Saturday, November 28, 2015

Insufficiently Hardcore

Forgoing the usual Thanksgiving post, although I have much to be grateful for, because I'm thinking about other things.

WARNING: Self-centered post ahead.


Burning Out - Thomston
I'm coming up, don't worry now
I'm too young, to worry about
Burning out, burning out

Lieutenant Sarcasm introduced me to this artist a few weeks ago, and I've been listening to this song on repeat. I identify with it quite a lot.


On Thanksgiving, as we do every year, my family went to a party with a lot of other Chinese ex-pat family friends. The food grew steadily more Western for a while in middle and high school, but has since turned a corner. Turkey is dry, and much inferior to the three kinds of fried noodles on offer.

By this time, most of us kids are in college. Some have already graduated and are working real jobs in the real world; my own sister is a senior. We spent a long time talking about college, about classes, about dorms, about the experiences we've had.

Whenever I talk to people at other schools I become more and more convinced that Stanford is easy compared to other schools. Not just because we have grade inflation--legitimately easier. I complain about school frequently and don't get enough sleep, but I'm definitely not suffering as hard as some of my friends at other schools. Of course I work hard--but if I work hard, then I will get the grades I deserve. That's not something that would be true at all other schools. I'm not sure if my brain is working as hard as other students' brains are, at other schools.

Are we as technically rigorous? I don't know. My friends at other schools seem to be doing harder math than me.

Berkeley Civil Engineering is hardcore. Berkeley civil engineers built California--and yeah, they've got numbers over us, but practically every other industry talk I've heard has had a Berkeley alum presenting. That says something.

Before long, I'm going to have to start thinking about grad school. Most of my upperclassman friends in civil are coterming, meaning they're staying an extra year at Stanford to get their Masters' degree. I think that, at this point, that's probably the default option. But I don't know if it's the best option, or the right option, and I know that since I'm a low-energy person I need to be extra vigilant about not just picking the default.

What if I applied to Berkeley for grad school? Their Energy, Civil Infrastructure, and Climate grad program fits well into my interests. What if I applied to CMU? They have a Sustainability and Green Design concentration too.

I'm happy at Stanford; happier, I think, than I would be at any of the other universities I got into. But is it worth it? Am I going to be a subpar engineer?

This break, my main task has been to prepare documents for the study abroad internship program, and I'm asking myself throughout the process, where could I possibly be useful? What skills do I have? Yeah, I can program, but I've never taken a single CS class. Yeah, I can do math, but so can a computer. Yeah, I can file papers, but so could a trained monkey. I suppose that it's valuable that I can learn quickly and that I'm not intimidated by unfamiliar software. But I do not know any kind of CAD, I have never worked in a machine shop, and I don't know BIM. These are skills that I could have learned by now that would make me useful, and I'm going to keep putting off learning them because "I don't have time."

The thing that makes me a good fit for Stanford is that I am an ambitious idealist. I'd like to think that I'd do great in a strategic or steering position, because I like finding patterns/"the big picture" and I like thinking big. But I need to be a competent engineer first.

I think a large part of my current frustration stems from my situation, now, as a sophomore who doesn't know enough. I am one-third of the way through college and I don't feel as though I know anything yet--but I have learned things, and I shouldn't forget that even though the bulk of my learning still lies ahead of me. Things kick into high academic gear for me in junior year (hello to all CEE classes). Stanford is a shiny name but it's not only a name, and it's frustrating not knowing things and feeling as though other people at different colleges are racing ahead of me--but I'll get there. Just because I'm not hardcore now doesn't mean I won't get hardcore.

The foundation is important. I'm not even close to done. I'm building.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015


I'm home for Thanksgiving break, and thinking about what "home" means and how to create it under conditions of impermanence.

My family moved to this current house only about a month after I left for college last year, and the way things are panning out I won't be living in it for more than a few weeks at a time until the summer after my junior year, if then. It is on a hill, and it gets much colder than I, a creature used to living in flat places, am used to. My main sensory memory of last Thanksgiving break is being cold and feeling distant and numb and grappling with the new person I seemed to be becoming and how she (I was still a she, back then) fit into the old patterns of family and hometown.

