Saturday, August 29, 2015

Beauty is Optional

I wish I could say that I have never wanted to be beautiful, but then I'd be lying. In freshman and sophomore years of high school, I was self-conscious of my appearance and thought quite a lot about clothes. I entertained the thought of using makeup, and if it hadn't been for my massive internalized misogyny I might even have asked my sister for lessons. 

Somewhere around junior year things started to change. I still don't think I'm beautiful, not by a long shot, but I don't experience the kind of confidence-crushing angst about it that I felt when I was younger. 

When I say "I don't think I'm beautiful," I wish I didn't have to defend my self-confidence at the same time. Well meaning friends will tell me that I'm wrong, that I'm pretty or cute, but that isn't the point. I don't need to perceive myself as beautiful or attractive to be happy.

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This article says much of what I've been thinking and relates it to YA novels and the messages they send to girls about the desirability of beauty: http://thoughtcatalog.com/anne-theriault/2015/04/you-dont-have-to-be-pretty-on-ya-fiction-and-beauty-as-a-priority/

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When I started talking to my sister about this earlier in the week, she asked me to run a thought experiment in which I went around with my face covered in splotches--would I still feel confident in my ugliness?

Probably not, because our society trains us to reward beauty and if I looked downright unattractive then people would treat me worse, and other people's opinions of us matter when we calculate our internal self-worth. 

But that is exactly my point. Does the presence or absence of acne affect my capacity to be kind and hardworking? If I started wearing makeup, would I become a better student and friend? (It had been implied to me that if I dressed a little better I would indeed improve as a daughter.)

Maybe the answer is yes for some people, and if someone feels more confident and happy with themself when wearing cosmetics, then power to them. The tools of beauty can be powerful when put in service of self-confidence. But not everyone needs the same tools. 

People who don't fit the narrow societal definitions of beauty may feel empowered when they celebrate diverse models of beauty. To be clear, I am not criticizing this. Recognizing the beauty of people of color is particularly important to me, as an Asian kid who resented their small eyes for a long time. 

There's nothing wrong with my eyes. There's nothing wrong with my face. I am content with how I look. Why is this not sufficient? Why do I have to claim my "hidden beauty" or some nonsense like that?

In Indonesia, my boss's twelve year old kid commented once that my looks were "raw." I think he meant plain, since his mom got mad at him, but, while I appreciate the sentiment, she didn't need to. So I'm plain. That's not even an insult, and the kid didn't mean it as one. 

I have limited emotional resources: there are only so many things I can care about at a time. I have limited mental resources: there are only so many things I can worry about and try to optimize at a time. Once I've gotten myself to "okay-looking" or "acceptable," I can stop. 

By nature, I am plain and smart and ambitious--so which traits am I going to put more effort into? Of course hinging my pride on my intelligence and accomplishments had its own pathologies, but I have more control. 

Being plain also has benefits. Namely, I have never been catcalled while walking on my own. (Partly this is because I'm sheltered, but this summer I never heard a single catcall on my way to work until my objectively pretty teammate joined me in the last two weeks.)

People who want to be beautiful, who work hard to be beautiful, who use cosmetics and post selfies and whatnot, are not shallow or vain. People whose journey of self-acceptance includes the realization that they are beautiful are valid. People whose self-worth is boosted by feeling attractive are worthy of support. 

But I'm not like that. I'll try to take care of my skin and hair, dress neatly, etc., and if I stopped I might feel worse about myself. But if I already like my face, why should I also try to find it beautiful?

If you choose to play the beauty game, best of luck to you. I'll be cheering you on--from the sidelines. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Indonesia Reflections

Tuesday was a long day. In the morning I slept a couple of hours and got up at two to eat a small breakfast of cinnamon raisin orange bread. Our cab came at three, reserved yesterday by a coworker. We drove through the Jakarta darkness, the lights of the city still blazing forth, though we encountered little traffic. Arriving at CGK and stumbling through check in and security. Buying a wedang ronde flavored chocolate bar and looking at overpriced souvenirs. Drinking one last bottled jasmine tea. Then two flights, one to Tokyo Narita and the second home, to SFO. I had intended to get noodles at Narita but with only ten minutes between getting out of security and boarding, I forwent. 

