is a known, labelled, respectable science, bien sûr.)

“See, that’s what I dreamed of you doing.”

(I had no knowledge of said dream.)

She continues, “Anything would be better.”

(Really? Anything?)

I put aside the fact that after ten years, she doesn’t really know what I do. (But perhaps I’m giving her too little credit, and her statement still holds. That is another matter altogether.) And that, even if she doesn’t know it, this is what she wanted at one time. It’s just that my ultimate employer doesn’t yet start with “World” or end with “Bank”. In her mind, she knows what those people do. And it’s respectable.

My efforts to explain the last ten years bear little fruit. Through a mishmash of opportunity and ‘interest’, I have fallen into what I’m doing today. Your school teachers and professors don’t seem to mention the significance of a label once you get out into the world. It’s somehow important. It’s somehow critical that you can fit your days into a single word, or maybe two. At some point, I came to envy those who could graduate and immediately say, “I’m an engineer.” Or “I’m an accountant.” Or “I’m a doctor.” And people know what they mean. There’s no need to go further. They don’t endure the moments of pause or confusion and the necessity to breach an entire subject matter just to convey how they spend their time. Yes, I envy that. Or perhaps self-branding is a skill I don’t have. But I’m skeptical that that is the solution.

The closest label that we’ve been stamped with is social scientist – a label that could mean nearly anything and one that has been gendered and pushed aside as soft. And this is forever hard to swallow. But perhaps I’m finally coming to terms with the idea.

“What do you do?”

“I study *mumble mumble*…”

“Hm okay, but you do do statistics? That counts. I’ll add you to the mailing list for our seminar.”

THAT COUNTS.

And with those couple of words, perhaps I finally began coming to terms with the label. For now, let’s set aside the fact that external validation seems necessary for me to accept what I’ve become. And that there’s some feeling that the career defines me. With those words, it began to take the form of something real, respected, and worth the brain energy spent. Based off a simple interaction, this is delusional, of course. But perhaps, all the same, it was some recognition that I’ve spent some of my years learning at least some things. So yes, perhaps I finally am coming to terms.

But then, I’m also adding words to say Computational Sciences and Engineering on that final piece of paper…so maybe not.

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A Dinner Party

Winter is the season of dinner parties. Excuses to get together with people, but stay indoors, dress up in sweaters and sweater dresses and celebrate when the sun sets early and the ever present fog leaves beads on your scarf and colors your nose.

Early evening: Accepting the invitation

It’ll be great to get out of the house. It’s an excuse to dress up, because, why not?

It’ll be fun. I’ll see people and have lively discussion. It’s my chance to be social and energetic and show that I’m a fun person.

I do things. Yes, I do things with people.

Getting ready

What kind of get-together is this? Are we talking full makeup? Or would that be trying too hard?

And what to wear. Is this too much party? Or should I be safe and go with black? Maybe it’s too sad and dark. But black is safe.

I’ll just add some color with my shoes for some fun. Heels aren’t too much. People wear heels to dinner.

Purse. No purse? Purse. Which purse? The everyday one, not too much. And coat. Definitely coat, scarf, gloves.

Okay, ready.

Wait, lipstick. Always lipstick. Yes, done.

Oh, and the champagne. Your one job. The champagne. How could you forget?

And late, of course.

The (late) entrance

Okay, hi. This is a lot of people. I’ll say hi to as many people as possible, and then just happily ignore the others that are difficult to reach. I’ll be introduced eventually. I don’t want to make a whole disturbance now. It’s pretty unlikely that I’ll ever see them again in my life anyway.

This is a nice spot in the room. Just nod and smile. Don’t forget to ask questions. You can talk less that way.

Yeah, I don’t understand half of what’s going on…but that’s fine. You’re the foreign one. You’re not supposed to understand. It’s a nice excuse anyhow, a nice excuse to not talk. I just feel bad that they’re trying so hard to include me. But I can also see them getting tired of that responsibility. Sorry! It’s okay. It’s okay. I can’t fix that right now.