I put up some decorations before leaving at the beginning of this year, and my cat knows to come in my room for refuge, and all my books are here. But I haven't mapped the neighborhood with my feet, I don't know how to get to the closest library or grocery store, and I don't know if this counts as home.

Of course the family members are the same--but we are all different people, even if the change is easier to see in myself than in the comparatively more stable personalities of my parents and sister. That doesn't make it less valid as a home, but it does make home a moving target.


I love my dorm. Last year I loved my hall; this year my entire dorm has entered my circle of compassion. It's a smaller dorm, with about 60% of the people in my freshman year dorm. I am close to more people in terms of both percentage and absolute numbers. It's not as white (the staff is over half black. I remember getting really excited about the diversity at in house draw).

Two months here is enough to strip me of any allegiance to my previous dorm. I seriously want to staff here when I'm a senior, because I'm going abroad in the spring so that makes for only two quarters and that just is not enough.

How can a dorm, especially one that houses only two classes of students, create such a consistent culture, such that I know that if I come back in two years it will still be a place I can call home?


Right before coming home for break, I read Neil Gaiman's Ocean at the End of the Lane. Although I didn't really appreciate it as much as I've appreciated other Gaiman books (I kept comparing it, unfavorably, to Coraline--which is one of my favorite books), something about the description of the Hempstock family home resonated with me. Home is having what you need and a little extra, in case. Home is being able to provide for yourself and also others. Home is sanctuary.


For my German final, I will be presenting on die Fl├╝chtlingskrise--the refugee crisis. I look at graphs of the numbers, read articles, become more and more afraid.

Paris may end up being the volta in public opinion. But the numbers aren't going to come down, and the world doesn't stop going, and if even Sweden is closing its borders--if only temporarily--what does that mean?

People are leaving their homes, or their homes are being removed from them--because if home is sanctuary, can an unsafe place be home? They are trying to find new homes, but along with opportunity there is fear and discrimination. Islamophobia. Distinct but related issue: Muslims in Europe. I'm terrified for them, for all of them. As a first gen kid there's particular empathy for those who were born in Europe but are from non-European extraction. They may consider it home but what if others disagree?

Who was I reading, last quarter in my German culture class? Amery. Jean Amery, with "How Much Home Does a Person Need?" I believe this was the text that talked about how identity is socially granted. Do you count as belonging to a group if members of that group do not accept you? If you are not recognized as something, does that affect whether you are in fact that thing or not?

Is home a place where you are physically and psychologically secure, where the identity you have and the identity you are recognized as are the same? I wonder if this definition is asking too much or too little. I'm not out to my parents--does that make my family not a home? I'm Asian and therefore will be seen as more foreign than a white person--does that make America not my home? But at the same time, is recognition enough? What about being a place from which you draw strength, where you can go to rest? A place can do this even if your walls are not all down.

What can one do, to create a home? Maybe actions are easier to assess than outcomes. Welcome, accept, protect, provide...and then what?

What are we building, and why, and how?

Friday, November 20, 2015


It's Friday night before Big Game and Thanksgiving break, and if I stay at this computer any longer I might succumb to my workaholic tendencies and get things done. Which wouldn't be bad except it would mean that I can't hang out with people who are leaving tomorrow.

So. That's all from my corner of the universe this week. Will hopefully have some more thought-shaped posts next week.

Go Cardinal!

Saturday, November 14, 2015


The world is feeling particularly unsafe this week. I haven't yet had the chance to process in writing everything that's been going on, so this is going to be unorganized and I'm going to say ignorant things and perhaps contradict myself. Fair warning.


Where to begin?


Fruhling in Paris - Rammstein


When people ask how week eight is/was going, I say, "Well, I had three midterms this week." And they groan in sympathy, and say "poor you," and commiserate, because we are at school and having three midterms in one week, even if one is just a take-home, is a struggle to which others can relate.