On the flights, I thought about my stories, more or less fictional. I wrote for longer than I expected on how I disagree with and resent the societal image and ideal of beauty, and have no resonance even with the slightly more subversive messages that seek to expand the definition of beauty. Since this topic isn't one I've thought about a whole lot, I'll need to work my way through my ideas in a different post. But for now: I have different priorities. (Also, after two months in a country where most women wear head coverings, hair-based vanity seems strange to me.)

More importantly, I thought about what I will bring back from these travels. I don't know if I have transformed and I doubt I can tell this soon. But I've learned things, and a change to my mind is a change to my life. 

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What do I bring back?

Some gifts for important people--family, particular friends. Some clothes and shoes for myself. Packets of a gingery herbal drink we had in the mountains, because I think it will be helpful later when people get sick. Fewer electronics than I brought with me. A small magenta comb purchased for less than a dollar at Alfamart. 

The urge to respond "makasih" whenever anyone does anything deserving of thanks. The phrase "take a rest." Some songs heard on the car radio driving through the infamous Jakarta traffic.

Knowledge that I am agender and that my character has more of void in it than previously expected. (There is an underlying theme to most of my traits, which is that I am low energy. This leads to my honesty, my insensitivity, my tranquility, my apathy.) The results of a smattering of personality tests, none of which shattered my world but some of which provided new perspectives. 

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From the people that I have met: examples of who I want to become. Good and great, authoritative and powerful and kind, full of the Nicomachean magnificence. Noblesse oblige, noblesse oblige. I want to be so powerful and yet so kind that holding both in mind at the same time gives the sense of an optical illusion, because how can both be there? This goal is yet far off. 

New perspectives on religion and tradition. Islam as a motivator for generosity and environmentalism. A bamboo palace with open doors and an electronics workshop outside of the throne room. 

The typical path is rural to urban. The organization I worked for focuses on rural development, so that people don't have to leave the villages in order to build a good life for themselves and their families. This isn't discouraging them from going to the cities if that's what they want; this is giving them another option. 

When choices open up people who wouldn't take the new choice feel threatened because they think that their choice will no longer be an option. However, this view is wrong: Rights and respect are not zero sum games. 

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Throughout my time in Indonesia I found various aspects that reminded me a lot of China. That may be why I adjusted quickly to the living conditions, which were not quite as clean or as comfortable as at home (mosquitoes were everywhere in Jakarta). I'm pleased that the physical conditions did not hold me back from appreciating the experiences. I may be a wimp but at least I'm not a snobby wimp. 

People assumed I was Japanese a lot more than I had expected, since I've always been told I look really Chinese. Admittedly, though, this was by my family members. I draw the following conclusions: 1) all East Asians look the same when most people are Southeast Asian 2) Japan has a stronger presence in Indonesia than China does. Certainly almost all the cars were Japanese (Toyota, Daihatsu).

Being around young children (the offspring of various staff) had only strengthened my conviction never to have kids. Mothers deserve all the respect; it must take godly amounts of patience to deal with children. (See also the note above about more choices seeming threatening to people who take the original choice. Whenever I talk to friends who do want to have kids, I feel like I need to walk on eggshells not to offend them. The fact that I have no maternal instinct or inclination does not invalidate your choices.) (I think I have more to say on this subject.)

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I read a lot of books. What did I learn from them?

Gödel Escher Bach introduced me to the idea of MU, which has already paid off in my agender revelation. Thoughts about patterns and minds also always feed into my structures of magic. 

Two moral compasses: Patroklos and Marcus Aurelius. 

Both the Iliad and GEB had Achilles as a character, which was fun. 

Reading Joseph Conrad while in a nation that used to be a colony: weird. Real weird. 

