The English Din

I step into the terminal. Time seems to slow for a few seconds. Returning to the din of voices that I understand, little segments of sentences which again hold meaning for me float through the air. I’m surprised by the welling feelings of comfort, distraction, and disdain. I haven’t been away for very long, which is why I’m surprised. In the short time away, my mind has come to inhabit some place worlds away from where I grew up. Upon returning, I had expected more comfort than anything else. Instead, I’ve found myself somewhere in between, playing down some parts of myself in order to adapt to the present and respond in an acceptable fashion, to make people feel comfortable. I do this naturally by now, perhaps to a fault. It’s become instinct to hide what is different or foreign to people’s daily lives and respond with the minimum. In the few moments that I’ve gone too far, I’ve suffered the unpleasant consequences. People cut off from you, find you intimidating, can’t relate, and you become a self-proclaimed repository for passive aggressive comments. You could believe that this is an efficient filter of people from your life. I find that it only serves to pain others and yourself in many cases. Everyone has their own world and finds comfort within that.

But let’s go back to the airport. All together – comfort, distraction, disdain. In the short time away, it seems that I’d become accustomed to not understanding the words most people speak. I could block out the side conversations of no interest to me. It’s liberating in a way – to be able to sit in a crowded restaurant, café, coffee shop, party and remain with your own thoughts. To allow disturbances becomes a conscious decision, only allowed when one makes the conscious effort to listen and understand. After being alone in my head for some time, unconsciously understanding the conversations all around naturally becomes distracting and invasive. I find that I’m out of practice at blocking out the endless voices. The disdain only comes from understanding the emptiness of so many conversations. A pair of ladies gossip about the audacity of a friend: “Can you believe it? She’s telling me to do this, but it can only be done with aluminum pans! Well, I don’t have aluminum pans.” The indignation is tangible. What an affront to this poor lady. Yes, of course, when giving cooking instructions, care should be given to consider the recipient’s capacities so as to avoid offense. I’m struck by the banality of so many conversations. Of course, this is the case in any language. I’d only escaped it for a moment.

Perhaps it’s the only positive I’ve found amidst my seemingly constant frustration with the French language. I’ve harnessed this frustration into disdain for myself, rooted in an incapacity to learn and promptly apply. The violence of this frustration has made itself known in the past few weeks. I’ve come to blame language for my persistent dissatisfaction and what I’ve perceived as a regression to propensities I’ve so diligently worked to subdue. Low confidence, an incapacity to make decisions, and debilitating fear of doing the wrong thing all thwart my innate need to be independent at all costs. My already limited conversation has become even further reduced. People pass over me, either out of their own discomfort or my short conversation. And I feel indebted to the ones that don’t. I’m sorry for their efforts for so little reward. It makes me question my potential to be happy in that place. The idea that if only I could move around with confidence, independently, without a constant fear, frozen gaze, or incoherent mumbling. If I could move around without revealing my secret. Instead, my fixed smile seems to say, “Yes, you’ve found me out. I don’t fit here.”

How important that sense of belonging is. How important for confidence, for independence, for happiness. Where does this fear come from? I’ve been asking myself this question for a long time without a satisfactory answer. It only seems to ooze from some eternal black hole that pollutes my every action, each a strictly calculated movement. Despite all of this, I’ve returned to the din of English and find myself hating it. Perhaps it’s only the lack of sleep. Or perhaps I’ve adopted yet another repellent tendency – the Parisian sensibility of endless complaining and haughty disdain.

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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.

Learning to Learn

And with that, another year is over. Yes, I know it’s only the beginning of June. And I realize that this is month 6 of 12. But I’m talking about a year in which I’ve created my little academic bubble and languished in it. In the last mile, in those final weeks, walking out of exam after exam, fending off sleep to make word counts, holding off crippling anxiety as THE exam approached, all culminating to walking on that plane and leaving it behind. At least for three months. Three glorious months. I make it seem like an ordeal. Perhaps I need to rein it in a bit, but maybe, I’m not that far off.

One year, completely gone. And what have I contributed to the world? Hard to say. In this respect, learning seems extremely selfish. Will we students really pay it forward? Who knows. If I’m not, what has been in it for me, really? I’ve had small moments of reflection along the way, but have only now allowed myself the time to put it down in words. If I’ve spent all of this time learning, what has been the biggest lesson? On the whole, I’d venture to say that it was learning to learn. Before this year, I’d never explicitly acknowledged the challenges I have with this undertaking in a way that is productive.