À table

Ah finally, we’re sitting down to dinner. I can just eat. Eating is a valid excuse. It takes ALL of my attention. It does. Taking the right amount of salad from the bowl. Not looking ridiculous that I can’t get lettuce onto my fork and on a successful journey to the mouth. How to make the lettuce not overly large? Yes, that’s right. Be sure to fit the entire piece in or else you’ll look like a dumb rabbit. Dumb in all senses of the word, considering that you can’t engage in conversation like normal person right now. ALL THE ATTENTION. Okay, that’s normal.

Hm, that wasn’t enough food. I’m definitely still hungry. I thought the “I’m American” disclaimer was well-distributed at this point. There’s not really anything much left though. I can’t be the one to take all of the final drippings.

The bread! Thank God for bread. The bread will do it. Eat the bread.

I hope they don’t expect me to have followed the conversation. My brain is tired. It can only translate so much in a prolonged period of time. I also have the jetlag excuse in my pocket. I must have zoned out for the past five minutes at least. Okay, fine. Try again.

This conversation isn’t particularly exciting. Maybe I’m not actually understanding. But I think I am. Would I be having fun if I was with my own friends? Or is this really just a language thing? Or do people just get boring when they get older? Or am I just more disinterested? I think I’d still be bored if it were my own friends. Maybe I’ve been here too long. Maybe that’s all it is. This is probably what it’s like for outsiders to hear my friends and I hanging out. I’m suddenly so sorry for all of those people that have to sit through us…

Bored. Maybe this is why I don’t come to these things. Just smile. More smiling.

Woo! Dessert! This is cause for celebration.

Post hoc

Dinner, check. We have to be leaving soon. There seems to be lots of talk left in them yet. *sigh* I’m exhausted. But I still look nice.

Okay, yes? Yes?! Coats. I can do that. I have all the things. Coats, gloves, purse.

Bisous! Love you all! We should do this again? Yes, of course! Let’s do this again soon!

*door shuts*

SWEET FREEDOM.

Let’s take a walk.

A walk sounds marvelous.

Maternal Instincts

Maybe it’s my age or something. Maybe it’s me becoming more of my parents with each passing day. Maybe it’s the current world climate, or the way I consider death to be a very real, tangible possibility today or tomorrow. But my propensity to worry (excessively) about the well being of other people has been kicking in lately. In a bad way. In a (semi-) irrational way. To the point that it can be debilitating for that short period of time.

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Smartphones. Computers. Laptops. iPads. Email. Facebook Messenger. Google Hangouts. Skype. iMessage. WhatsApp. Viber. The list goes on and on.

In today’s messy, globalizing, technologically advancing, multitasking, fast-paced world, we’re constantly connected to a seemingly eternal universe of information, and to each other. We’re connected to the ones we love and the ones we hate and the ones that we will never know in any sense of the word. I can send a message to a friend in Geneva, a friend in London, in Paris, in San Francisco, in New York, in Phnom Penh, in Yaoundé, in the length of time it takes my thumbs to move about on the keyboard of my iPhone – which, I’ll say, is not that much time. J I can do this with the click of a few buttons, for free, from the comfort of my desk, my local coffee shop, my daily bus ride, or in the middle of a lengthy statistics lecture. I can successfully communicate with my friends and family at any time in nearly any place and expect to receive a message back.

Now, let’s examine that last part: expecting to receive a message back (assuming that the message compels a response). I like to think that I’m a reasonable person. I wait a good amount of time for the response, allowing for a varying time range depending on who you are and the topic of discussion. I know who will respond within five minutes and from whom I shouldn’t expect to hear until next week. I know that my sister will respond immediately to a video of pug puppies, but conveniently “forget to respond” to a question about how her math class is going.

But there are some instances, when I don’t hear from someone within 24 hours, where Messenger’s Active 23h ago brings up my latent anxiety, releasing the monster perpetually lingering just below the surface. It’s that instant where my brain involuntarily jumps to the worst possible possibilities. But even as rationality takes over, remnant unease remains. In these few in-between hours, I wonder if my brain is simply programmed around loss and death. Perhaps this is just me.