The two fiction books I read before Lebaran provided an excellent study in contrasts. The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years: exquisitely paced, with threads of history, folklore, and space travel blending harmoniously. Special Topics in Calamity Physics: a heap of interesting and colorful characters running about chaotically in search of a plot. Speaking as a reader: I would like to see it revised with an eye for pacing, and then read it again. 

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From work: 

Refactoring code is a wonderful exercise. 

What works in the office may not work in the field. You will always want more time. The times I got stuck at work, in nearly every case I would have stayed stuck without something external pushing me to reroute and find a different, unblocked path. A teammate linking me to D3.js ("we could make our own graphs"), the sun setting as we sat at the generator house. Note to self: if you ever find yourself desperately apologizing because you don't know why something isn't working, stop and try something else. 

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"Are you a peasant?" This odd and arrogant phrase is a reminder not to put up with inconveniences I could easily change. When I can't change the inconvenience (lack of hot running water) the answer is "yes" and the nagging voice subsides. When I can change something (lack of a comb) the answer is "no." "Well, do something then!" And I got a comb. Not being a snobby wimp != putting up with everything. 

I should not I bear no ill will toward peasants. I come from peasant stock. I feel guilty about the use of the phrase above; but it works. 

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I miss the sound of mosques in the evening. Mosques. Not mosquitoes. 

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Ramadhan had only just begun when I arrived. Whoa. 

Ramadhan, Lebaran (Idul Fitri, Hari Raya), Independence Day. I picked an eventful couple of months. 

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I know I always make lists of posts I should write and then don't follow through, so here is a list that I definitely want to write:
Being Chinese in Indonesia (mostly for parallelism, as I said the most important stuff above)
Against Beauty (I started talking to my sister about this yesterday but I don't think I expressed my thoughts well at all, so I need to get it down in writing first)
Zheng He/Heritage (Zheng He was Hui. I have a lot of angsty first-gen thoughts and feelings about this)

I also want to explore the idea of choice in positive sum situations some more. This seems likely to morph into "let's count the ways I differ from what society tells me I should be" so I don't know if it'll make it to published post status. 

Another thought that's been percolating: story settings. All of my works that have any mileage involve journeys. 

In my birthday post I promised a roadmap of how I will enter the arena of real world topics. That post never happened. I need to think more about it but it will happen. 

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Post published without tags because Blogger's mobile UI lacks usability.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

In the Mountains

Notes from Mount Halimun. 

Long drive from Jakarta. Steep mountain roads, some unpaved. Luckily the steepest stretches seemed to be the best-kept. Still, some worrying moments. 

The lights were on in the villages by the river. Looking down from the side of the mountain into a valley full of stars. 

The stars above were not too shabby themselves. They seem closer. We're in a different hemisphere from my usual, so I can barely recognize the usual crowd. 

The palace and guest house made of bamboo. Like a fairy tale. And of course I am entranced by the construction. 

The curtains and rugs are of earth colors. Woven mats are more colorful. Photos, mostly of the king and his family, adorn the walls. The furniture is all real wood, carved beautifully with geometric patterns. 

Since the king studied electrical engineering, there's a substantial electronics workshop outside of his throne room. 

Every fiber of my democratic, peasant-stock self wants to deny the existence of a "royal aura." But the king and queen have something special about them. You can tell without being told that they're important. The queen is objectively beautiful and graceful and has the kind of open, smiling face that makes you feel at ease though you would not dream of behaving casually around her. The king has a similar aura of benevolent authority. Though they are young, you can tell they have earned the respect of their community and that they sincerely wish to rule well and honor their traditions without being stuck in the past. It's pretty awesome and I want to be like them. 

(Side note: a more honest statement would be that I want to be more like the king, because while the queen is a wonderful woman, her role and her aura seem strongly gendered female. The king is probably correspondingly male-oriented but the male narrative is taken as the default and I'm naturally masculine-leaning in mentality for most things, so I see the king as someone I could grow into as myself, while to become like the queen I'd have to become significantly more feminine, which cuts strongly against the grain of who I am.)