Let me say now that I do not intend to discuss learning how to learn with this post. That has been done a number of times already (Coursera, TEDx, HBR, Learn.Love.Code.), and by those who make a career of studying it. I’m only hoping to relate my experience of simply getting into a mindset supportive for learning based on existing (self-imposed) barriers. This means recognizing the challenges in the first place, their foundations, and working to overcome them, a process which, I’ll posit, is one in which I need constant reminders.

I could attribute it to the nature of doctoral studies – that, in the pursuit of new knowledge, we acquiesce that we don’t know or understand everything. But I have to acknowledge that it’s my institution too. [Let it be known that I’ll give credit where credit is due, despite my reflexive scruples about the complex that comes with the ivory tower.] Learning alongside people who you respect and find amazingly capable, and finding that they’re asking similar questions, it’s encouraging. But there are times when you feel inadequate too – the dreaded, but famed “imposter syndrome”. It’s real, and it comes in waves. You periodically convince yourself that a wrong decision was made somewhere. Countless times, I’ve rationalized, “Too bad, I’m here now. If a wrong decision was made, they’ll have to deal with it. I’ll simply wait until they drive me out.” This is decidedly an unhealthy way to go about it. Luckily, the sheer number of things to do often crowds out these thoughts.

This year, remembering three key things has been important to me. And these ideas have formed the basis of my experience in learning to learn. They’re simple. Perhaps that’s why they’ve helped.

  1. The Decision, with a capital D

Mais à elle seule elle est plus importante que vous toutes, puisque c’est elle que j’ai arrosée.

Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This one was an accident. I simply wanted a Le Petit Prince daily planner because it’s cute. How was I to know that it would become an integral piece of my experience. Looking at it every day, I eventually took it to heart. To do what I want, I needed to make it a real, tangible, reachable goal. I came to graduate school. I came to learn such and such. With this explicit decision, I’ve invested time and money and have made inevitable tradeoffs. This is what I’ve decided to spend my time doing. Did I really want it? Well, then. I need to water it.

This seems very simple. But I hadn’t forced myself to pin it all down before. Forever the jack of all trades, master of none. The decision is key. I came back to school to learn. I didn’t come because it’s expected. I didn’t come to please someone else. I didn’t come because I was bored, or because I didn’t know the next step. I wanted to know more. Or at least have the tools to find out.

There are endless distractions. Part of coming back to school is the network. You want to meet great people, build lifelong friendships and colleagues. You want to discover all you can about the opportunities in this field and what you can contribute to it. You want to explore the city and all it has to offer. You want to move ahead, be involved, have an impact on your immediate world. And you can do these things, but not at the expense of your learning. With so many distractions and obligations pulling every which way, the dangers of graduate school can be many. It’s not merely an expected rite of passage as going to college has become for much of the middle class. The sirens of graduate school, though momentarily intriguing, can throw you off course. You’ll forget what you came here for and may find at the end of it that you’d never really decided what you wanted at all.

Deciding to learn means making an explicit decision to focus on learning at this point in time. Particularly in doctoral studies, it means realizing that your time as a student, inclusive of academic obligations and freedoms, is short. At some point, you must prioritize a topic over others, regardless of how interesting they may seem. The daily reminder of my decision and that only I can take the time to cultivate my learning kept my focus when I found my resolve wandering.

  1. Learning requires humility

She’ll probably never know how much this affected me. In the first few weeks of school, a girl in front of me in class had taped to her laptop: Learning requires humility. It was impossible to miss. And to follow it up, in jelly letters on her planner: I am wrong often. I studied this with fascination each day. She has the self-awareness to admit her pride as a significant barrier to her learning. And the commitment to remind herself to confront it each day. Directly ahead in my line of vision, I too became committed to the reminder each day. A reminder that I before didn’t know I’d needed. But I did.

Learning requires humility. I took this one to heart too. It’s no secret that I struggle with a sometimes overwhelming sense of pride. But I need to often ask myself, for what? Often, it’s become only a hindrance and not helpful in any way other than to feed my own discomfort. I made a decision to learn, and that’s what I intend to do in spite of debilitating pride and inevitable embarrassment. I will admit that I do not know. I will take advantage of my professors and peers, extracting all information and understanding. It’s part of my commitment. It’s part of the commitment that you must make to learning. Some people make it naturally. Some do not allow their pride to veil ignorance. But I find such cases to be uncommon.