I can hardly imagine what it is like elsewhere. Three midterms? What about not feeling safe enough to go to class because other students have said they will shoot people of your race? What about shooters, and hostages in a concert hall, and a funeral bomb that barely received any coverage or compassion from the world? What about refugees who are being blamed for crimes committed by the very people who drove them from their homes?

Some of my friends have posted extensively on Facebook about the tragedies all around the world and the country, and some that have emerged in the past day have been meta-commentary about how the coverage of the Paris attacks shows the media's prioritization of white tragedy. I hadn't even heard about the bombings in Baghdad and Beirut until I heard them mentioned in connection with the Paris attacks.

A few weeks ago the sustainability community was focusing a lot on the fires in Indonesia. I was in Indonesia this summer, I know people who might have been affected, and yet I had heard nothing before and have heard nothing since about the matter, and these destructive fires have been going on for years.

Honestly--it's Paris that has me the most shaken up. Because I've grown up in America and am conditioned to feel the hurts of Europe more than the hurts of the Middle East, and I haven't unlearned that, and no matter which way you slice it, is it tragic and it is frightening. Over 100 people died while doing ordinary things in a set of organized, planned, coordinated attacks, and it has been described as the worst violence in France since WWII, and I'm terrified.

I have friends studying in Paris right now. I have friends who were going to attend COP21 in Paris at the end of the month. I'm going to be in Berlin, another major European capital, in the spring.

The attacks happened yesterday. Who knows yet how things will change?


I am scared for Muslims in Europe right now. As John Metta said in I, Racist, white people are seen as individuals but minorities are seen as a group, as a collective, and only a tiny proportion of Muslims are terrorists but fear, suspicion, and retaliation are going to fall upon a whole lot more.

(Imagine if the same reaction occurred whenever another white murderer shot up a school.)


The questions I want to spend my life answering are: how can people achieve a higher quality of life while also reining in human impact on the environment to sustainable levels? How can renewable energy and efficiency and other technologies that support this goal be brought up to scale?

The questions I have been thinking about most often this quarter are: How can I better contribute to solidarity with other people of color and other people in the LGBT+ community? How can I be a better ally and a better friend?

But not all problems are structural and not all problems are technical and not all questions can be answered by being a better person. There are not only inadequate allies, but also enemies.

I am an idealist and I want to change the world for the better and I want to do that through using technology to improve people's lives. But that's not enough, and how could that ever be enough, when people still hate and people still hurt one another and people still think other people deserve to be murdered?

I don't understand, and I don't understand, and I don't understand.


Ultimately I think that climate disruption is the biggest and most existential threat to the planet at the moment. Its trickle-down effect on geopolitical tensions and its disproportionate impact on low-income and otherwise marginalized groups also make it one of the most far-reaching problems. Normally I feel comfortable saying that but today it's difficult because there are urgent problems in the world where people have died and some people dying now has a harsher emotional impact than many people dying in the future.

What can we do?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Future Dreams

After I published my last post, I had some doubts. Is that something I want on the internet? Is that something I'm okay having people read? Part of my hesitation is that when I talk about what a freak I am, it's easy to get into a self-pitying mindset. Oh poor me. Look how oppressed I am.

Screw that. Talking about negative experiences and feelings is important, but I can't let myself get used to having that be the message I send out. Solidarity shouldn't mean that we all suffer together; it should mean that we all move forward together, so as to suffer less.

After the angsty start to the week, my mental state has improved. It's starting to sink in that I'm going to be in Berlin in the spring, and that makes me want to take a positive view of the future.


Ozean - Eisbrecher

Not particularly related to the theme but I've been listening to this song a lot recently.


But a question remaining from last time: how out am I going to be when I'm in the real world? At work? In ordinary life, I think I can get by reading as a masculine career-oriented woman. That's something that people will not challenge as much as they would challenge an ace nonbinary person.

I haven't decided this yet, and I lack information about my future bravery levels. To be reevaluated.


While in college it's easy to forget that there is life after college. All the problem sets and exams and meetings tend to inspire tunnel vision: with all these short term things demanding attention Right Now, how am I supposed to take the long view?