The kitchen is seriously fairy tale stuff--and in fairy tale I include Miyazaki, because traditional buildings with hearths and lots of people gathered around and bamboo mats remind me of Princess Mononoke. 

Is it cultural appropriation if I think the way the men wear their head wrappings looks really cool and I want to try doing that with my bandanas or smaller scarves?

Black and ochre and gold: are these colors significant? They must be, since all the aforementioned headscarves are in those colors. 

Hiking to the generator house. The first time, I have a headache and my legs feel weak and it starts raining as we head back around 1830, the hour when the sky goes dark rapidly. I focus on putting one foot in front of another. Note if you know me in real life: my parents do not hear about this. The second time is better. Been a while since I went hiking. 

Trying to enjoy my last week in Indonesia instead of daydreaming about the things I miss back home. But I'm going to make a list so I remember what to be extra grateful for when I get back:
Hot running water
My own bed (not a specific one, just the concept of ownership)
My own tea and hot water boiler
Generally, having my own stuff
Contra dancing
Getting late night or TAP with friends
Hugs given and received
My cat
Speaking English naturally and directly (the way I normally speak feels too rude here)
California

I need to get my computer fixed. It has accumulated a lot of useful stuff: Github, Dropbox, the Anaconda distribution of Python 2.7, a couple gigs of civil engineering documentaries. 

Taking a walk along the forest path. Why is there still so much litter? I seek to gather impressions for a scifi horror adventure story featuring mutant lizards and an agender protagonist (a revision of a story I wrote in sixth grade) but we are too close to the village for the primordial feeling really to set in. 

I am sitting on the carpet of a room in the king's house glaring at my teammate's computer screen trying to get the Arduino to do what I want it to do. Some things are the same no matter where you are. 

Infrastructure is an eternal delight. 

Code that worked perfectly in testing fails spectacularly in the field. Growing ever more agitated as the sky begins to darken. Finally switching to old and inelegant code, which works like a patchy charm. Lesson: preparation won't always help. Don't cling to ideas out of pride when you could be finding real solutions. 

Talking about entrepreneurship and the benefits of being a student as the car speeds through the dark highways. Trucks filled with supplies are the night crowd, and for some reason these also remind me of a Miyazaki movie--large, lumbering spirits, intimidating though devoid of malice. 

Reentering Jakarta around four in the morning. The city is nigh unrecognizable without the traffic. Big Asian mega cities stir something in the blood. Stories. Stories. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Gender: MU

Remember my gender confusion? I think I've figured it out. First, a parable. 

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She woke in the final year of her girlhood and realized a woman she would never be, though she live to be one hundred and eight. Much distressed, she asked, "But what gender am I?"

A lizard scurrying by stopped and flicked its tongue out at her. "Follow the river and ask the wise one in the mountain, for they know much."

"Thank you, kind lizard," said the girl. She went to the river and followed it awhile along the bank closest to her village. But the boys laughed at her and the girls worried too much about her, so she forded the river at a narrow point and crossed to the far bank. But here, too, the way was filled with thorns and sharp stones. 

Aggrieved, the girl stood at the bank, her toes curling into the sand, wondering how ever she would reach the mountain. Then a mighty fish darted by and said, "Why are you ill at heart, my child?"

"I cannot follow along either bank, and so I will never know who or what I am," she said.

"Catch hold of my fin, and I will swim with you up the mountain," said the mighty fish. So the girl thanked the fish and they swam together up the river, toward the mountain. 

They reached a mountain lake and the girl continued on foot along the path. The way was steep and kept switching back and forth sharply. Though exhausted, the girl kept climbing. 

Finally she reached the height of the mountain, and smelled sweet smoke issuing from the mouth of a cave. The girl hurried forth. 

Within sat an old wise person, shrouded in years and a gray robe. Their eyes twinkled when they saw the girl. 

"Have you a question, my child?" they asked. 

"Yes, wise one," said the child. "What gender am I?"

And the wise one said:

"MU."