Still, the response lets me know that they’re alive. I’ve clearly passed the stage of – “oh, they’re not answering because they don’t want to talk to me,” or “they must be upset with me,” or “hm, they must not have network.” No. I’m at – “SOMETHING BAD MUST HAVE HAPPENED.”

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Kind of. It’s more like – “well, I hope nothing bad has happened.” …repeating over and over and over again in my head…I hardly find that any better.

Where does this come from? This bubble of latent, and sometimes not so latent, anxiety and worry. Worry, when this other person is simply going about living their life. Yes, my friends and family simply have lives. Lives where responding to the multiple messages on their phone or email or Messenger is not a top or only priority. Being disconnected is something that we strive to do in preserving mental health, sleeping better, creating and maintaining real human connections, improving focus, gaining time, and life balance in general. This should be an admirable trait, to live unconsumed by digital connection, instead of shackled by a relentless need for connection. So when we’ve come to depend on it, to classify it as part of daily life, as a guaranteed mechanism to reaching another person, but possibly also exacerbating an underlying paranoia, does it become damaging?

On the one spick_maternal.jpgide, I’m convinced that heightened anxiety runs on both sides of my family. Fine. I’ve learned to cope with it in various ways: yoga and exercise, a balanced diet, regular pampering, reading, hot showers, acknowledgement of the importance of rest and leisure. But more generally, where does this tendency to worry come from? Is it related to a projected ‘maternal instinct’? If not, what is it? Is it beneficial manifesting in this way? Is this normal? Or am I the extreme? How much of my reaction is shaped by the current social and political world forces? How much is driven by fear? How do I separate the rational from irrational reaction? When is it valid to worry? Would it help if I made greater efforts to disconnect, making my world just a bit smaller?

Whatever the answers to these questions, I’ll just be over here, monitoring the Active 23h ago, hoping for the update, awaiting your response.

The One

It was love at first sight.

I had spent my entire life wishing for you. You happened. And I knew. I knew the moment I looked into your eyes, that you were my person.

But with your arrival, I lost myself. Everything was about you. I tried desperately to assert my individuality to no avail. You ran the show.

Still, I loved you. I couldn’t imagine going back to a world where you weren’t by my side.

Sure we fought. There were moments when I wanted to scream at you (and moments when I did), but I always knew, at the end of the day, you’d be the only one who’d ever really know me. The only one who would call me out without hesitation. The only one who’d be there even at my most unlikeable. And I was honoured to do the same.

Over the years, we grew together, moulding each other, painting by numbers, not realizing that the masterpiece lay in the white spaces. The spaces around each of us. The spaces that connect us.

Our shared masterpiece – our bond – is and always will be my greatest achievement. I cherish every moment we have together, fine tuning its melodies, sculpting extensions, repainting neglected pieces.

I’m proud of what we’ve built, and thankful every day.

That almost 22 years ago, a baby sister came my way.

Love ya sis  5d460ed78992a28f0ea9d7a6b7841f91

On the Brink.

I’m on the brink. I can feel it coming soon, the barrage of events that happen that make you realize that time is passing and life is happening.

“He’s sick, just old age illness,” she says. “He looks pale and slow and sad. I go to see him more often now to cheer him up. He seems happy when I’m there. I washed my car at his house, and he sat on the stairs to watch me. He’s a lot quieter. I asked him to go for a walk, but he doesn’t want to anymore.”

In a span of just a few months, I find myself making mental estimates as to how much time I might have left – how much time I might have left for them to meet my own children. The too real possibility is that there’s not enough. But I’ll make sure to go as soon as I can. Is Thanksgiving too late? Or maybe he will play with my hypothetical little ones.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt the urgency to get to a certain life stage. It started a little over a year ago, when my mom started making more regular trips to the emergency room than I’d like. I was suddenly acutely aware of what I was not doing. I wasn’t moving forward, progressing toward something worth building. And while I wasn’t doing that, I also wasn’t there, near her, as life is happening.