But I want to think about the future, because I want to be a better person in the future than I am now, and how am I going to get there if I don't know where I want to go?

This is a game of sorts: optimize future you.


Future me is working as a civil engineer somewhere in the world where infrastructure improvements are badly needed. They are young and ambitious and willing to listen and willing to learn. They are living in a city that is full of life and energy, but also has quiet places, parks and libraries and museums and public spaces, where one can walk and bike. They are working on projects that genuinely help people.

They are still moderately workaholic but are able to separate work time and relaxation time better than present me can. They read more, they write more. They talk to the people that are important to them, whether through phone or letters or emails or whatever, with greater regularity than I keep in touch with people now. They are not afraid to talk about issues of race, gender, other social issues; moreover, they are actually informed about issues that do not directly pertain to them.

They cook. (I'm hungry right now so I'm going to describe some specifics.) They always make sure to have supplies to make ramen or udon: the noodles, soy sauce, bok choy, nori, corn, an egg, chicken if I ever get brave enough to cook meat, green onions. Spaghetti: noodles again, a choice of pesto or tomato sauce, onions, broccoli, mozzarella, perhaps mushrooms. Fried rice: rice, eggs, green onions, various green vegetables, carrots, corn, soy sauce. Fake pizza: tortillas or some kind of flat bread-shaped thing, tomato sauce, cheese, onions, spinach. Caesar salad: lettuce, onions, Caesar dressing, perhaps chicken. Bok choy just by itself. Boy choy soup with egg. Scrambled eggs with either soy sauce or pepper. (I'm making myself even more hungry.) They will have an impressive tea collection.

They exercise regularly, and do it in such a way that it does not seem like a chore. Running in beautiful parts of the city. Working out while listening to aggressive music. I'm not sure, because I know what I like for food but I don't know what exercise I'd actually like. Biking everywhere sounds fun. Dancing lead at swing and contra.

They dress in a way that does not induce dysphoria. The clothes I have right now just about pass muster, but I need more masculine sweaters and I need more real person clothing.

They live in a small apartment that has everything they need, and they keep it clean and organized such that waste does not happen. Their place feels more home-like and permanent than the dorms, but still leaves open the possibility of moving at short notice to accommodate work.

They have a pet. Perhaps a dog, perhaps a cat. Rescued from a shelter, obviously, unless there are retired police dogs who need to spend their later years adored and doted upon. Why not both? The animals are well taken care of and shown all due love.

They are very likely single, and that's just how it is (empirical evidence says I'm not aromantic but I haven't ever been able to envision myself with a life partner). They will not have children, ever, but at some point they will become an aunt (? the language is really not built for people like me).

They write fantasy stories that span a wide range of settings and themes, and hopefully those stories help someone somewhere.

They read fiction, nonfiction, everything in between. History and social science, the kind of philosophy that is actually useful, ecology, physics, and so on. They have a favorite place in the library and they have a dedicated reading chair where they can curl up with aforementioned pets and relax.

They speak German, Mandarin, and Italian at a high level of fluency, and are able to communicate in Spanish and Arabic.

They get enough sleep. They remember their dreams.


A note on language: after I came out as nonbinary (and thus using "they/them") one of my friends noted that while he was happy to switch pronouns, in the first few weeks of doing so he found that "they/them" felt more distant and impersonal than "she/her." It is always a little startling when someone uses "they/them" (and I'm lucky enough to have friends who do that consistently) and not in an 100% positive way--on the one hand, "they/them" feels more right than "she/her," but on the other hand, I worry that I'm coming off as wanting to be special.

That's also an issue that crops up when I'm in a group that's doing introductions and includes preferred gender pronouns as part of the intro. In all but one case (when I was at a panel for LGBT+ students to share their stories) I've been the only nonbinary person. The nervousness and near-fear I feel when hearing that endless march of "he/him" "she/her" is not enough to make me dislike the practice--I think it's good and should be more widespread--but making the choice to come out to a large group of people who have all just been affirming that the binary works for them is uncomfortable. But that's okay. I can deal with that.