  1. Grades don’t matter

Really, they don’t. Perhaps this one is relevant only to the perfectionists among us. Perhaps I can only say this as a doctoral student. It’s the very last degree. There is no more school to do, in theory. But the argument holds when it comes to learning. And it’s important. In a number of classes, my letter grade fails to convey how much I actually learned in the course. In fact, my highest grade often means that it required the least learning. (Of course, this is not always the case.) In some cases, I found that I only truly understood the material a little later than hoped – after the exam. I would venture to say that this can often be so. But learning is happening nonetheless.

The system has ingrained in us the importance of grades. You are ranked based on how well you perform according to arbitrary standards, or simply the knowledge or opinions of an individual. This seems somewhat flawed. In some respects, it can be more of an evaluation of psychological or political prowess, e.g. What does this professor want from me? Still, one doesn’t realize how deeply we adhere to the system until one make the effort to change mindset. This reminder is urgent, insistent. It must be to elude the ever-near spiral of self-doubt and self-loathing. And overcoming the threat of the spiral is so important to achieving more and discovering more. Even so, it’s a hard one to internalize, and as a result, requires constant recognition.

These have been my thoughts over the past several weeks, as I was forced to contend with inevitable questions: am I really doing what I wanted / want? Is this the life that I’ve chosen? For what? At least I can say that I’ve grown in some ways. I’ve realized some things. And what has changed the most is a newfound capacity to learn, despite challenges and despite ego. To what end is to be determined. With that, I begin summer. A glorious summer. But I will take these with me. Perhaps the formulations of my commitments will change in time. For now, I’m content with this list. That they comprise the most significant of my realizations and only a year of personal growth. Finally, it seems, in my twenty-some years, I’ve started the real journey of learning with openness and humility. I hope to make it a lifelong venture.

Waking up 15

She goes to bed 32 years old. A single mother who runs her own business. She wakes up 15 years old. Terrified. Sound like the premise for a cheesy airport novel? (or suspiciously similar to the movie, 13 going on 30). Well it is. It’s also Naomi Jocobs’ true story of losing 17 years of memory overnight due to Transient Global Amnesia.

I don’t know all the factors that can lead to something that sounds made-up, but the story did make me think… how would I feel if I woke up in my current life as my 15 year old self? Would I be happy? proud? disappointed? panicked?

At 15, I knew a few things. I knew I wanted to do something significant. I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor. I knew Mr Darcy was close to perfect. I knew I wasn’t athletic. And I knew I’d have to get over my shyness.

Twelve years later, I know less. But I’m arguably more athletic and definitely less shy. I don’t know what “something significant” could possibly entail and I’m suspicious of anything that pretends to fall into the category. I still wonder if I should’ve been a doctor after all to provide some level of “essential,” if not “significant,” service. And I sympathize with Mr Darcy’s pride. Or is it his prejudice…

My 15 year old self would be surprised more than anything else to wake up to who I am today. Your teenage years are supposed to be for change and development of a purposeful identity. I was relatively consistent across these transition years and instead moved the flux up to my twenties where I sometimes get the sense that I’m waking up to a different human being on an almost daily basis. I’m at once in love with the world and disgusted by it. I’m motivated by some drive that believes in an inherent good and yet paralyzed by a perceived impossibility to actually nudge anything in the “right” direction. I’m a lot more negative than my 15 year old self would suspect. More reckless too. Definitely more interesting.

The negativity would probably bother 15 year old me. I keep trying to course-correct it, grasp at glimpses of the bright and shiny. But they flit away as quickly as they come. The internet tells me to write three new sources of gratitude daily, meditate, drink water, exercise, do an act of kindness – these are supposed to shift my mentality. Apparently I’m just twenty one days of positivity habits away from bright and shiny. And I try. But maybe I like wallowing in the negative. Maybe it’s safer. Maybe it absolves me from doing anything productive because well, what’s the point anyway.

I don’t know. All I know is, 15 year old me would be confused by all the angst.

Define Successful.

My daily procrastination. My daily scroll down the newsfeed.

And there it is, the life status assessment of the day: “The bad habits you should give up if you want to be successful,” attached to a soothing photo of women doing what appears to be some form of yoga in hot springs. What success. Somehow the image does evoke a soothing “I’ve got my shit together and that’s why I have the time to be doing yoga in a hot spring” success. What life awareness.

The title is provocative only in that I can’t help but get defensive – define successful. Successful presumably means vastly different things to different people. I’d be hard-pressed to accept that success defined only by the number of commas printed on my bank account statement would mean success to me in 20 years, though it may for someone else. Likely success in this case is meant to be generic, to be whatever success means to the reader. But then, in that case, would the advice in the article ever be relevant to a person’s own so-called barriers to success? It’s bound to be a list of all the traits that a normal person can’t possibly give up if they are defined by exactly that. Normal. But I take the bait.