Just a few years ago, I wanted to travel – travel for work, travel for fun, and by travel, I meant live. Because how do you really learn a place unless you spend some real time there, with real people? Now I find that I’m struggling to find a way back, to somehow compromise the two. For someone who wouldn’t call herself a world traveler, my life is decidedly across borders, across several. My closest friends are scattered about in such a way that I think I’ll never find one place to be fully home. And now, so is my family.

So how do I find my way back? I’m convinced that it’s a matter of priorities. Yes, I may be in the middle of a doctoral program. But life is happening and it’s not waiting for me to be ready. For essentially my entire life, school has been at the center. (This is clearly where the Asian mother shoulder angel presents herself in all her glory.) Education is the key. Education is what will bring you far in life. Education is what no one can take from you. While all of that may be true, school alone is not life. It’s one facet. (This holds for work and career too, or just in general. I know, I’m late.) Still, in a household where education stood high above all else, it took quite a bit of time to re-work that perspective when I was out there on my own. While school happens, and will happen, life is happening.

So I’m on the brink of change – realizing the change in perspective, putting thoughts and words into actions. I’m moving forward. I’m building something. And for the first time, I’m consciously putting life first. Not because it fits into my school schedule, but because it’s important, central to connecting with people, building my world and theirs into something worthwhile.

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Sprouts

Something occurred to me as I was standing on the bus this morning, staring out the window, cramped between my fellow commuters.

I’ve never had to work at a relationship.

In my mid-twenties, I have never had to actively work and plan and strategize to keep a relationship alive and breathing and growing. Maybe this is normal, both the phenomenon and realization. But I’ve never had to – until now.

I have friends. But really, friends are selected and optional. There are people I get along with, who see the world as I do, have similar values and life goals. But friends and acquaintances can be and often are ultimately phased out if they’re not working for your life.

On the other hand, there’s family. Within this realm, there are a few kinds. Those who are way off in the distance, where it doesn’t matter whether your answer to their “how are you” is the reflexive “good” or the real answer.

Then, there are the ones in places of authority – namely your parents – and everyone’s supposed to have good relationships with your parents or else you’re deemed the kid with problems. So you maintain an amicable relationship with the parent, well, because it just makes life easier. Perhaps it’s simply an issue of acceptance.

And then, there are the ones where you’re needed. Whether as a friend, confidante, or supporter, as family, as the only one who can be there, you’re needed and yet the only connecting factor between the two of you is that you share some of the patterns in your respective genomes or were in the same four walls of each other as one or both of you was potty training. Apart from these characteristics, if you ran into each other in the world (already unlikely given your vastly divergent trajectories), it’s probable that you wouldn’t say more than a few words to each other. And would probably, in that interaction, judge each other a little bit. Or a lot.

It’s the last one I’m talking about here. For a long time, I took it for granted that the relationship would just happen. The world would happen naturally and work out perfectly because that’s what the world does in my world. But it hasn’t. And so I’ve recently realized that I have to work at it. Consciously making decisions to cultivate its little sprouts. I’ve never had much of a green thumb. This is hard work.

And it got me thinking then about the relationships that we’re “stuck” in. We don’t have choices in these. Even if at one time, the getting stuck was voluntary – like marriage. The thought of divorce is depressing. Even if the rates are looking optimistic, it still seems all too common. So we say, “they should have worked harder at the relationship.”

But then, we only get good at doing things that we practice. And how many people in their mid-twenties have had real practice at consciously working at relationships? At understanding another person? At being truly awake to their views and differences, no matter how seemingly well you know them? I’m talking about the necessary relationships, the ones that need to flourish, or you and everyone around you will suffer very real, long-term consequences. I’d venture to say few. We’re programmed to take the path of least resistance alongside being entrapped in this ideal that our own pursuits of happiness justify our choices at single points in time, even those at the expense of others.