Then they supped together, and had refreshing tea and delightful conversation. Then the young human went down the mountain again under the light of the stars and the dark of the void, and they were happy and content. 

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I am asexual and agender and atheist. This makes me feel powerful, all these negations. especially the newest one, agender, because it is a negative meaning. I don't identify with being a woman. I don't identify with being a man. I don't identify with being a third gender. I identify with lacking a gender. When you ask me what gender I am, I can utter, like a Zen master, or a cow, a mighty MU. I don't even really need a closet; I can hide in plain sight. 

"If you ask a true master a sensitive question, they will only smile."

This is why I am okay with female pronouns. I would be okay with male pronouns. I would be okay with they/them pronouns. (They does sound a little weird because I haven't grown up hearing they/them in the singular, but I could get used to it pretty quick.) It's all the same to me. 

Do people actually strongly identify with their genders? I suppose they must, but the idea is new to me. In hindsight it should be obvious. 

One of the best parts of figuring out my gender and sexuality is knowing that my identity isn't built upon internalized misogyny. Some is there of course, and I have to fight it, but not feeling like a girl and not wanting to be attractive the way a girl is "supposed" to be attractive are part of who I am, not the shell society has crafted and in which society demands I live. 

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The lateness of my ace/agender revelations suggests to me that I am worse at empathy than I thought. My lived experience differs greatly, apparently, from most people's, and if I've never noticed it's because I never asked or paid attention. Note to self: work on that. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Evaluation: A Functional Adult?

Yesterday*, I turned nineteen.

*It's Friday where I am.

When I was a kid, I remember thinking that nineteen was a weird age because you were a teenager and also an adult, and you were probably in college (which I couldn't visualize at all), and it is a prime number in between two very respectable composites, 18 and 20, which are both multiples of squares. Nineteen is also the color of Fig Newtons.

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Music for the post is this lovely mashup that Lieutenant Sarcasm made for me.

Songs: "Numb" by Linkin Park and "Painkiller" by Three Days Grace. A mix of the old and new, which is appropriate.

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I don't know if I feel old or very young. My first band camp was five years ago, I'm going to be in a position to give advice at the frosh send-off later this month, and I'm deep in my second year of working on my third book. At the same time, colleagues at work assume I'm twenty-two, I am less than halfway through college, I'm in my very first Real Job, and I know I have a long way to go.

In terms of Augustus, I am older than Octavian was when Julius was murdered, but I still have over a decade to go until Actium. Me plus about one year is Sam Altman leaving Stanford for his startup. Me minus about one year is Harry Potter killing Voldemort. Joan of Arc was about nineteen when she died.

I feel as though things are moving more quickly now, that all the time before I was meandering over the land at walking pace and now I have launched from the shore. The old life happened but it is qualitatively different. That is, I suppose, a side effect of (having the privilege of) going to college. Leaving home.

As I've gotten older, I've become more conscious of birthdays--which may seem contradictory, I suppose, because when I was a kid I was a lot more active about celebrating my birthday. But looking at this blog, which is a reasonable record of my high school self, I see that only in the past two years I've started writing birthday posts. Last year: A Functional Adult. The year before: Coming of Age.

Maybe the current streak of becoming more existential around birthdays is because I have entered a highly liminal state. I'm in my late teens now, and the difference between what I am doing this summer and last summer is a whole lot bigger than the difference between any two preceding summers. Once I leave college/grad school, my summers will probably go back to being homogenous because I'll be working.

Enough existentialism, however. Today I will evaluate how well I have done in my first year as an adult and then outline ways that I can improve (as usual).

I have a lot more self-confidence than I used to, because I've actually done stuff now. That's pretty simple. I'm in Indonesia working on a project that has the potential to help people, and that's worth something.

I am still not comfortable with uncertainty, however. If my confidence is based on past performance, what happens when I reach something new? If I can prepare for it, then prepare. That's something I regret for this summer--not preparing more. If I had learned more Bahasa prior to coming here, enough to have a reasonable foothold, then I would probably continue learning at a much faster rate. As it is I just kind of kludge along in English and say very simple things like "Where?" and "Thank you" and "Good morning" in Indonesian.