It’s a list. I skim through the bolded text – that’s the important bit. Yes, the little tidbits of wisdom that I can say I’ve absorbed for the day, a day unwasted. Except that I reach the end and feel that I haven’t been enlightened. There is nothing new that I can add to my hoarded treasure trove of forsaken goals on my way to a seemingly unreachable “success”.

I’m generally healthy. I go to the gym. I do things. I plan for the long-term. I take opportunities – not only the small ones I like to think. I very much take responsibility for what happens next. Perhaps too much so. I know that learning takes effort, and that I have the discretion to make that learning happen. I don’t believe that it’ll happen overnight. In fact, I’d be disappointed if it did. I gave up perfectionism long ago – I’m told failure is supposed to be healthy. I’ll keep going with that for my own sanity. I’ve learned that to be really efficient, I cannot – cannot – multi-task. I don’t need to control everything – again, my goal is sanity. Okay, I admit, I’m working on not saying yes to everything. I’m improving. I’ve most definitely given up on toxic people, just ask my friends. The real ones. Okay, I’ll make another concession. My need to be liked still hangs around, but I can’t say I’m in it for mass appeal. Dependency on television doesn’t seem to exist. In fact, the opposite seems to be the problem in my ability to be a normal social human being.

So is there anything in there? I’ll admit, a few were borderline. But for the most part, I’d say that I’m pretty satisfied in my ability to say that I effectively don’t have any of these “bad habits”. So what do I do now? If these are all that I need to give up to be successful, by my own definition, why does the path to success seem so obscure? Perhaps it’s more of a question of reaching that satisfactory definition of success. At this point, it’s more probable that I’ll never reach it simply because I’ll never be able to define it. When will I feel that I’ve “made it”? Maybe that’s a list worth reading.

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.

On having things

978-1-60774-730-7.jpgYou’ve probably heard the hype about Marie Kondo’s “The life-changing magic of tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing.” (Example A, Example B, Example C, Example D )

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER! 3 MILLION COPIES SOLD!!

First of all, let’s call this book what it is: this is a self-help book for the masses. It’s a self-help book for people who are surrounded by objects, some of which they love/need and most of which are entropy encapsulated in objects.

So yes, this is a self-help book. I know. Bear with me.

I read this entire book and despite the many eye rolls, it was honestly life-changing in a small but important way. It is not about ascending Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and self actualizing. It’s more simply about changing your relationship with objects (and maybe that makes you happy, maybe it helps with anxiety, or maybe you find it doesn’t really do anything for you).

The short explanation of Kondo’s approach is to approach your ownership of objects with intention, retaining only things that “bring you joy” and ensuring you appreciate those things and treat them with care. It sounds SO simple, yet Kondo has raked in millions of dollars for putting this into a book.

Yes, some of her tidying mentality is exhausting. She encourages the readers to have a dialogue with their objects, which I found silly. (*Enters house, kneels in entrance* “Hello house. I am here. Please accept me.” *Takes off jacket* “Thank you jacket for keeping me warm. Now I will ceremoniously, carefully place you where you belong so you can rest after keeping me warm all day….*Takes off shoes* Thank you shoes for helping my feet walk!…and so on.)

But, this book forces the reader to think about about the objects that surround us. We love to buy things, to collect things, to fill our spaces with things. That’s not a bad habit. But, Kondo has a point. When we are surrounded by objects for the sake of having objects, we don’t appreciate what we have, and our space becomes cluttered (i.e., diminishing value).

I drank the Kool Aid, and I applied her method to my space. I held every item I owned in my hands, and if it “sparked joy” as I held it, I kept it. If it did not have that special spark, I gave it away. Slowly I found myself in possession of honestly, 1/2 of my original stock. But what remained were things that I needed and enjoyed. It’s been four months and I found that I take better care of the fewer pieces of clothing I have. I seldom lose things in my apartment, and I have almost no clutter. I used to compulsively make multiple tiny random piles of things in my apartment. The more stressed I was, the faster these little piles of things would crop up. Now, clutter doesn’t surround me, my space is simple, and it doesn’t distract me.

I am fully aware I sound like an infomercial. And whatever, I don’t care. This book is ridiculous, but its central message is great and it’s clearly connecting with people. We are fortunate enough that we have the means to fill our space with things, but we take that fortune for granted. So why not pare our object repository down and re-learn what it feels like to appreciate and value our things?

Well. It’s now time to power off my computer, thank it for helping me write things about things on the internet, and then ceremoniously place it in its special place on my desk.