As I got off the bus this morning, despite the anxious days and tear-filled nights, this is something to be thankful for. It’s life practice. Practice to build beautiful, rewarding relationships that only pressure me to grow. All the pressure and care will be worth it. We will only reap benefits and smell the sweet blooms when it’s all over. And maybe it will never be over. I’m ready for that too.

Happy New Year.

I have a confession to make. While I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, I know what I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be my parents. My parents are wonderful in their own ways. There is no question about it. But every time I come home, the semblance of tranquility, and the feeling that everything is okay, is frayed at the edges. Home is tinged with a despondency that can be overwhelming. Perhaps this is accentuated by the holidays with its tendency to force appearances of levity and leisure.

My life has been dominated by money and its value – what you can afford to do and to have. Its not what my parents intended, I’m sure. But when every decision is made with the underlying crux being money, it becomes hard to ignore. With each choice, you can see the balances gathering weight. Of course, this is for good reason and done with the best intentions. After all, we want to be able to eat next month. It just has a number of consequences. Chronic financial stress can be some of the worst kind.

The value of money in my life was reaffirmed this holiday, when my mom, to ensure that I understood the “value” of our gifts, told us their cost. It made me sad. Why should value be understood based on its price? The worst part is that it worked. I did consider the gift in a different light. I couldn’t decide whether to be disgusted with myself or with the entire societal construct of arbitrary values assigned to things. I have to find solace in the idea that society’s value is placed on the creativity and innovation of the designer who created the product. It makes the situation a little better.

Knowing that that money could have been spent in different ways didn’t do much to help the matter. But this is something that is important to her. She forgets that not everyone is as excited about Dior and Chanel and Gucci and St. Laurent at the expense of other things. This is not to say that I’m not appreciative in the slightest. I am. That it simply makes her so happy to be able to give us these things is enough. I just wish it wasn’t bookended by worries about the mortgage, about school loans, about from where the next paycheck is coming, or about how retirement will even be possible.

For my mom, presentation was and is everything. My dad has his own brand.

Self-comparison is a plague that this generation finds difficult to escape, according to all of the criticisms of generation Y and millennials and our obsession with social media. But I’d say that we only have more public opportunities for it. Past generations, without the Internet, only have the privilege of keeping it contained and concealed. Except from their kids.

For my dad, when something is wrong, it has nothing to do with him. It is the fault of something else. Always. Someone has done something wrong, made something of poor quality, is deficit in their way of thinking about the world. There is a comment to be made, some criticism that places oneself among the highest order because this type of criticism inherently self-aggrandizes. It’s a distinctive kind. And one that often discredits the person doing the criticizing.

Of course, it’s an issue of self-esteem, confidence, and happiness. Everyone believes that she’d be happier if something were in some way different. It makes me sad to see this in my parents and passed off to my siblings. There’s an acceptance that it’s normal to point out the “deficiencies” of other people. Yet, above all, it’s the constant negativity that hacks away at my own happiness. Why should we dwell on the faults of others when there are plenty of our own to attend to? There is no need. I’m convinced that it can only be damaging.

As a kid, I found one household the escape of the other. Today, I find my own house is my escape from that whole world, hundreds of miles away. I love coming home, especially for the holidays, but it has become a particular type of draining. The stress can be debilitating. I’m tired of hearing about unhappiness and feeling helpless to fill its absence. I unexpectedly often find myself looking forward to walking the hallways of my house alone with only my work on my mind.

I don’t want to be my parents when I grow up. I don’t want to be overwhelmed by stress or dwell on negativity. I want to be happy and spread happiness. I want to make my own choices that aren’t dictated by money and status, but for the joy of it. Well, that’s the dream, isn’t it? I like to think that I’ve learned a bit about the world in my short 25 years. The understanding that I don’t know everything makes it all the more intriguing and exciting. But I truly believe that much of all this ideal of achieving happiness has to do with attitude. And I’m resolved to realize this existence.

Happy Holidays. Happy New Year.