I'm improving very slowly at high-context situations. That is, situations where the rules are not explicitly laid out, where it isn't obvious what I should do. I overanalyze, of course, but that overanalysis is paired with an under-observation. My nickname in high school was Captain Obvious. I'm not naturally sensitive, observant, perceptive, tactful, etc. That's probably one of the reasons I'm quiet and polite as a default: because if I don't say anything then I won't say the wrong thing, and if I'm polite then that signals that even if I make a faux pas, my intentions are friendly. Silence is easy. Politeness is easy. They don't require any input from the situation, any advanced parsing.

The way forward is to pay attention. My thoughts will always be an interesting place for me, so it is always tempting to tune out of the present moment and retreat into my head. I am really, really self-centered. I need actively to fight against that and care about the external world enough to pay attention and process and, if I dare, respond.

The above paragraph has a political valence as well. There are a number of issues that are worth caring about, and I am slowly crawling out of my cave. Simply thinking "racism is hurtful" and "climate deniers are bad" is easy and not useful, unless these thoughts lead to actions. Speaking up is difficult for me and contrary to my basic personality, but if I keep telling myself that I owe the world my best, I need to keep pushing the line of "my best" forward.

If I am going to start finding a way to navigate the real world and take stances on important issues, I need to lay some groundwork on what that means to me and what my stages of evolution will be. That will take us rather far afield for this post, so I'm going to think more about it over the weekend.

Back to the evaluation. I've gotten better at asking for help and my common sense is slowly improving as I do more things. If you're a friend of mine IRL and you call me out on my mistakes, I'm going to ask you to keep doing that but I'm also going to try to be more attentive. And I'm going to try to do more practical things. One of the to-do items from last year's birthday post was to help my parents with chores, and something I've found is that if you ask someone if you can help them with anything they'll probably say "no, it's fine" but if you ask them again then they might give in and let you help them.

That's also one of the things I miss about being at college: doing my own chores. I don't like laundry but I like the process of getting it done. I like doing dishes when my friends cook. I like going to the grocery store when I am choosing things based on what I need.

I may even end up liking to cook, because it's methodical and the simple things that are within my abilities are also the things I like to eat. I think that I'm going to try cooking more often next year, since my roommate enjoys cooking and baking, is patient, and explains things clearly (I've seen her tutor linear algebra. It is a thing of wonder).

I need to work on my temper. People always seem surprised at the aggression of my music, so I guess I do a decent job modulating my expression of emotions (remember: "quiet and polite" is easy), but I get angry rapidly in response to certain situations or remarks.

Usually this is when my parents do something that I feel is threatening to my fledgling adulthood and independence. It's frustrating that they don't see me the way I want them to, but I really need to cut them some slack. I owe them everything up to and including my existence, and even if I disagree with them, they deserve the courtesy of a reasoned argument, informed but not driven by emotion. Maybe I also need to resign myself to the fact that they will never stop seeing me as a kid and get along with my business in spite of that. And the mirror to them not understanding me is me not understanding them.

EDIT twenty minutes later: Another thing I want to fix about myself is my complacency. I am willing to put up with a large number of minor inconveniences. The fact that I'm willing to put up with them shows that they're lower than my activation energy, but I need to go about noting these bugs and squashing them because part of becoming an adult, for me, will be to recognize that my activation energy is inflated and a lot of stuff is in fact worth the effort.

My main to-do items are:

Short term: make a plan for becoming less ignorant about the world. Start being more attentive to the situation around me.

Medium term: implement the aforementioned plan. Do chores. Learn to cook simple food. Recognize when I'm getting angry and take ten to decide if I will speak my anger or if I'll be better served by cooling down and then responding.

In eleven years: besiege Alexandria and defeat all of my foes.

Long term: iterate. Become someone I can thoroughly respect.